Wednesday, September 21, 2016


Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador
                                                          by Horacio Castellanos Moya

For many readers (and writers) like me, the novelist Thomas Bernhard stands, now some twenty years after his death, as a literary prophet, a destroyer of idols, a seer-priest of the secular-humanist world. Relentless in his criticism of his native Austria, of the hypocrisy, dogmatism, jingoism, racism, and philistinism he found in such abundance there, he revered the loner, the scholar (what he called Geistesmenschen 0r ‘spirit-people’), the eccentrically, brilliantly, mad. 

Enter Edgardo Vega, expatriate professor, returning from exile in Canada to war-torn El Salvador for his mother’s funeral. When the novel opens we find him sitting with an old friend of his, following his mother’s wake, in a bar called La Lumbre, where he has been biding his time before returning for good to Montreal. The conversation, a single long paragraph, is charged with urgency, bitterness, and fury. “…I have to chat with you before I leave,” explains Vega to his friend, “I have to tell you what I think about all this nastiness, there’s no one else I can relate my impressions to, the horrible thoughts I’ve had here…” What follows is a dazzling tirade against his native land and its cultural self-destruction as the result of its recent civil war, a virtual apocalypse of greed and violence that laid waste to nearly everything he held dear. Writes Castellanos Moya, “With the relish of the resentful getting even, I wanted to demolish the culture and politics of San Salvador, same as Bernhard had done with Salzburg, with the pleasure of diatribe and mimicry.”

Surely he had plenty against which to rail, against which to vent his ardent spleen. The twelve year Salvadoran Civil War (1979-1992), a struggle for power between the military-led government of General Carlos Humberto Romero and the FMLN (Farabundo Marti Liberation Front), was one of the most violent chapters in the history of Central America, claiming the lives of more than 75,ooo people. Wrote Reinaldo Figueredo, in his summary of the conflict for the U.N. Truth Commission, “In examining the staggering breadth of the violence that occurred in El Salvador, the Commission was moved by the senselessness of the killings, the brutality with which they were committed, the terror that they created in the people, in other words the madness, or locura, of war.”

Robert Walser once said, “You can’t confront your own country with impunity.” In the case of Castellanos Moya, he was right about that, for shortly after the novel’s publication his mother, still living in San Salvador, received a death threat from an anonymous caller. The author himself was warned never to return, as Salvadorans at large were incensed by the novel, by his unforgiving portrait of them and their country. Even friends and family were enraged by this brief, acerbic tale in which he spared nothing and no one, excoriating them for their papusas and their politics, and lambasting their language itself with his sharp and fulsome ire: “…not in vain is cerote the most repeated word in their language, they don’t have any other words in their mouths; their vocabulary is limited to this word cerote and its derivatives: ceretísimo, cerotear, cerotada.” Cerote—as you might have guessed by now—means ‘shit’.
In what was perhaps a gesture of consolation to his disgruntled compatriots, Castellanos Moya explained “…that some countries would require many more pages to complete their Revulsion…”! I guess even a back-handed compliment is better than none at all. 

Peter Adam Nash 

Sunday, September 11, 2016


My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante

"My Brilliant Friend is a large, captivating, amiably peopled bildungsroman." James Wood, writing in The New Yorker

I must confess that I didn't share Mr. Wood's enthusiasm for My Brilliant Friend--I found the novel neither large nor captivating--and as for "amiably peopled," I wonder if Mr. Wood means that Ms. Ferrante felt amiable as she drew her characters or that he found the characters to be amiable as literary creatures--impossible to say. For my part, I found the scores of individuals who adorn what is essentially the pas de deux of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo to be neither amiable nor fully conceptualized: they act only as foils for what really interests Ms. Ferrante, which is the complex friendship (hateship, loveship) of two girls who grow up in a rough and tumble working class neighborhood of Naples. Elena tells the story. It is her version of her life with Lila; we have no information about Lila's inner life, nor do we know much about Elena's. If this is a bildungsroman, it is one with an astonishing lack of psychological depth or even authorial curiosity. It's a made-for-Masterpiece Theater sort of novel, one that could be filmed without loss of motivational depth or character analysis; what you see happening is what happens, the world of Naples in 1950 nicely fits with the liberal view that everyplace is anyplace when it comes to entertainment--really, it's all the same, Upstairs and Down. If Universal Studios picks up the Ferrante franchise there will be gondolas and knife fights, handmade shoes and widows in black dresses. The Godfather, told from the children's perspective. A Catholic neighborhood without priests; lust without sex; learning without knowledge. The novel is like a watercolor, a miniature on an enormous canvas.

