Sunday, May 17, 2020

Deep in our own heads


Feeling a little scattered these days. Aren't we all? How to get back some coherence?

Henry James, from his notebook, March 29, 1905:
The question, however, is with, is of, what I want now,and how I need to hark back, and hook on, to those very 1st little emotions and agitations and stirred sensibilities of the first Cambridge hours and days and even weeks--though it's really a matter for any acuteness, for any quality, of but the hours, the very first, during which the charms of the brave handsome autumn (I coax it, stretching a point with soft names) lingered and hung about, and made something of a little medium for the sensibility to act in. That was a good moment, genuine so far as it went, and just enough, no doubt, under an artful economy, to conjure with.
Lord, I hope we're not still doing this when the "brave, handsome autumn" arrives, but I have my fears. The stasis we're in certainly doesn't feel anything like a "medium for the sensibility to act in." Differentiating moment from moment feels like the most I can manage right now, as a creature of habit who find himself now somehow even more of one, without the usual interruptions of outside activity to punctuate the days.

But it's worth remembering that these pains are minor compared to those being suffered by many of our fellows. And even more so when set in the context of a reminder like this, which opens Francesca Wade's new book Square Haunting:
A few minutes past midnight on Tuesday, September 10, 1940, an air raid struck Mecklenburgh Square. From number 45, John Lehmann heard gunfire rumbling in the distance, the hum of airplanes at an insistent crescendo until "three whistling, ripping noises" directly overhead were followed by the unmistakable tinkling of breaking glass. Climbing out of bed, he opened the blackout curtains to find his windows shattered and the London skyline obscured by flames. His friend Stephen Spender's house on nearby Lansdowne Terrace, usually visible from his second-floor window, appeared to be enveloped in a burning cloud. "Well," Lehmann found himself thinking, surprised at his state of calm, "poor old Stephen's the first to go."
As some of you will know, Lehmann was, fortunately, wrong: Spender survived the war and lived into the 1990s. The fear, however, was real. For most of us living in the shadow of COVID, the immediate fear for our lives has passed, transmuted into fear for our livelihoods and our communities. That's a wholly legitimate fear, but I will confess that reading even that one paragraph about the Blitz offered a bracing restoration of perspective.

We're all in our own heads a bit right now, aren't we? Even as we attend work meetings via video and chat with friends on the phone or partners or roommates (or pets) in person, our inner monologues, I think, are rising in volume. How could they not, as we're faced with such a strange combination of new experiences and stultification? The moment-to-moment living of our lives has shifted to autopilot, but the deep bass thrum of fear is ever present, telling our minds they need to work overtime solving the problem. But it's a problem our minds can't solve, so they simply . . . work. To little avail.

That situation made Anita Brookner's The Rules of Engagement seem wholly apt for our moment when I read it recently. The novel, which tells the story of Elizabeth, a middle-aged woman, and her mostly failed marriage and brief affairs, leaves the reader almost completely in the head of its protagonist. Relatively few novels strike a realistic balance between our external interactions and the movements of our minds--in most novels dialogue flows back and forth without acknowledging the unspoken reactions, the flights of thought and reference, the lightning interpretations that necessarily occur between the end of one person's speech and the start of another's. Anthony Powell, in his way, does this. James certainly does, sometimes to a fault. Brookner in this novel pulls it off brilliantly, and to an explicit effect: We are in Elizabeth's head primarily because that is where she is trapped. She has no real confidantes, in part because society refuses to admit that a married woman might need them, that her dissatisfaction might be legitimate.

What that means ultimately is that Elizabeth is not only always assessing her own thoughts and actions but also doing the same for those of the people around her--and rarely seeing or taking an opportunity to check those assessments. Here's a brief example:
"Thank you for dinner."

"It was my pleasure."

It did not then seem as if it had been a pleasure. He had retreated into his earlier mournful self. What he had no doubt wanted was not something I could supply. The brief recitation of his emotional history had served some purpose, but I was not able to evaluate this. No doubt it had been defensive, even pre-emptive, in order to forestall any more leisurely enquiries. It now seemed entirely irrelevant, yet I knew that I should give it further thought. He seemed to regret it, but it was in keeping with his general stoicism not to offer excuses.
As the advice columnists so often have to remind us, if we want to know what someone thinks or feels, our best course of action is to ask them. Yet again and again we don't. It's a default form of self-protection in many cases, rooted in fear of responsibility and involvement. Yet it's also a denial, one that can easily warp us, of the separate reality of those around us. James Schuyler, in "Hymn to Life," captures the problem in a plainspoken way:
Reticence is not a bad quality, though it may lead to misunderstandings. I misunderstood silence for disapproval, see now it was
Sympathy.

I think far more often than is probably reasonable about Reed and Sue Richards of the Fantastic Four, and how many times Reed has discovered an existential threat to the cosmos and decided that he had to solve it himself, rather than burdening his wife and family with the terrible knowledge. Always, Sue finds out. Always, she's righteously angry. It's a playing out in superhero terms of a drama common to many a deep relationship. Reed substitutes his own judgment for that of his wife, assumes that she shouldn't have to handle the stress of his knowledge, shouldn't have to help bear the burden, rather than honor her separate existence and trust that she can be a full participant in their shared life. It's the purest solipsism, one that cuts us off from so much of what relationships have to offer.

