Sunday, November 01, 2020

Haunting the autumn

Chicago closed its lakefront parks in mid-March, after an unseasonably warm day brought crowds of a size that was worrisome at that early stage of the pandemic. When the park reopened in June, one thing I noticed immediately was the disappearance of a number of familiar desire paths, those "paths and tracks made over time by the wishes and feet of walkers, especially those paths that run contrary to design or planning," as Robert Macfarlane puts it. With no feet to follow what Macfarlane calls their "free-will ways," the grass had reestablished dominance, obscuring the scars of human activity. 

By the end of the summer, most of them had returned. One, however, which has been a part of my running route for two decades, turned out, unexpectedly, to be an expression, it seems, of my desire alone. That's it below. Three months of treading it every other day, once in each direction, had just enough effect to make it barely legible. To the extent that you can pick it out, you're seeing an image of my devotion to habit.

There's so little to us when we're young. There was a time around age eighteen when I viewed, and presented, the fact that I was a Van Morrison fan as a salient aspect of my self. We have so little experience, have made so few lasting decisions, and the core elements that are likely to lastnamely, our relation to our family and the specific ways in which they've set us spinning and launched us into the worldare the part we're least likely to see the value of attending to or foregrounding at that age. It's no wonder we build a carapace of tastes and likes and call it a self. 

If we're fortunate, over time we outgrow that shell, and while we retain bits of itI'm still a Van Morrison fanthose become attributes rather than essence. (If we're not fortunate, we become one of those people screaming online about the need to release the Snyder Cut.) That fact, as much as a belief in the inherent dishonesty and toxicity of nostalgia, is what keeps me from pining for youth. I recognize the me of that era; I'm still keeping a number of the same desire paths visible through the undergrowth of adulthood. But the limits are so obvious, the center so ill-defined, that I can't imagine wanting to be back there. (When I read the Romantics, which I do with love, I nonetheless find myself, when I hit lines like this,

To spread a rapture in my very hair,

 -- O, the sweetness of the pain!

remembering when, age fifteen, I listened to Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" dozens of times on repeat, actively pushing myself to access some presumably deep, hitherto untapped, well of loss and pain.) 

Time builds the self that replaces the one we actively construct as teens. And it does so through accretion, less by way of active choices than by unthinking repetition. We make habits, then those habits make us. Samuel Johnson, one of our greatest thinkers about the good and the bad of the habitual, wrote in "The Vision of Theodore":

It was the peculiar artifice of Habit not to suffer her power to be felt at first. Those whom she led, she had the address of appearing only to attend, but was continually doubling her chains upon her companions; which were so slender in themselves, and so silently fastened, that while the attention was engaged by other objects, they were not easily perceived. Each link grew tighter as it had been longer worn, and when, by continual additions, they became so heavy as to be felt, they were very frequently too strong to be broken.
Habit is the stuff of adulthood, the organizing principle atop which is built the whole web of life and obligation that at times can feel inescapable, as Henry James notes in "The Great Good Place":

There was no footing on which a man who had ever liked life--liked it, at any rate, as he had--could now escape from it. he must reap as he had sown. It was a thing of meshes; he had simply gone to sleep under the net and had simply waked up there. The net was too fine; the cords crossed each other at spots so near togegther, making at each a little tight, hard knot that tired fingers, this morning, were too limp and too tender to touch.

Habit binds us, yes, but it also eases our passage through the world, freeing us from the risk of squirrel-like impulse or tharn-like terror. At the same time, however, it smooths the world's edges. Habit is the reason four years can pass in adulthood and leave little impression, whereas four years starting at fourteen remade our whole universe. 

The pandemic has thrown me more than ever back on habit. It was already my mode. Every morning, I think through how I'll organize the handful of things I do each day: Work, piano, dog walks, exercise. In normal times, however, that planning is frequently disrupted by outside events, activities as simple as going out to a movie or as complicated as a trip to Japan. Since March, however, the days have varied little. There's a comfort there, especially given how fortunate my family has been through all of this. But the risk of the deadening of impression is very strong. 

Autumn, therefore, came as a sort ofwell, salvation feels too dramatic. Correction, perhaps, is better. A distinct change in a way that the arrival of summer didn't present. As the shadows lengthened and the light slipped lower on the horizon and gained a golden tint (How much of our reaction to that light is atavistic, how much cultural?) I attended.

And here's where nostalgia comes into play. For years now at this season I have made a habit of reading ghost stories, tales of the weird or uncanny. It's the closest thing to a deliberate reversion to youth that I experience, and this year I finally figured out why it engages me. Even leaving aside my earlier caveats about our young selves, nostalgia is beset by the problem that the feelings of youth are hard to recapture, and even harder to re-create. Christmas morning will never again glow like it once did; first-day-of-school feelings are too dissimilar from what's evoked by the first day of a new job to re-emerge. But being scared? Oh, yes, that stays with us. And the sensorium of autumnso brilliantly evoked by Ray Bradbury,

October Country . . . that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and mid-nights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain. . . .

can still be potent enough to activate it in a way that is separate from our more mundane adult fears. 