My favorite bildungsromans are these, in no particular order: To Kill A Mockingbird; Look Homeward, Angel (Thomas Wolfe); Stoptime (Frank Conroy); Great Expectations and David Copperfield; Portrait of the Artist; and Of Human Bondage (Somerset Maugham). Is Huckleberry Finn a bildungsroman? Invisible Man? Harry Potter? Some would say yes, but I wonder if the key to the sub-genre isn't an epiphany of some sort--not merely "growing up," since a child narrator, over time, will inevitably do that, but a coming-into-consciousness, a seeing more clearly, a revelation of some deep truth. Most biographical novels will have elements of the bildungsroman, but my sense of the thing is that the focus will be on a romantic encounter with the soul or the self--a real insight into something universal about being human--Joyce's Portrait, I suppose, fits my sense of the bildungsroman best of all.  I'm not persuaded that just any book about growing up makes the cut--Henry Roth's sociological narrative Call It Sleep, or James Farrell journalistic Studs Lonigan trilogy feel like artful documentaries, but their insights are social, material, and impersonal. Though I dearly love picaresque novels like Tom Jones, Tristram Shady and The Adventures of Augie March, stories of growing up, and, perforce, of acquiring experience and a degree of self-knowledge, I'm not sure they intend to offer the kind of universal insight into the human predicament that figures like Scout Finch, Eugene Gant, or David Copperfield offer.

I feel churlish about My Brilliant Friend. Everyone loves it. I  have volume two on my desk and plan to read it (later). MBF was entertaining (in places), and I understand that it is the sort of novel that is a million times better than the average Times bestseller. But there are things about the book that were puzzling to me, even off-putting. Take, for example, this scene, late in the novel.  Lila, who was skinny, ugly, and slightly unhinged as a child, metamorphoses--seemingly overnight--into Gina Lolabridiga--a real looker, the kind of Italian woman who drives (as the story goes) Italian men to murder.  Here she is on the beach--the scene is narrated by Elena:

"One of those times [on the beach] I looked up for a second and saw a tall, slender, graceful girl in a stunning red bikini. It was Lila. By now she was used to having men's gaze on her, she moved as if there were no one in that crowded place, not even the young attendant who went ahead of her, leading her to the umbrella. She didn't see me and I didn't know whether to call her. she was wearing sunglasses, she carried a purse of bright colored fabric...."

Sorry, this is Danielle Steele, not "one of the great novelists of our time" (The New York Times). There is no discernible reason why Elena (or the reader) would know that "[Lila] was used to having men's gaze on her," nor is the most interesting question raised by Lila's transformation from a cranky bag of bones into a world-class beauty even addressed in the book, namely, how does Lila see herself? She is, after all, the "brilliant friend," but she has no reality for the reader beyond Elena's confusing caricatures (bright student, driven worker, dutiful yet rebellious daughter, diffident friend). And this would be fine if we could parse Elena's perceptions of the world in any sort of interesting way, if we knew where we were to stand as we moved through the streets of Naples with her as our guide, with Elena as the lone voice and judge of the world we have allowed ourselves to be plunged into. But Elena is as much a blank as Lila--smart yet unintellectual; vain but asexual; dutiful but detached; the center of the universe, but maddeningly oblique on most subjects. Elena changes her mind about Lila and about the boys who like Lila and about her parents and teachers and schooling--she's not so much a cipher as a cloud of words, where, I kept wondering, should I rest my attention? 

Why is this book so beloved? My cynical view is that books like this one satisfy our urge to read "foreign literature," books in translation--to have "multi-cultural experiences" without leaving the comfortable precincts of home. Elena Ferrante offers up a nice story about young women who might as well be from Naples, Florida as Naples, Italy. It's a "good read," not very long, not at all strenuous, not deep, completely (incredibly) apolitical--didn't the poor of Naples have any political thoughts right after World War II? Pasquale Peluso is a communist, but that appears to hold no interest for anyone. The word "Bildung" means "education." A novel of education can be many things, from The Sorrow of Young Werther to Portnoy's Complaint. But what is wanted in an education above all is great depth and perspicacity, engagement with ideas, insight and revelation. For this, I'm afraid, one will have to look elsewhere than My Brilliant Friend.

George Ovitt (9/11/16)

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Golden Age

The Contemporary American Poets: American Poetry Since 1940, edited by Mark Strand (1969)

The original Golden Age was pastoral--zephyrs and barks plying languid lakes, high clouds reminiscence of Orientalist cities, sun (but not too much), distant peaks and the sorts of views a city-dweller might enjoy from the comfort of her carriage. High summer, one imagines, on Martha's Vineyard, a nice Sauvignon Blanc on the portico, oysters, cucumber sandwiches.

Not that one. The golden age of American poetry was urban, gritty and unshaven, fueled by whiskey and cheese sandwiches, adjunct jobs that never quite panned out at small Midwestern colleges --booze, or the temptations offered by frisky undergraduates--manual typewriters, manila envelopes, trips to the post-office for stamps, polite phone calls from editors who knew a thing or two about poetry, readings in bookstores--bookstores!--crowds languid with smoke and wine and an unquenchable thirst for words.