Schuyler again:
You see death shadowed out in another's life. The threat Is always there, even in balmy April sunshine. So what
If it is hard to believe in. Stopping in the city while the light
Is red, to think that all who stop with you too must stop, and
Yet it is not less individual a fate for all that.
We are all in our heads. We are all there alone. But we can open the doors. Right now that's more than ever worth the effort.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Still at home

A mention by a friend on Twitter yesterday got me thinking again about the best new novel I read last year, Lucy Ellmann's Ducks, Newburyport. In my review of the book for the Seattle Review of Books, I praised it as the first book I've read that
that [. . . ] thoroughly acknowledges the toxic mix of guilt and dread that is the bassline of life in Western society amid a climate change disaster that our every action exacerbates.
For an educated, attentive Westerner, climate change, and the guilt and fear that accompanies it, has in the past decade or so become a constant part of thought. It's there eroding our wellbeing at all times, in ways that, relative to the scale of the disaster and human culpability for it, are extravagantly minor, yet that cumulatively steal a not-insignificant portion of life's everyday pleasures. A warm snap in February? No longer an unmixed good. The first arrival of goldfinches in the spring? They're awfully early again this year, aren't they? A hike in the woods? Yes, but we had to drive there.

Part of the problem is that the scale is all wrong. Individually, we can do next to nothing about climate change. Yet it is, in part, as individuals that we will experience, and suffer from, its effects. And it is as individuals that we confront, moment to moment and day to day, our thoughts.

Lately, our thoughts have been infected by a new strain of dread. Five or six weeks into lockdown, for those of us not in frontline occupations the immediate fear of infection has subsided. It's still there, but it's no longer a countdown clock ticking at the back of our minds from the last time we rode the subway. Now the fears have turned social, political, economic. If we're lucky enough to still have a job, the fears are about the larger economy, and about our seeming lack of a clear path back to even half-normal. (Or even a true acknowledgment that that path, wherever it winds, will not be short.) What do we look like on the other side of this?

I've spent my whole career working in or with bookstores, so that's where I find myself turning when the larger questions get to be too much. They're almost all closed right now, and they're hurting. But they're also taking orders and shipping, and I'm drawing at least the most modest of solace in ordering something from every store where I know a staff member. And, unlike the way I usually approach my reading, which mixes books new to the house with stuff that's been lingering on the shelves unread for years, I'm stacking my stay-at-home purchases and reading my way right through them, on the logic that something about the current situation led me to choose these books, so perhaps I'll find they have something to say to me right now. Wild, Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest trail certainly does. This bit rang particularly true right now:
I'd loved books in my regular, pre-PCT life, but on the trail, they'd taken on even greater meaning. They were the world I could lose myself in when the one I was actually in became too lonely or harsh or difficult to bear. When I made camp in the evenings, I rushed through the tasks of pitching my tent and filtering water and cooking dinner so I could sit afterwards in side the shelter of my tent in my chair with my pot of hot food gripped between my knees. I ate with my spoon in one hand and a book in the other, reading by the light of my headlamp when the sky darkened. In the first week of my hike, I was often too exhausted to read more than a page or two before I fell asleep, but as iI grew stronger I was reading more, eager to escape the tedium of my days. And each morning, I burned whatever I'd read the night before.
She's burning the book because she didn't want to carry any more weight in her pack than she had to, but even knowing that, there's a certain drama to the act, no? Strayed's book itself is just what I want right now: It takes me someplace I can't go (and, to be honest, was never going to go), and it has a strong narrative pull that enables me, for a bit, to keep COVID thoughts at bay.

Philip Ziegler's The Black Death is a different sort of response to the moment. It's a reminder that things could certainly be worse. We aren't losing a third to a half of our population to COVID, and while there's a lot we still have to learn about the disease, we at least understand the basics of how it works and how it might be stopped. Yet there are parallels, and Ziegler's book offers plenty of moments that snag and stick like burrs on a hike, discovered only much later, lingering in my thoughts. Like this:
But if one were called on to identify the hall-mark of the years which followed the Black Death, it would be that of a neurotic, all-pervading gloom. "Seldom in the course of the Middle Ages has so much been written concerning the miseria of human beings and human life," wrote Hans Baron, going on to refer to "the pessimism and renunciation of life which took possession of mankind in the period following the terrible epidemics of the middle of the fourteenth century." It was a gloom which fed upon extreme uncertainty and apprehension. The European of this period lived in a constant anticipation of disaster.
Climate change, considered seriously, has given us a trial run for that feeling. Yet we still--at least, I think, we reasonably well-off Americans--tend to default to the assumption that things are going to be okay. I'll cop to that. I've been extremely fortunate. My life has gone well. And narrative concepts and structures are so deeply embedded in me and my thinking that, as little interest as I have in being any kind of hero, I can't help but imagine myself as the protagonist of my own life--and to assume that life is ultimately a story that will have a reasonable, satisfying shape to it. Our current situation reminds me of how presumptuous that is, both on an individual and a societal level, even as it reveals how incredibly deep the roots of that outlook are in my personality.

COVID has laid bare so many of the underlying assumptions about our lives and society--and most of them do not put us in a good light. Inequality is deadly. Failing to acknowledge our interconnectedness is deadly. Neglect of infrastructure is deadly. Dealing with crises rather than working to prevent them is deadly. And we, myself certainly included, are complacent about what we have. A passage from Phil Christman's thoughtful new book about the Midwest, Midwest Futures, comes to mind:
That we take such a good place for granted, as though its usefulness for human life were proof of its dullness and interchangeability, allows us to misuse it, and ourselves, and each other, who are marked as boring by having come from this boringly good thing, or marked as threatening because they didn’t. It takes a thousand years for the earth to make three centimeters of topsoil. (Climate change encourages floods, which wash topsoil out to sea.)
At the same time, I hold with Joshua Marshall of Talking Points Memo that optimism isn't an assumption or a plan, but an ethical stance. It enables us to continue, to do the work that could help justify our belief in it. I can worry about worst-case scenarios, but I have to on a fundamental level believe we'll get past them.