Pressing deliberately on that feeling, opening myself up to the ways in which, to quote Mark Fisher in The Weird and the Eerie, "the domestic world does not coincide with itself," helps me to fully live in and engage with the season, to push back against habit ever so briefly. I may still be treading the same desire paths as always, but I'm not letting them pass underfoot without notice right now.

"Custom is commonly too strong for the most resolute resolver," writes Johnson, "though furnished for the assault with all the weapons of philosophy." The added weight of a pandemic, and its forced circumscription of life, adds to the challenge. Autumn, it turns out, is a more potent weapon than philosophy.

Winter, however, is wielded by the other side. And it's almost here.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Sumer is i-goin out


One of the very few notes of grace that has been vouchsafed us by this awful year is the position of Labor Day, which, perched as it is on the latest eligible day, allows us to retain summer, at least in a technical sense, as long as possible.


Summer comes, alleviating at least some of the strains of the spring, as it's always done, in times of plenty and times of plague.

Sing, cuccu, nu. Sing, cuccu.
Sing, cuccu. Sing, cuccu, nu.

Sumer is i-cumin in—
Lhude sing, cuccu!
Groweth sed and bloweth med
And springth the wude nu.
Sing, cuccu!

Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu,
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth—
Murie sing, cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu,
Wel singes thu, cuccu.
Ne swik thu naver nu!


As a rural kid who didn't see much of his friends from the end of one school year to the start of the next, I've always seen summer at least to some extent as a time of transformation. I'd return in late August to a school whose people and relationships had been wholly transformed by the sun and heat and absence of responsibility. It could be unsettling, but, as I got older and, through access to a car, could better maintain those connections, it also proved to be both beautifully seductive and largely false. At that age, the changes are real, but they're time's doing, not summer's. And if you're lucky, you're still you at the end of them. 

I feel for those kids who, in the summer of 2020, are being denied those experiences by the virus. You get only so many summers; the summer when you're sixteen you get only once.


Part of the allure of summer is its sense of promise, of immortality. On a sunny day in mid-June, who can believe that time can pass, that all this can end? Our appetite in May is vast--we will squeeze every bit of life out of this coming summer! August arrives, however, and some afternoons find us inside, artificial aids helping us hide from the heat. Summers blur and blend and disappear in memory, though some stand out, for reasons obvious and not. The summer when I read the whole run of Ben Grimm's short-lived solo comic, much of it somehow while sailing through the air on a frisbee swing. The summer I first went to YMCA camp, and the one when I last did. The summer when I was in England for a few days and got to experience the late-night golden-warm light and wee hours birdsong. The summer when we got Jenkins, and together he and I discovered the joys of long, aimless, quiet walks.

Time has been strange this year, but I did not let summer pass without heed this year. Wordsworth was regularly in my ear.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

This was our time to expand and experience. We won't forget the summer of 2020, in part because we'll need to draw on it to warm us through the fall and winter, as we're forced back indoors and away, once again, from loved ones. 

"When I think back to those days," one of W. G. Sebald's characters writes in The Emigrants, "I see shades of blue everywhere--a single empty space, stretching out into the twilight of late afternoon."


And then summer goes. Historically it's brought new tasks--harvest, canning, preparations for winter. We should take care this year to attend to that last task, in multiple ways. 

But it's also always brought a new beauty, explicitly evanescent in a way that summer's beauty hides. Here's John Clare:

The thistledown's flying, though the winds are all still,
On the green grass now lying, now mounting the hill,
The spring from the fountain now boils like a pot;  
Through stones past the counting it bubbles red-hot.

The ground parched and cracked is like overbaked bread,
The greensward all wracked is, bents dried up and dead.

The fallow fields glitter like water indeed,
And gossamers twitter, flung from weed unto weed.

Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun,
And the rivers we're eying burn to gold as they run;
Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air;
Whoever looks round sees Eternity there.

Autumn has long been my favorite season, its colors and chills and the way that baseball simultaneously winds down and intensifies. I'll love it once it's properly here. The river birch in our back garden, which in six weeks will be shimmering with golden leaves, would on its own be sufficient to fire that love. As would be the ghost stories native to October. The migrating birds, the marvel of which our homebound life this spring enabled us to experience in a wholly new way, will come through once again, and we'll get to share the grace of food and water with them. 

Canada geese, as if to prove a point, honked overhead amid this morning's quiet rain, stretching their wings on practice flights.


"The days were few then at Dunnett Landing," writes Sarah Orne Jewett in The Country of the Pointed Firs, one of the great summer books, "and I let each of them slip away unwillingly as a miser spends his coins. I wished to have one of my first weeks back again, with those long hours when nothing happened except the growth of herbs and the course of the sun. Once I had not even known where to go for a walk now there were many delightful things to be done and done again, as if I were in London. I felt hurried and full of pleasant engagements, and the days flew by like a handful of flowers flung to the sea wind."


The theme to the 1963 film Summer Holiday, performed by Cliff Richard, was a huge hit in the UK but never made an impression over here. I didn't know Richards's bouncy recording of it when I came across the song in a collection of fakebook arrangements and learned it on the piano, and I've always heard it with a hint of melancholy. An end-of-summer song rather than an early summer song.