The Golden Age. Not, of course, for everyone. Not for Negros (as they said back then), or for women, or for the poor, or for almost everybody else. But still--if you were young and male and white and got to college on the GI Bill, and had been bitten by the unforgettable verses of the King James Bible, or King Lear and had managed to get over T.S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats, and saw the charms of Auden but didn't have the epic impulse--if you were an American romantic, footloose and lyrical, if you'd grown up in a small town but left at once for New York or Chicago, if you didn't give a shit about money--then you just might join the illustrious American post-modernist pantheon of poets.  [See Saul Bellow, Humbolt's Gift for this version of the pastoral].

Post-modernist? That's Strand's view, not my own. No, these poets were somewhere in between the high modernists and what came after, the waves of language poetry unmoored from meaning, the lines that scuttle down the pages of Poetry and The American Poetry Review and the Paris Review like fishing lines atwitch with carp, poems workshopped to suit the tastes of poets workshopped, which is to say poems produced and not written, formed and not felt. The Golden Age was golden for having been produced by men and women who simply had the urge, loved the language, and were confounded by the world around them. That, after all, is the alchemy of art: talent and opportunity come together at a moment when someone--a patron, William Shawn, Harriet Monroe--cares enough about the art to take a chance, when the publisher has taste and not a rabid yearning for profits and fashion.

Roethke and Bishop, Ammons and Justice and Bly, Corso and Creeley, Dugan and Dickey and the great Richard Hugo and sublime Howard Nemerov and Louise Gluck (still going strong), and diminutive Diane Wakoski, and sad sad Anne Sexton, and the gentlemen James Tate, and May Swenson who always surprises, and little knowns now like Reed Whittemore and David Ignatow, and tragic ones like Randall Jarrell and John Berryman, and the saintly James Wright, and craftsmen like Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht: Donald Hall and John Ashbery (both of whom still appear to write a poem a day), Ginsberg of course, and Le Roi Jones (remember?), and did I mention Philip Levine, Carolyn Kizer, and Charles Wright (three of my all-time favorite poets), X.J. Kennedy whose writing text remains unrivaled, and William Meredith, the discovery of whose work reignited my love of poetry thirty years ago. And many others, ninety-six in all, comfortably residing in the 350 or so pages of this classic collection edited by our finest anthologist Mark Strand (who, modestly, includes only one of his own poems, the haunting "Keeping Things Whole").

I adore all of these writers, each one of whom has a voice and style and concerns that overlap but never duplicate those of his or her peers. America after the war, America during another and longer war. The place of poetry in a philistine society. The aches and pains of America's emergent greatness (written about with irony, anger, awe, and disbelief, depending on the poet). City streets. Restless searching for meaning, or despair over the lack of meaning--or wondering what "meaning" means. There were no limits on subject matter, no forms that went untried, no lexical shyness--crazy diction by modernist standards, a rejection of academic norms--these poets were often found in the academy, but with few exceptions were not of the academy. They wore their learning lightly--no pretentious Greek and Latin quotations, though lots of them knew the classics (Charles Olson was an exception, and, sure enough, he's here with "The Lordly and Isolate Satyrs" sounding for all the world like that Satyr Ezra.)

Here's one of my favorites, from 1968:

You might come here Sunday on a whim.   
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss   
you had was years ago. You walk these streets   
laid out by the insane, past hotels   
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try   
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.   
Only churches are kept up. The jail   
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner   
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.

The principal supporting business now   
is rage. Hatred of the various grays   
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,   
The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls   
who leave each year for Butte. One good   
restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out.   
The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,   
a dance floor built on springs—
all memory resolves itself in gaze,
in panoramic green you know the cattle eat   
or two stacks high above the town,   
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse   
for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.

Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?   
Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium   
and scorn sufficient to support a town,   
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze   
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?

Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty   
when the jail was built, still laughs   
although his lips collapse. Someday soon,   
he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.   
You tell him no. You’re talking to yourself.   
The car that brought you here still runs.   
The money you buy lunch with,
no matter where it’s mined, is silver   
and the girl who serves your food
is slender and her red hair lights the wall.

I like to imagine Richard Hugo trying to place this poem with any of today's on-line publishers. Or imagine the response to this poem, by Stanley Moss:

I have not used my darkness well,
nor the Baroque arm that hangs from my shoulder,
nor the Baroque arm of my chair.
The rain moves out in a dark schedule.
Let the wind marry. I know the creation
continues through love. The rain’s a wife.
I cannot sleep or lie awake. Looking
at the dead I turn back, fling
my hat into their grandstands for relief.
How goes a life? Something like the ocean
building dead coral. 
How goes a life? There's a nice line, and its resolution must have taken Moss weeks to come to..."dead coral."
This is a wonderful book to own, to keep handy, to consult frequently. Thanks to commerce, you can buy it, here, for only one cent. 
George Ovitt, (8/26/16) 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

This Twilight of Innocence

The Château by William Maxwell

…wherever one looks twice there is some mystery.