In the current moment, that work, for many of us, consists mostly of letting time and distance do their work. So we try. I'm reading. I'm watching the birds at our feeder. I'm seeing a movie a day. I'm working on finicky little finger exercises for the piano, devised by Czerny to facilitate madness. I'm being grateful for my wife and our dog and cats. And I'm thinking about this line from Wild:
Each day on the trail was the only possible preparation for the one that followed.
That's as succinct an assessment of where we are right now as any I've come across. Stay strong and well, friends.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Staying home





{Anonymous art seen today on my block.}


I woke up this morning trying to remember whose was the last hand I shook. It was probably in the last days of February. It would also represent the last physical contact I've had with anyone other than rocketlass.



Today was the first day it felt at all eerie. Walking Jenkins, I arrived at Foster Avenue to . . . nothing. As someone who grew up in the country, I'm still, all these years later, pleasantly surprised by how quiet city Sundays can be. Even in Tokyo, out for an early run, I've found solitude. But this was different. Foster is always tough to cross with a dog, almost no matter the hour. But it was ours today to idle across at will. I was reminded, by their absence, of some of the images from James Schuyler's "An East Window on Elizabeth Street":
Across an interstice 
trundle and trot trucks, cabs, cars,
station-bound fat dressy women
In the distance, I spied runners, on opposite sides of the street, both heading towards the lake, towards the sun. Schuyler again, from his still-bustling city:
The furthest-off people are tiny as fine seed
but not at all bug-like. A pinprick of blue
plainly is a child running
Otherwise the street belonged to us, and the spring-bright cardinal singing from the very top of a bare tree, and the woodpecker diligently breakfasting, unseen, on another.
--

I watched an episode of Columbo last week and found myself tensing at the proximity of the characters during a dinner party. We are a malleable species. We make adjustments, and take them more deeply within ourselves than we realize, with incredible, perhaps even frightening, speed.



Everyone—and by everyone I mean, as we so often do, a small group of people I interact with online—is turning to Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year. Neither a work of history nor of journalism, though it draws from both wells, it uses the story of an outbreak of plague in 1664 to prepare readers for a potential future outbreak. We live in a different time, in largely different ways, but there are notes that resonate. Here is Defoe on how people respond to the threat of having their houses shut up, with them trapped inside, a virtually certain death sentence, which was prescribed by the authorities when members of a household were discovered to be infected:
It would fill a little Volume to set down the Arts us'd by the People of such Houses, to shut the Eyes of the Watchmen, who were employ'd, to deceive them, and to escape, or break out from them.
Thus far, in our plague, there seems to be less of that, and more of outright defiance, of pretending that youth or money or, quite simply, one's own essential position as the center of the universe, will protect one.

Defoe's opening calls to mind the early part of this year, up to the first days three weeks ago when we started seriously discussing at my office the possibility of having to send everyone home to work. At that point, though we knew intellectually that there was a threat, that information was hard to turn into suitable levels of fear or concern—everything still felt distant.
It was about the Beginning of September 1664, that I, among the Rest of my Neighbours, heard in ordinary Discourse, that the Plague was return'd again in Holland; for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Roterdam, whither they say, it was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant among some Goods, which were brought home by their Turkey Fleet; others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus. It matter'd not, from whence it come; but all agreed, it was come into Holland again. 

We had no such thing as printed News Papers in those Days, to spread Rumours and Reports of Things; and to improve them by the Invention of Men, as I have liv'd to see pracstis'd since. But such things as these were gather'd from the letters of Merchants and others who corresponded abroad, and from them was handed about by word of mouth only; so that things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now. But it seems that the Government had a true Account of it, and several Counsels were held about Ways to prevent its coming over; but all was kept very private.
That last bit is familiar enough to sting.

If you've not read Journal of a Plague Year, the episode of the Backlisted podcast that focuses on it is a good starting point.



Thus far, my life hasn't changed dramatically. That's largely a mark of intertwined privilege and luck. Rocketlass and I both have jobs that can be done remotely, and neither of us works in a sector of the economy that's an immediate casualty. Like everyone, we're at risk from the larger catastrophe (to say nothing of the virus itself), but for now the only effect is that we're at home.

Our society has never been quite sure how to think about work relationships. With rare exceptions, they're not exactly friendships—but in a good workplace, they're also not not friendships. You care about these people and their lives. You appreciate their abilities and their character. You look forward to their insights, and their jokes. In a crowd of strangers, they glow like a lighthouse, guiding you to comfort and safety

At the core of the relationship, for most of us, is the simple dailiness of it. Every day, you're going to see these people, and—most of the time—you're going to see them in a situation where everything is nice and clear. You know what you're supposed to do, you know what they're supposed to do, and you'll do a lot of it together. Most of the time, that's a distinct comfort.

As I left the office a week ago, unsure when I'd go back, I did a mental count: Nine people in the Books Division had been there when I started, including three in my department. Nine people whom I have seen more or less every day, barring two-week stretches of vacation here and there, since 1999.

When Silicon Valley tells people they should bring "their whole selves" to work, they're trying to take advantage of people. You should never take your whole self to work. Work isn't buying your whole self. The realms should be separate. But that doesn't mean you can't be yourself at work. I'm largely the same person at the office as I am at home—marginally less sweary, but that's about it. As a colleague and a boss, I'm pretty transparent: I am who I seem to be.