Here's my so-so playing, if you want to hear it.

Summer Holiday from Levi stahl on Vimeo.


Thomas Hardy can see us out. This is "The Later Autumn."

Gone are the lovers, under the bush
Stretched at their ease;
Gone the bees,
Tangling themselves in your hair as they rush
On the line of your track,
Leg-laden, back
With a dip to their hive
In a prepossessed dive.

Toadsmeat is mangy, frosted, and sere;
Apples in grass
Crunch as we pass
And rot ere the men who make cyder appear.
Couch-fires abound
On fallows around,
And shades far extend
Like lives soon to end.

Spinning leaves join the remains shrunk and brown
Of last year's display
That lie wasting away,
On whose corpses they earlier as scorners gazed down
From their aery green height:
Now in the same plight
They huddle; while yon
A robin looks on.


Sunday, August 23, 2020

Retreating from everyday horror into fictional horror


 Hoo, boy, it's been a long time since I wrote, huh? Back in late January, when I restarted this blog after five years away, I said my hope was to write at least every couple of weeks. And I did it. Until the pandemic. And then . . . not much. The days keep sliding by--"August sipped away like a bottle of wine," as Taylor Swift puts it on her new record.

I've got the time. It's not that keeping me from writing. It's that everything we can say about pandemic life is already starting to harden into cliche. Yet at the same time simply writing, "Here's what I've been reading" also seems false, like a denial of the conditions of strange dread under which that reading occurred. 

That dread, though--it's brought me back here because yesterday I read a novel that took me wholly out of it for a while, substituting its own horrors for the ones around us. Stephen Graham Jones's The Only Good Indians is a horror novel that shocked and surprised and even all but scared me at a couple of points. I started it in the morning and simply tore through it.

The novel tells the story of four male friends, all American Indians from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, and the unexpected supernatural--or is it hyper-natural?--consequences of an incident ten years ago when they slaughtered some elk. To a genre that has long relied lazily on cursed Indian burial grounds and such, Jones brings the perspective of contemporary Native people, living in the twenty-first-century world while also engaging in different, often self-contradictory ways, with tradition.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the novel is the way Jones simply puts us into these people's lives. He doesn't over-explain or act as our guide--he simply shows what life is like for Indians living in or around a reservation today. That life is a lot like the lives of any Americans who are surrounded by poverty, deprivation, and disinvestment overlaid with racism. We're in a world of junk cars and hard-labor jobs and limited opportunity. But it's also a world, within the reservation at least, of long memory and familiar community. The young men mock the tribal stories they were told as children even as they tell and retell contemporary versions from their own lives. Jones takes that vexed relationship with tradition and makes of it something dramatic and compelling, unafraid to mix the quotidian contemporary and the elements of myth. There's a basketball game in this book played for life-and-death stakes against a not-wholly-human creature, for god's sake, and it works, both as Walter Tevis–style sporting event where we care about the moment-to-moment plays and as a full-on fight with death.

At this point, I should apologize: I didn't think I'd be writing about this book, because I haven't been writing, so I don't have the usual batch of passages to share. But this one, selected almost at random, will give you an idea of Jones's voice and of his easy way with the milieu:

Off-rez, people always used to default-think that Lewis and Gabe were brothers. Gabe, at six-two, had always been a touch taller, but otherwise, yeah, sure. In John Wayne's day Lewis and Gabe would have been scooped up to die in a hail of gunfire, would have been Indians "16" and "17," of fort. Cass, though? Cass would have been more the sitting-in-front-of-the-lodge type, the made-for-the-twentieth-century type, maybe even already wearing some early version of John Lennon shades. Ricky, he'd be Bluto from Popeye, just, darker; put him in front of a camera, and all he could hope to play would be the Indian thug off to the side, that nobody trusts to remember even half a line. Of Lewis and Gabe and Cass, though, he was the only one who could struggle out a sort-of beard, if he made it through the itchy part, and didn't have a girlfriend at the. "Custer in the woodpile" was the excuse he would always give, smoothing his rangy fourteen hairs down along his cheeks like Grizzly Adams.

At risk of sounding like the crime fiction reviewer who's only read Chandler and Hammett and thus compares everyone to them, there are definitely aspects of this book that called to mind Stephen King. The comfort with slang and multiple registers seen in the passage above, for example. Jones also shares with King the desire to have us to know almost every character who appears in the book; we're in and out of the heads of most of them at some point in an effectively kaleidoscopic way, and even those for which we're not granted that access are deftly, compactly sketched. What calls to mind King even more, though, is how well Jones depicts physical pain and endurance, and the strange alchemy of will and the body that enables people to keep going long after they should have given up. 

 That's where horror is at its best for me, when it reminds us that the one thing we have that the unfeeling world can't take away from us is our refusal to let it have its way. That is in a way a sentimental vision--eventually we all lose that contest, after all--but it's at the heart of what makes stories like these resonate and feel valuable, especially at a moment like now when our ability to exert our will on the world seems so limited.

If you're looking for a book to take you out of that world for a while even as it mixes its myths with truths about it, The Only Good Indians is waiting for you.

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

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.