                                            Elizabeth Bowen

In speaking of Italy as the setting for his novel The Marble Faun (1860), Nathaniel Hawthorne (referring to himself in the third-person) wrote, “Italy [he might have said Europe], as the site of his romance was chiefly valuable to him as affording a sort of poetic or fairy precinct, where actualities would not be so terribly insisted upon as they are, and must needs be, in America. No author, without a trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case in my dear native land.” Overlooking, for the moment, the glaring innocence (read: ignorance) of this observation (think of slavery, think of the forced removal and genocide of native peoples), Hawthorne nevertheless captures a sentiment that has resounded powerfully throughout the history of this still-young nation he called home. From Hawthorne’s own The Marble Faun, Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, Henry James’s Daisy Miller and The Portrait of a Lady, and Edith Wharton’s “Roman Holiday’ and The Buccaneers to Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky, Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, and Darryl Pickney’s Black Deutschland, the story of the innocent American abroad is a theme that has figured prominently in our literature since the nation’s bold if uncertain founding. 

The Château by William Maxwell, first published in 1961, is a brilliant variation on this beguiling, seemingly inexhaustible theme. Set in war-torn France, in the years immediately following the Nazi Occupation, Harold and Barbara Rhodes are among the first tourists to venture there, eager to absorb and bear witness to the sort of history they, as Americans, have never known. Once in  France it beckons them from everywhere; it throbs for them like a missing limb, as they tour the ruined villages of Normandy, as they take in the fabled Mont-Saint-Michel, and finally as they accustom themselves to the quirks and austerities of Château Beaumesnil, where—innocent of everything but their desire to see (a desire colored mostly by novels and films)—they have reserved a room for a proper two-week stay. 

Almost at once the disappointment and confusion set in: “Was something not here that used to be here and everywhere in France? Had they come too late?” Harold wonders, early on in the story. Of course, as most travelers know, one seeks an adventure in part for exactly that feeling, for the mystery of it, the bumbling, the sometimes fearful confusion of signals and signs. One seeks such experiences for the way they unravel one, distort one’s reflection, for the way they humble and bewilder one. Each time one travels one is forced to learn the world again, to see it freshly; one can take little for granted. One is forced to entrust oneself to others, in whom even the simplest gestures and expressions must be reckoned anew.

At heart The Château is a novel about just that, about the human need to periodically disrupt one’s own life, to quicken one’s senses, to challenge one’s complacency—one’s opinions, one’s values, one’s routines. Good traveling—like good fiction—shakes one; it muddies the water in which one’s truths and certainties swim. Merely the anticipation of arriving somewhere strange is sometimes enough. In fact Harold’s perspective, his perception, is altered even before he steps foot on French soil, setting the tone for all that is to come. Looking out the porthole of their ship on the morning of their arrival, he considers the city of Cherbourg rising dreamlike beyond the breakwater:
The light splintered and the hills and houses were rainbow-edged, as though a prism had been placed in front of his eyes. The prism was tears. Some anonymous ancestor, preserved in his bloodstream or assigned to cramped quarters somewhere in the accumulation of inherited identities that went by his name, had suddenly taken over; somebody looking out of the porthole of a ship on a July morning and recognizing certain characteristic features of his homeland, of a place that is Europe and not America, wept at all he did not know he remembered.

Read this novel, then go to France, go to Europe, and see.

Peter Adam Nash

Thursday, August 11, 2016


The Age of Atheists, Peter Watson

Ostend, Volker Weidermann

I and Thou, Martin Buber

The Name of God is Mercy, Pope Francis

The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer

"What Binds Us," Jane Hirshfield

Music by Igor Stravinsky and Steve Reich

"In the day to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship."

--David Foster Wallace

I'm listening to Steve Reich's "Tehillim" on vinyl as I write, a recording I bought in 1981 at a record shop in Providence (!), a possession as valuable to me as my copies of Plato's Dialogues or Shakespeare's plays. "Tehillim" is of course the Hebrew word for Psalm; Reich chose the well-known lines from Psalm 19 that begin "The heavens declare the glory of G-d,/the sky tells of his handiwork," and the lovely lines from Psalm 34, "Who is the man that desires life, /and loves days to see good?/
Guard your tongue from evil, / and your lips from speaking deceit. / Turn from evil, and do good. / Seek peace and pursue it." The B-side covers Psalms 18 and 150. The music is incantatory, hypnotic, like the plainsong one hears during the recitation of the Hours in a monastery.  The voices intone each Hebrew syllable with equal stress, as though reaching through the words toward the divine: "Ha-sha-my-im, meh-sa-peh-peh-rim ka-vohd-Kail." Reich was among the remarkable collection of artists gathered by Manfred Eicher at ECM in the 70's and 80's--I own dozens of records from this era by musicians like Ralph Towner, Jan Garbarek, Gary Burton, and Pat Metheny. Eicher allowed Reich and the rest to experiment with long, loosely structured compositional forms, non-traditional arrangements, and unexpected concatenations of instruments. The sublime series of Keith Jarrett improvisational piano works is part of the ECM catalogue; these performances stir in me a sense of awe at the beauty of the (sonic) world. Like Reich's "Tehillim", like the sublime poetry of the Psalms themselves, they evoke a feeling that must be akin to worship.