Aside, that is, from one thing: At the office, managing a staff of twenty-eight, I am an extrovert. And I'm good at it. I'm there for my staff and my colleagues, and part of my job is, and always has been, going back to my retail beginnings, performing in that way. I like it. But it takes it out of me, and on the weekends I'm quiet. I have friends whom I love, but I tend to spend most of my off hours quietly, reading, playing piano, running, watching movies.

The stay-at-home order, therefore, represents no major rupture for me. I'm fortunate enough to have space, and a wife, and pets, and a tendency to live this way already. How are the true extroverts dealing with it?



I have long read Thomas a Kempis, not for his religion, but for his focus on quiet and solitude. He's apt:
The man who has not diligently practiced holy repentance is not worthy of heavenly consolations. If you want to experience this repentance in your heart, go to your room and shut out the din of the world, as it is written: commune with your own hearts on your beds and be silent. Retire to your room and there you will preserve what you usually lose by leaving it.

If you keep to your room you will find delight in it, but if you only visit it, it becomes irksome and annoying. If, at the time of your conversion, you had accustomed yourself to stay in your room and remain there, it would now be your good friend and a source of great pleasure to you.


"Enter into your room, and shut out the clamor of the world."



In part because of those general preferences, the crisis hasn't quite hit me emotionally yet. It's still mostly about logistics: How do we do this, how do we deal with this, how do we recover from it? Fears are mostly focused on the economic damage; somehow the human damage, perhaps unreasonably, is still hard to process. I'm fortunate to not know anyone who has been diagnosed, and to be healthy myself, thus far. And while I know all but nothing about medicine, I do have an educated layman's knowledge of business, the economy, and government, so I find myself thinking about the economy and tools for recovery. It's sobering. Even America—the richest society in the history of the world, one that, because of its role as the world's banker, can simply print money as needed—is going to have a hard time recovering. The prospects for the less well-off parts of the world are terrifying. We'll need a New Deal–level US recovery program, and a Marshall Plan on steroids if we want to help the rest of the world. And I worry about our ability, and willingness, to do either.

Regardless, we will come out changed. My city, your city, they'll never be the same. It feels simultaneously melodramatic and apt to quote Sir Edward Grey's remark on the eve of World War I:
The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime
As I walked this morning past shuttered stores and restaurants and bars and wonder which will be around to re-open, I found myself thinking of some lines from Jana Prikryl's "To Tell of Bodies Changed"
A painter once squared himself against a difficult question
and said no one could just create
a landscape,
but isn't it true
that expectation builds a neighborhood
and there is nowhere else that you can live.
What are my expectations, now? What will my neighborhood be?



Then there's the actual virus, and the fear of catching it (or having those we love catch it). Knowing its general latency period, it feels as if there's a stopwatch ticking in the background, counting down the days since we last interacted with possibly infected strangers. Every twinge in the throat, every flash of headache, every urge to cough . . . is it beginning? It's a special kind of horror, one that is wholly new to my life, and that I, at least, can only deal with by trying desperately to ignore it.

It keeps bringing to mind, not anything obvious like "The Masque of the Red Death," but rather my favorite J. G. Ballard story, "Escapement." A brief, potent story, it tells of a man who, while sitting with his wife one evening, realizes slowly that he's slipped into a time loop, wherein a section of time fifteen minutes long keeps repeating itself. Yet even as he begins to grasp this, his wife remains uncomprehending. The loop plays itself out—Ballard does something interesting where it tightens on itself until the kink straightens out, essentially—but then his wife, watching TV, says, "Why do they keep on doing that? . . . They've done it twice already." "No," he replies," I don't think they have."

It takes the husband a minute, but it clicks. She's slipped into it, and he's not going to be able to retain his knowledge of what's happening. And here, the end, is the bit I keep thinking of, as I wonder whether we're about to slip into something unpleasant:
""Darling," I said, putting my arm around her. "Hold tight."
"What do you mean?"
"This is the merry-go-round. And you're driving."




For now, though, I'm well and it's morning and it's quiet. The actions available to me to mitigate this disaster are few, and I'm taking them. I hope you are, too, and that you're well.

Sun helps. Pets help. Poetry helps. Specifically James Schuyler:
The day
offers so much, holds
so little or is it
simply you who
asking too much take
too little? It is
merely morning
so always marvelously
gratuitous and undemanding,
freighted with messages
and meaning
Stay well, friends. I don't know what the other side of this will look like, but I do know that I want to see you there.


Sunday, March 08, 2020

The women of Horizon

"From now on you must be free to do anything you want."

A reasonable, if perhaps a bit extravagantly phrased, injunction from a mother to her daughter. But when Angela Culme-Seymour's mother delivered it to her daughter in the 1920s, when Angela was in her mid-teens, the follow-up was, to our ears, distressingly of its time: "When you're older, you must have lovers. You're so pretty you should have heaps of them."

D. J, Taylor's book The Lost Girls: Love, War, and Literature, 1939–1951 places us right in the gap between those first and second wishes. Drawing on a heap of published and unpublished writings, he re-creates the world of the wartime magazine Horizon, a world centered, in both social and literary terms, on its editor, Cyril Connolly. It's a world where women—or at least women above a certain class—were beginning to have ambitions that went beyond marriage, but were having them in a society that still had no real idea how to handle the concept.

Taylor weaves profiles of a dozen or so women with an account of the history of Horizon and, inevitably, the life and whining of Cyril Connolly, whose gravitational pull distorts nearly all the lives it comes near. "To know Cyril Connolly was, instantly, to be part of his schemes," Taylor writes. Anthony Powell, reviewing a collection of Connolly's writing, put it this way: "Connolly's outstanding quality is his pervasiveness, his determination that you are going to like what he likes." That was true of art and literature, and it was also true of Connolly's greatest concern: himself. Most of the women featured in Taylor's book were romantically involved with (or married to) Connolly at some point; almost none of them escaped at least doing underappreciated drudge work for him. They proofed manuscripts and answered letters and corrected proofs and dealt with visitors and balanced books, and they also listened to his self-pity and forgave affairs and tolerated comparisons with other women and largely refused to stand on their rights. Which, while maddening all these decades later, is also understandable: mostly they didn't even consider that they might have rights.

"Nothing, of course, is quite so relative as emancipation," Taylor writes, and that's the sad truth at the core of his book. Compared to their Edwardian forebears—whom Anthony Powell remembers from childhood being tut-tutted for their drinking and smoking—these women thought they had almost everything. Many of them lived on their own and earned their own income. They chose lovers and friends without regard to their parents' wishes. They participated in the cultural life of their day. They were, it's reasonable to believe, frequently happy. To Taylor's credit, they come to life in these pages in a way they largely haven't before, when they've been relegated to supporting roles in the biographies of better-known men. In particular Barbara Skelton, a writer best known these days as the model for Pamela in A Dance to the Music of Time, and Sonia Brownell, primarily known now as Orwell's widow, are treated with a respect and appreciation that enables them to stand on their own, agents of their fates.

The more we learn about the lives of these women, the more we chafe along with them at the restrictions that limited them. The simplest is that something like Horizon would have been inconceivable with a woman at the helm. While many of these women had men dancing attendance on them, none could have assembled a coterie like Connolly, and none would ever have been afforded anything like the regard given Connolly's every pronouncement. Certainly, Connolly was a rare talent—all these years later, his writing still sparkles. But could none of these women, or some other woman who never even got the limited opportunities granted this group, have shown as much if given the chance? We'll never know.

Thinking about Taylor's book carries extra potency this weekend: On Friday, my 96-year-old grandmother died. She had a good, long life. She had a family she loved and was loved by. She was happy. If you'd asked her, I don't think she'd have said she felt she missed out on anything or was kept from anything she wanted. Unlike the women Taylor chronicles, she didn't attempt to push boundaries. But she also wasn't encouraged to, and I can't help wondering what she might have done under other circumstances. Grandma Jackie was smart. She was a reader and continually engaged with culture and current events. She had a phenomenal memory. What might she have done? What talents did she—and countless other women of her generation, to say nothing of our own—not unlock because society didn't make a place for them?


Sunday, February 23, 2020

"Being born is craps. How we live is poker."


We used to live down the street from a tiny branch of the Chicago Public Library. And while it would be churlish to complain about having a library within staggering distance of home, the way I took to describing its offerings was that if you went in looking for something specific, you'd be disappointed, but that if you went in looking for something, you'd be fine.

About two years ago, I realized that Netflix had reached that point. There was plenty to watch, but . . . not that, and not that, and not anything from that era, and not that other thing. I was saved, however, by the discovery of the University of Chicago Library's DVD collection. That, and the acquisition of a Chromecast, which opened up a world of streaming and rental options, dropped me unexpectedly into a world where I could see, if still not quite everything, at least far, far more movies I actually wanted to see than I would likely watch in a lifetime.

So I've been watching a lot of westerns. Film critic David Bordwell wrote a post recently that, while also addressing many other issues, helps explain why: If you can watch anything, how do you choose? My solution was to spend 2019 watching only movies from the '70s. And, to leaven those—that much time with '70s interiors can't be good for you—westerns.

This year, I've let the '70s go for a bit. But the westerns have stayed. What's drawing me to them? Personal history, in part. I've enjoyed westerns since I was a boy. I grew up listening to old Lone Ranger radio programs and watching the Disney Davy Crockett TV series on VHS. It's more than that, though. It's the landscapes, which I didn't even notice when I was a kid. The horses, presented matter-of-factly as just another tool, yet regularly surprising you with their beauty and magnificence. The music, full of motifs that still stir the blood.

Then there are the themes. I'm far from a manly man. I have no interest in proving my toughness. Fights should probably be backed down from most of the time, to be honest; there are usually other ways to achieve your aim. I'm not restless, have no need to strike out into the unknown. I'm solitary but I don't need full solitude.

Honor, though? That works. The idea that you owe it to yourself and those around you to live truthfully and honor your commitments, that you should say what you mean and do what you say. That's at the core of most westerns, and it gives the best of them the same grounding that you find in the best of Joseph Conrad: a reason to tell this story, to care about these people.

As with Conrad, there's plenty of bad in westerns, too. Even if you try to stay away from movies that are explicitly about taking land from Native Americans, you still every once in a while come up against a scene where their lives are implicitly regarded as less valuable than those of others. And if we're being honest, we have to acknowledge that even movies that are about conflicts among white settlers are also about the displacement of native peoples. I'd understand if that put you off westerns entirely. For me, it's one more bit in the balance, another refraction of the story they're telling—and of the story America was telling about itself as the twentieth century wore on.

But this is a book blog, right? Here's where we get to that. A subset of the westerns I've been watching lately has been movies about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. An extremely brief shootout that occurred "around 3:00 PM" on October 26, 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona, it has been the subject of untold works of fiction and nonfiction, books and films. Each one takes a slightly different angle on what is at base a story of the Earp brothers—capable, yet prone to failures and trouble, family men who again and again wound up in violence—and their friend Doc Holliday, who has come down to us as a gunman who dreamed of better things.