 Don't be alarmed. This won't be a Christian apologetic--or an apology for any other religious persuasion. Like sex, religion is private, or should be. Public sex is pornographic; so are public ravings that purport to describe one's private conversations with the deity (de rigueur for any American aspiring to public office). We really do need to revive the idea of reticence, of a divide between our public and performative selves (high drama!) and our silent, solitary, authentic selves; but that's another topic, for another time.

The impetus for this post was some reading I've done this past week in Buber and Schweitzer, in Peter Watson and in the short historical essay Ostend by Volker Werdermann.  I often read in themes. This week's theme was cultural despair, informed in part, I admit, by the American presidential election. Werdermann's little book on Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig in the resort city of Ostend in the middle 1930's is a deft and affecting lament for Europe's second collective suicide of the twentieth century. Roth, a more cynical and worldly figure than his romantic and somewhat naive friend Zweig, understood what would transpire with the Nazi seizure of power; Zweig came to see the future as well, and perhaps, in his sobriety, rather more clearly than Roth, though not before he'd convinced himself that Europe's humanistic traditions would prevail over fascism. By 1936 such a belief in "humanistic traditions" was farcical, suicidal, and Zweig decamped to Brazil (a story brilliantly told in Peter Nash's new novel).

After Ostend I ventured into the dense intellectual history of Peter Watson's The Age of Atheists. Watson is a breezy and readable intellectual historian--his encyclopedic The German Genius (2010) pays homage to a remarkable tradition of artistic and philosophical achievement, while at the same time lamenting the rapturous mass destruction of those very traditions--and of much else besides. 

 Watson's thesis isn't original, though he examines it with care: with the "death of God" proclaimed by Nietzsche, Western persons yearned to fill a spiritual void in their lives--without the promise of transcendence, without the rich symbolism of religion, without the moral guidance of Scripture, Western life devolved into violence and chaos, the chowder-headed philosophy of Being and Time, the facile narcissism of Sartre's existentialism, into nihilism, preening aestheticism, war and genocide, greed and consumerism, mad science and bad science, and then, of course, right back into the arms of wacko fundamentalists. Watson isn't put off by the emptiness of most of the failed sources of meaning he describes--on the contrary, the age of atheists is mostly depicted as level-headed, devoid of delusions, married to progress. In other words, as liberal, the secular city upon a hill.

Everybody worships--but what exactly? Watson aside, if you subtract God (or Truth, or Meaning--all metaphysics, all general nouns) then--be honest--there isn't much left to provide us with hope and comfort. History is a blood-bath; philosophy, which abandoned the project of meaning with Nietzsche, has devolved into technical arguments whose arcane vocabulary has closed the discipline to all but specialists; politics has surrendered the common good for dramas of self-aggrandizement and therefore accepted the "pragmatic" necessity of pandering to the basest instincts of an increasingly ill-informed electorate; and theology, particularly Catholic theology, persists in repeating ancient fairy tales and demanding "faith" in place of understanding. A sorry spectacle, and one whose discontents have not been eased by the alternative beliefs outlined by Watson.  I adore Joyce and Proust and Joseph Roth and Zweig, but their effect on my "soul," my inner life, is fleeting, narcotic, comforting, but no substitute for belief in...what? I love literature, but can I worship it?

I find the "new atheists"--unlike the intellectually astute "old atheists" like Bertrand Russell--to be a sorry lot. Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett mistake what can be said about believing in God for the actual experience of believing in God. Their mockery of the tall tales that fill the Bible and other religious books feels cheap, rather like laughing at the sentimental banalities of a greeting card or mocking someone who really enjoys Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How Do I Love Thee"--as if a heartfelt wish for joy or an expression of love is diminished by words that can't live up to the feeling. As if the feeling doesn't come first.

The truth is simple: all deep feeling, every profound conviction, any belief that isn't merely a passing fancy, dammit, everything that matters lives in us in a place that language cannot penetrate, does not even belong. Who came up with the idea that language defines the limits of truth?

Martin Buber is among the theologians I still read. I cannot endure Catholic theology, though I have browsed the admirable Pope Francis's little book The Name of God Is Mercy (sorry Il Papa, I'm not seeing it), as modest and lovely a Q and A on faith as you will ever find--and as ecumenical a book as I have ever read, touching in its sincerity. However, Francis is unique. With rare exceptions, his parish priests and conservative bishops have never outgrown Augustine's self-loathing or Paul's horror of the body. Jewish and Protestant theologians are another matter. Especially German theologians, a point that Watson makes in The Age of Atheists. With great finesse and astonishing erudition--they all read Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and Latin as well as all the modern languages--men like Buber, Hershel (a Pole), Schweitzer, Tillich, Niebuhr (American born, of German descent), Oscar Cullmann, Karl Barth (Swiss) and many others, revitalized theology as a legitimate intellectual pursuit.   