Some of the films, including My Darling Clementine (1946) and Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), present the gunfight as a dramatic triumph, the moment when heroes win and the West moves one step closer to being "civilized." Other films, including the two that were released almost simultaneously in the early 1990s, Tombstone and Wyatt Earp, treat it as at best a source of regret, the moment that the Earp's luck starts to run out. Those films aren't necessarily better—some days I'd take My Darling Clementine, with Victor Mature playing a truly menacing Doc Holliday, over them all—but they do feel more true to life.

The place I've seen the gunfight presented most clearly as tragedy, however, is in Mary Doria Russell's Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral (2015). It's a sequel of sorts to her 2011 novel Doc, which paints a powerfully sympathetic portrait of Doc Holliday. Here's the opening of that book:
He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.
That was enough to hook me. A century and a half after his death, Holliday is more myth than man, and Russell doesn't shy away from that. The book is as much a romance as anything else, with Doc the person we're falling in love with. (Russell herself noted on Twitter: "John Henry Holliday didn't have a mama to love him when he was grown so I have taken him for my own. Loved that boy.") At the same time, however, we buy him, this gunfighter who is quick to kill but also somehow conveys "a special sort of gentleness that you see sometimes in people who've been hurt bad but who don't want revenge." Living under a death sentence from young adulthood, raised and educated for a life wholly different from the one he found ("A youth in the South. An education in the North. Bred for life in the East. Trying not to die in the West."), Russell's Doc is compelling and charismatic, but also alcoholic and self-destructive. "In a stand-up contest," she writes, "remorse and self-loathing can battle whiskey to a draw."

The book is full of memorable lines like that:
He meant no harm, of course. Helpful people never do.


What could Penelope offer Odysseus but illness and death if he returned to Ithaca?

A conviction of his own disgrace had taken hold of him. He had begun to live down to his opinion of himself.

Hope—cruelest of the evils that escaped Pandora's box.

Everything but sloth, he realized. Dodge City was diligent in sin.

Bein' born is craps. How we live is poker.
Epitaph greatly expands the story, bringing each of the Earps—brothers and spouses both—to life, but that portrait of Holliday that we carry from the earlier book is just as important to its power. We watch the Earps and Holliday trying and failing to make stable lives, often undermining their own efforts. In Tombstone we see them come closer than ever before to making it work. And then we reach this line, which, after all the foregoing, reads like the fates taking a tragic hand:
There are five armed men in the O.K. Corral.
When I read Epitaph, I literally put the book down at that point and took a walk. I needed more time before letting this happen to these people I'd grown to care about.
The gunfight itself takes up only a few pages, as you can see in this photo. 



But from it will spin out death and despair, the end of their brief spell of peace and happiness in Tombstone.

I wrote above that the core of what draws me to westerns is how they handle honor. The O.K. Corral story isn't really about honor so much as it's about mistakes and human failings. The Earps could have walked away from that fight, Holliday even more so. The honor here comes instead in the telling, in taking these people and lives from our past seriously and helping us understand, if not exactly how it happened, then at least how it might have happened, and why we should still care.


 
  

Sunday, February 16, 2020

A post that is not quite a post

When I restarted this blog three weeks ago, I said that I would try to post most weeks, usually on Sunday mornings. That is still my plan, and there will definitely be weeks when I’m wholly absent. This weekend—which I’m spending away from home with friends I’m rural seclusion with books and bourbon and a fireplace—is the Platonic form of the weekend when I won’t post: the blog, reconstituted, is meant to be an outlet and engagement rather than an obligation.

But. This is the third damn week. I shouldn’t be AWOL so soon. Therefore, a compromise: I’ll link to an essay I wrote for Lapham’s Quarterly in the years the blog was dormant, on a subject I’ve blogged about many times: Samuel Johnson. Specifically, on a dream about his brother that Johnson mentions in his diary, a line that I spent ten years thinking over before, with the help of an excellent editor at Lapham’s, Sarah Fan, figuring out what I wanted to say about it.

I’m proud of this essay. I hope you enjoy it, and I’ll plan to see you in this space again next week.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Woolf and Lamb, their time and ours, the artist and the art



In the early days of January, I set aside a few books to be regular companions through the year: a volume each of Virginia Woolf's diaries, essays, and letters, and The Charles Lamb Day Book, a quote-a-day volume drawn from the full range of Charles Lamb's work.

One day recently, reading both of those companion authors, I was brought up short—and not in a good way. I'm going to quote both below, in service of thinking about them, so if you'd rather the pleasantness of your Sunday morning not be broken, I'd suggest passing over this post.

In the Lamb entry for January 24, taken from a letter to Edward Moxom, appears the line,
I maintain it, the eighth commandment hath a secret special reservation by which the reptile is exempt from any protection from it; as a dog, or a n------, he is not a holder of property.
Neither Lamb nor Methuen, the publisher of this 1925 volume, elided the slur as I have done.

Then, in Woolf's diary entry for January 9, 1915, when she was almost thirty-three, I came across the following:
On the towpath we met & had to pass a long line of imbeciles. The first was a very tall young man, just queer enough to look twice at, but no more; the second shuffled, & looked aside; & then one realised that every one in that long line was a miserable ineffective shuffling idiotic creature, with no forehead, or no chin, & an imbecile grin, or a wild suspicious stare. It was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed.
The whole of this passage is disturbing and disheartening, but that last line is flat-out shocking. "Certainly," she writes. "Certainly."

What to do with this? I love Lamb and Woolf, as writers and, in many ways, as people. Like Henry James, they are writers whose work I have trouble separating from my knowledge of and interest in their lives. Their published works nestle in my mind alongside their letters, notebooks, diaries; biographies inflect, and, largely, increase my appreciation of their creations. I admire Woolf and Lamb, both for the work they created and for the way they played the hands life dealt them: Woolf's valiant struggle against mental breakdown; Lamb's abiding care for his mentally ill sister ("When she is not violent, her rambling chat is better to me than the sense and sanity of this world."), even after she murdered their parents. I would find it hard to know as much as we now do about these two, to have read as extensively in their work as I have, and not admire them. I could no more read their work now as something separate from their lives and characters than I could a letter from one of my siblings.

Which is not to say that I've ever been under the illusion that either is perfect. Woolf could be tone-deaf and ignorant to the point of cruelty on issues of class, and, despite her marriage to a Jew, made antisemitic comments in her writings. Lamb, meanwhile, laid bare his prejudices against a number of groups that differed from him—blacks, Jews, Quakers, Scots—in his essay "Imperfect Sympathies." Of Jews, he writes,
I should prefer not to be in habits of familiar intercourse with any of that nation. . . . Old prejudices cling about me.

Some people would credit Lamb for being frank about these views, but like many people today who pride themselves on "just asking the question" about supposedly taboo subjects, he shows an interest only in acknowledging those views, not in understanding their roots, questioning their validity, or moving beyond them.

That image of the contemporary "question raiser" is perhaps a good path to the question of why, if I already knew that Woolf and Lamb were flawed, these passages stopped me in my tracks. It's at least in part because of the way that #MeToo and other developments have brought the question of how we deal with art by bad people to the fore. And unlike so many ginned-up controversies, this one is both real and legitimately complicated. There are plenty of people who are interested in using the question solely as a straw man in service of dismissing the larger project of widening the circle of inclusion in society, but there are also plenty of people legitimately trying to answer the question. It's possible to conceive of a  wide range of answers that are valid, with the test of that validity ultimately being up to each person as they address each work of art. (For a really good discussion of this subject, I recommend the "What to Do with What's in the Box" episode of the Relentless Picnic podcast.)

Is it unfair to judge people like Woolf and Lamb by the standards of our era rather than theirs? Certainly. The past was terrible. I've never forgotten the opening lines of Simon Dickie's 2011 book Cruelty and Laughter:
Eighteenth-century Britons—or a high proportion of them—openly delighted in the miseries of others. Women as well as men laughed at cripples and hunchbacks. They tormented lunatics and led blind men into walls. Wife beating was a routine way of maintaining order within marriage—"an honest Englishman hates his wife" went the catchphrase. Types of violence that would now count as rape were almost mainstream sexual behaviors. Social hierarchies were part of God's plan, and those less favored were habitual figures of fun. Gentlement beat their servants and scoffed at the hungry peasants who crouched along the road outside very major town.  Yet social equals were no more likely to sympathize. Useless old women, village idiots, starving paupers, bastard bearers from the next parish—none of them attracted much sympathy from their own kind. Ridiculing and inflicting pain were everyday amusements, and powerful forces were defending them. Violence, intolerance, and schadenfreude were all tolerated as unavoidable side effects of British liberty, if not its very foundation.
Our own time features plenty of cruelty. Dickie, however, makes a strong case that on this measurement, at least, we've made some progress. (Similarly, I was shocked reading a scene in Little Dorrit last month in which Gowan, not a good man but far from a villain, reprimands his dog with. a blow to the head, then by striking him "severely with the heel of his boot, so that his mouth was presently bloody.")

By those standards, the casual racism I encountered in Charles Lamb's Day Book is nothing but a phrase—tossed off in a letter, barely the product of thought, far more an indication of the waters in which he swam than a personal deficiency. And even the staggering cruelty of Woolf's certainty in her diary is of its era—perhaps more bluntly expressed, but in keeping with a time when eugenics was on the march. Would we want to be judged in the future by the ways in which we reflect our own flawed society? Would we wish posterity to extend to us the forbearance of temporal understanding? We are inextricably of our time, even if we should, and, one hopes, do, try like hell to rise above it. (D. J. Enright: "It is not so much that one is out of sympathy with the age, it's the only age one has, as that the age is out of sympathy with itself. But then, the age is out of sympathy with itself.")

Yet the very reason we turn to artists in life is that we expect more. Not more in an explicitly moral sense, but more in the sense of seeing clearly—but the two are inextricable. As Iris Murdoch continually reminds us, seeing clearly is at the core of both morality and art. Is it strange that Woolf, wrapped up in the thinking of her time—and herself such a creature of the mind that she would struggle to conceive living with it damaged in a way that possibly limited thought—should fail to see the essential humanity of intellectally disabled people? No, not at all. But some people in her own time did. And we have come to expect more from her. She showed us, again and again, a mind of penetrating insight into human life and thought and being; she put that on the page like few others, in ways that remain thrilling a century later. Even her casual writing flashes with insight—the reason I was reading her journals in the first place was because they are full of memorable thoughts. So when she falls, it hurts.

What do we do with this kind of knowledge about artists? I don't have a prescription; this work of judgment is I believe fundamentally individual. When it comes to someone like Bill Cosby or Louis C.K., or in a different way Woody Allen, the answer is easy: I'm done. To enjoy their work required accepting a certain presentation of themselves and their worldview that was predicated on agreement that they were, while flawed, fundamentally good people. If they turn out to be, to varying degrees, monsters, that collapses completely.