I and Thou was the first serious work of theology I ever read. Buber theologizes Kant's profound ethical idea of the categorical imperative (there are several versions, but they all stem from the same insight). The greatest moral imperative we have is to treat others as ends in themselves, never as means to an end, never as objects, never in a way that we couldn't imagine conceptualizing as a universal moral law, binding on everyone, always. Concise and intuitively appealing, central to any ethics, the entire point, one would hope, of Judaism and Christianity. The lonely, alienated "I" of Being and Nothingness become an I-Thou relationship in Buber's theology. Rather than focus exclusively on human perception, as most philosophy since Comte has done, Buber privileged relationships--to things, to the world, to other people, and, through other people, to God. Buber's theology appears to have been deeply influenced by Husserl, by the phenomenological insight that perception and experience are relational, and that consciousness is inherently creative. Human beings desire "to possess God," desire "a continuity in space and time" that comes with possession of God. Communal life and the desire for "salvation," that is, for deep relationships, constitute the core of Buber's I-Thou relationship. There's a gentleness and humanity in Buber that appeals to me, a sense I also get in reading Spinoza that I am witness to a profound intellect yearning for truth. I don't understand everything, or even much, but reading Buber is not unlike a walk in the woods: you may not be able to name all the trees and plants, but you feel refreshed by the exercise.

I won't attempt to summarize Schweitzer's classic Quest, or his life, which was extraordinary in every respect. Had he only written this volume of historical theology, or his magisterial book on the life and music of J.S. Bach, or done nothing but found a hospital in what is today Gabon (French Equatorial Africa), his life would have been remarkable, even saintly. When I think that Schweitzer shares the honor of a Nobel Peace Prize (1952) with the likes of Henry Kissinger and Barak Obama I have to laugh to keep from weeping. Schweitzer used his prize money to found a hospital for lepers.

The "historical Jesus" is a mode of dealing with one of the fundamental problems of Christianity, namely the fact that the founder and his contemporary disciples saw their faith as apocalyptic, that is, they believed time was coming to an end, and that the events prophesied in Daniel and Isiah were close at hand (Mark 13). Schweitzer took up the challenge of historicity through a brilliant critical survey of Protestant theology, and a reconceptualizing of Jesus's message. Specifically, Schweitzer focuses on the paradoxes, contradictions, and indecipherability of Jesus's words. And the greatest of these paradoxes, plain to anyone who reads the Gospel of Mark (the source of the other three) is the idea of predestination. In Mark, chapter 4, verses 10-12 Jesus explicitly says that his teaching in parables is done to keep the message of salvation closed to those who are not among the chosen. If the message weren't esoteric, "they might be converted and forgiven," clearly not a desirable outcome. Nor did the Parousia, the Second Coming of the Son of Man, occur as prophesied, so that the fundamental beliefs touted by Christians have at their core what is at least a paradox, if not an outright contradiction. A religion of ending, St. Paul had to reinvent the faith as a religion of waiting--this was a tall order, and if one reads Paul objectively, it is easy enough to see that he failed. Modern theology, Schweitzer observes, with its emphasis on what is universal in Christianity, distorts the historical facts and the nature of world-negating message of the founder. There is much to admire in Jesus, but there is much to be confounded by as well. Schweitzer as musicologist, physician, and humanitarian was committed to seeing clearly and to telling the truth as he saw it.

What should we make of these arcane arguments, these attempts by theologians to create a form of meaning that doesn't mock history or human reality? I am persuaded by Schweitzer's earnestness, his willingness to debunk a century and a half of theological preconceptions, but his Jesus is no more appealing to me as an object of worship than the "Lord" invoked by Rev. Falwell. In the end I return to Watson's thesis: we're trying to fill a void left by the death of God. Some fill it with art and some with a rereading of ancient religious texts; in either case the effort falls short, the crude hand print of wishful thinking is everywhere evident.


By this point I have moved on from Steve Reich and am listening to Stravinsky conducting his "Symphony of Psalms," composed in 1930 for Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The text of the first movement is from Psalm 38: Quoniam advena ego sum apud te et peregrinus sicut omnes patres mei,  "Like my fathers, I am a stranger to You, and a wanderer," or perhaps better--"You are a stranger to me, just as You were to all my fathers--and I am a seeker." Which pretty much sums up the case.

Why so coy, so hidden, so cruel, at least within the ethical terms human beings are permitted to understand? Why, contra the good Pope, is there so little justice and virtually no mercy? Couldn't it be, shouldn't it be, otherwise? Imagine an invisible and unknowable lover leaving opaque notes lying about a vast desert and then enjoining us, on no evidence whatsoever, to love her unconditionally. Absurd. Beyond even a "leap of faith," a catapult into the void.

So, if David Foster Wallace is correct, and I believe that he is, what do we choose to worship? Or, since it's none of my business what you do, what should I worship?