Woolf and Lamb, on the other hand? It's more complicated. I'm not going to stop reading them, and I doubt I'll even stop admiring them, at least to a degree. There remains much to admire. And their work will, I am sure, continue to matter. But I will approach it with more skepticism. I'll question it more thoroughly. And, saddest of all, I'll wonder what might have been, had they been able to question themselves and their thinking more thoroughly. Art made by good people can be bad; art made by bad people can be good. But bad morality is usually rooted in a failure of understanding, and no art is ever the better for that.

Monday, February 03, 2020

The return of the sun . . . and this blog?




{Lake Michigan photo by rocketlass.}

While I am on the one hand very much a creature of moderation—regular schedule, regular life—at the same time, I am not someone who does things by half measures. I commit to the things I choose as undertakings. It's no accident that I've been working at the same place for nearly twenty-one years now, lived in Chicago longer than that, been married nearly that long.

Which is why I want to say up front: I may be back. I gave up blogging a few years ago around the same time the bulk of the Internet's attention turned away from it to the faster-paced, more ephemeral arms of social media. My reasons were more prosaic: I had taken up the piano in moderate seriousness, and that, combined with the time needed for a new dog and a slightly longer commute to a then-new home, ate up the time I had previously devoted to blogging. For a good long while, I didn't really miss it. I had the interactions with other book people that I wanted via Twitter. I got more diligent about landing writing assignments for other venues. Lately, however, I find myself missing it. The voice is different from other writing. The way of approaching and thinking about the books I read is different. The interaction with other readers is different.

So here I am. My aim, for now, is to post most weeks, most often (taking a page from Phil Christman's newsletter) on Sunday mornings. But it's possible that I will find myself failing to make the time even for that. It's possible I won't find the voice again. I'll assess around the end of the year. For now, however, I'm going to try.

I'll start modestly. Yesterday was essentially the first truly sunny day in Chicago this year, and, oh, did we feel it. It made the month-opening entry for February in The Daily Henry James, from The Princess Casamassima, seem well timed:
The winter was not over, but the spring had begun, and the smoky London air allowed the baffled citizens, by way of a change, to see through it. The town could refresh its recollections of the sky, and the sky could ascertain the geographical position of the town. The essential dimness of the low perspectives had by no means disappeared, but it had loosened its folds; it lingered as a blur of mist, interwoven with pretty suntints and faint transparencies. There was warmth an there was light, and a view of the shutters of shops, and the church bells were ringing.
Here in Chicago, the winter is much farther from over than it is for a Londoner. But yesterday felt like the first real step towards its banishment.

Thanks for reading. See y'all around these parts for a while, let's hope.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Thoreau at 200

If you follow me on Twitter, you'll know that I have been ecstatically excited for months now about a book I'm handling publicity for in my day job at the University of Chicago Press: Laura Dassow Walls's new definitive biography of Henry David Thoreau. I've been a Thoreau reader for years--since the publication of the one-volume edition of his journals by the NYRB Classics line a few years back, he's been an almost daily companion--but Laura's book showed me a depth and complexity, and an aliveness, that I didn't think possible. It's an incredible book. If you don't want to take my word for it, take a look at the roundup of praise I put together for the Press blog last week on Thoreau's bicentennial.("Superb," "compelling," "a great service to American letters," "remarkable," "engaging," "every page feels essential," and so on . . . )

This all sent me back to Walden for the first time since I was 19. I knew from having read Laura's insightful chapter on it that it was a more heterogeneous, more strange book than I recalled or than its general reputation might have it, but I still wasn't prepared: it's nothing like a straightforward account of time in the woods. If it were published today, it would be structured carefully, from his decision to set out on this experiment through the moment he returned home, and its observations would be carefully arranged, themes and larger points drawn through the book in a way to maximize their impact.

Instead, it's a grab-bag of Thoreau's thoughts. It's more like reading his journal than I expected. He opens with the idea of moving to the woods, then immediately veers off into extended thoughts on other related topics. It's about 40 pages before he gets back to the details of his experiment in living--and then almost immediately he veers off again. Like everything he wrote, it is driven by his broad and intense interests, by what's engaging him at a particular moment--and, ultimately and most importantly, by his keenly observing eye. He never merely looked at the world: he looked closely, and thought about the meaning and importance of what he saw.

A century and a half after publication, many of Walden's phrases are familiar, repeated so much that they've become barnacled unto cliche. But if you can even briefly see some of them fresh, their power--both of ideas and of phrasing, is undeniable. I'll leave you with one from late in the book. Try to see it as if you've not known these lines before; see if you feel the thrill I did.

I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less comples, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
Happy summer, folks.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

My mysterious Texan correspondent

After a ridiculously long hiatus (which I'm tempted to explain in sub-Nabokovian style: work, summer), how 'bout I try to ease ever so gently back into this blogging thing?

I've received another missive from my anonymous occasional postcard correspondent from Texas. This one seems to have been inspired by the postcard itself, a scene of colonial punishment that led to thoughts of Sir Magnus Donners. Donners, a major minor character (if you'll allow it) in A Dance to the Music of Time, is known in gossip circles for having unusual sexual tastes--ill-defined, perhaps, but thought to include various forms of domination and bondage. Which gives the moment quoted on the reverse of the postcard, which occurs during a tour of Donners's country house, Stourwater, a frisson of light discomfort.





Always a pleasure to hear from Texas in this fashion. And to receive a missive that clarifies that it's dated according to the New Style.