I have no idea. My prayers these days--what I call the words cast into the Great Void like bars of Bach's Goldberg's set adrift on NASA's probes for intelligent life--are full of thanks for family and friends, for mountains and the Gulf of Mexico, for great books and stirring music. As a kid I asked for stuff: "Lord, please can I have new ice skates?" Older, I merely wish to record my gratitude for this lucky chance, for a shot at being human (as the Buddhists put it).  As for worship, let's say I'm open to suggestions.

I'm going to give the redoubtable Jane Hirshfield the last word in this long post; Jane H., a modern mystic--it's "What Binds Us," and is from the early collection Of Gravity & Angels. Try to find a Hirshfield that isn't as deep as scripture:

There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they've been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There's a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest—

And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.

George Ovitt (8/11/2016)

Monday, August 8, 2016

Two Poets Never Met

Alejandra Pizarnik and Samih Al-Qasim

I like to imagine certain writers meeting, the stranger, the more unlikely the pairing, the better. Surely an encounter between the late Jewish Argentinian poet, Alejandra Pizarnik, and the late Druze Israeli poet, “the Palestinian Lorca’, Samih Al-Qasim, would fit the bill. Indeed their visions as poets could hardly be more distinct: while Al-Qasim’s poetry is ever directed outward, toward others, born as it was of his life-long struggle for social justice in Israel and Palestine, Pizarnik’s is decidedly reclusive, reflexive, every bit the product of the ‘brawling’ inside her head. Her poems echo with loneliness, abandonment, despair:


your voice
in this inability to escape                                         
my gaze
things rid themselves of me
if it isn’t your voice
turn me into a boat on a river of stones
a rain isolated in my fevered silence
you undo my eyes
and I ask
you please
to speak to me


Someone goes into the silence and abandons me.
Now solitude is not alone.
You speak like the night.
You announce yourself like thirst.


The hour when the grass grows
in the memory of a horse.
The wind issues innocent speeches
in honor of the lilacs,
and someone enters into death
with open eyes,
like Alice in the land of the seen before.

I Am Forbidden To Look At The Grass

   A naked mannequin in the wreckage. They set fire to the store window and left you posing like a frozen angel. I’m not making this up: what I’m saying is an imitation of nature, a still life. I am speaking of myself, naturally.


                            For Octavio Paz

    And it's always the lilac garden on the other side of the river. If the soul should ask you if that is far from here, you should say, On the other side of the river, not this one, but the one over there.

By contrast, Al-Qasim’s poetry, while also personal, moves immediately outward, toward the lives, the conditions, of others, fusing his condition, his fate, with that of his people’s:

End of A Talk With A Jailer
From the narrow window of my small cell,
I see trees that are smiling at me
and rooftops crowded with my family.
And windows weeping and praying for me.
From the narrow window of my small cell—
I can see your big cell!


The day I’m killed
my killer will find
tickets on my pockets:
One to peace,
one to fields and the rain,
and one
to humanity’s conscience.

I beg you—please don’t waste them,
I beg you, you who kill me: Go. 

In his poetry there is also, and not surprisingly, a deep and tragic connection to place:

Sadder Than Water

Sadder than water,
in death’s wonder
you’ve distanced yourself from this land.
Sadder than water
and stronger by far than the wind,
longing for a moment to drowse,
alone. And crowded by millions
behind their darkened windows.

You distanced yourself from yourself.
So that you might remain
on the land.
You will remain.
(People were useless… the land was useless
but you’ll dwell on.)
And in the land there is nothing,
nothing but you…

There, now that I have set them talking—amidst the olive trees in Al-Qasim’s garden in Rama, in Pizarnik’s cluttered apartment in Buenos Aires—just pull up a chair and listen.

Recommended Reading:

Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972 by Alejandra Pizarnik, New Directions
Sadder Than Water: New & Selected Poems by Samih Al-Qasim, Ibis Edtions

Peter Adam Nash

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The city Beneath the City

The Other Paris by Luc Sante

The Matthew Scudder novels of Lawrence Block

Whenever someone stops me on the street to ask me what "neoliberalism" means--you'd be surprised--I suggest that the questioner Google some images of Times Square in the 1970's and then compare the gritty pictures of New York's demimonde (prostitutes, peep shows, pretzel stands, porn theaters, pizza by the slice, bucket-of-blood bars) with today's corporatized/Disneyified version--a mind-numbing onslaught of digital advertising, "cleaned up" by a succession of neolib mayors who wanted "the center of the universe" to cater to consumers rather than to the unwashed and, let's be honest, libidinous masses. "Family friendly," meaning no working girls, boys on the make, nobody nodding in doorways, no black guys with boom boxes--the smell of burnt chestnuts replaced by the smell of money.  The lowly hot dog, slathered in mustard and affordable for all--the great democratic street food of America--now sets you back a five spot at least, and the guy who hands it to you is wearing plastic gloves and not smoking a cigar. In other words, New York, once a place where a person could at least dip his or her toe in the real world has been gentrified and commodified out of existence. That's the meaning of neoliberalism.

New York in the Wagner-Lindsay-Beame era of grit and sleaze (of the best sort) is brilliantly captured in the Matthew Scudder novels of Lawrence Block, among the finest (in my view) writers of noir fiction, a dozen novels set in New York in the iron age before Giuliani and Bloomberg forged the World of Oz.  I want to get to Sante, but just a word about Block, whose books should be better known. His Matt Scudder series follows the life of an alcoholic, ex-cop (he quit the force after accidentally shooting a young Puerto Rican girl), who has moved out of his Long Island home and settled into a hotel room in what was once Hell's Kitchen but is now, appropriately, called Clinton. Scudder's lady friend is a call girl he met while trolling the streets around Times Square. Scudder isn't a detective, but he survives by doing favors for various people, including the ominious Mick Ballou, an Irish mob figure who is among the more interesting bad/good guys in all of genre fiction. Scudder walks around the city, attends two or three AA meetings each day, and with minimal help from NYPD, puts some very bad people in jail. But the finest part of Block's books, the irresistible sections, are his descriptions of that old New York. On a walking tour of Hell's Kitchen a few years back I looked for Scudder's hotel and for Armstrong's, his favorite watering hole. Both are still there, but spruced up. I went so far as to have a bourbon and coffee in Armstrong's Pub (Scudder's drink of choice before the black-outs got too bad), but it was no good--there were yuppies and ferns and a bartender who didn't want to talk.  Try When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes, really.

I loved that older, gritty New York; the new one, not so much. I never knew the old Paris, the one about which Luc Sante, our poet/scholar of the underside of urban life writes so brilliantly in The Other Paris. I've read everything I can about the Paris of Baudelaire and du Beauvoir, of Henry Miller and Hemingway, of Dabit and the witty Elaine Dundy. But the world opened for us by Sante is of an altogether different sort; perhaps only Henry Miller's wonderful Quiet Days in Clichy (my favorite of his books) comes close to evoking the city hidden with the City, the world of the underclass, the proletarian subbasement of a wealthy world-class metropolis, the wine bars and bistros and cafes and bordellos and back alleys--flâneurs and prostitutes, faded dandies, transvestites, and brawlers. 

The great historian of the rich life of Paris was of course Walter Benjamin, whose Arcades Project presents an unrivaled--rich and deep--inventory of the great city, especially of its inner life. But Luc Sante has done something original, and perhaps even more enlightening in The Other Paris. Sante, whose Low Life is a great accounting of 19th century New York, has performed a similar service for those who would know the "low life" of Paris--he's opened up neighborhoods and previously closed doors, and shown us lives that reveal a Paris quite different from that of the Michelin guides. As a bonus, he's also filled the text with hundreds of black and white photographs. 

"The dance halls of Montmarte were by that point [when the Impressionists began to paint them] as showcases for prostitution, but there were dance halls in most other neighborhoods...In Charonne stood the Bal des Lilas, known as the Bal des Punaises (cockroaches or bedbugs), which had, tucked away behind the orchestra, a bench reserved for women too drunk to dance, and those who lacked shoes..."

The sections on little known artists and artistes are brilliant: here's Frehel, the great chanteuse who died in 1951--"Her charisma and strength of personality, in addition to the map of her life in her face--her big eyes and full lips remaining as proof of lost beauty under the palimpsest--got her cast in movies, sixteen of them, mostly in the 1930's...In her last years she sold vegetables on the street. Her landlady said, 'She scared me. She was like a bull.' In 1950 a group of young admirers that included Jacques Yonnet [author of Paris Noir: The Secret Life of a City] and Robert Girand, working-class poet and journalist] got her to perform one last time...a year later she was dead in Pigalle."

There are hundreds of anecdotes like this one, of forgotten singers, of poets and painters not on the 'A' list, of dance halls and cafes now vanished to make way for offices and apartments. My favorite chapter, "Insurgents," surveys a territory unknown to me--the underground political/criminal history of France's capital, from the Commune (Louise Michel) to the notorious career of Edouard Carouy and the gang of which he was a part, a group immortalized (after a fashion) in Emile Michon's Un peu l' ame des Bandits (A Little of the Bandits' Soul)--apparently no relation to Magritte's painting of the same name.

And who cares? A forgotten New York, a Paris that is hardly present. Perhaps the point of reading Sante's marvelous hommage is to be reminded that the city, far from being a place of commerce, a monument to the egoism and elitism of the marketplace, was for most of its history simply a place where people of all kinds lived and worked and loved and died. In other words, a democratic and egalitarian space where one could hardly avoid rubbing shoulders with different sorts of people. Of course, that still happens, but in the city within the City the rubbing took a more intimate form, defined in fact the lives of citizens in a way that seems no longer to be the case. 

George Ovitt 7/29/16, revised 8/1/16