Avedon’s vision

bernsein by avedon

So check this out, which I’d somehow not seen before: a Richard Avedon portrait of Leonard Bernstein (from a New Yorker article just posted on 10 Sept 2018). It is far from Avedon’s greatest portrait but it has certain technical and emotional and spiritual elements visible in it that demonstrate why, for me at least, Avedon was the greatest photographic portraitist I know of. Note the energy of the photograph, which arises from, or is promoted by, certain technical qualities–how his hair just touches the top of the frame, dark against white, and his left hand, white against dark, just touches the bottom. It’s instructive to draw an imaginary line between those two points. Note the angled line of the right (his right) side of his face, his upper arm, his right index finger; paralleled on the left, almost, by his forearm and, neatly, by the bottom of his left hand. Avedon was unmatched at seeing and dramatizing, extremely sometimes, some essence in his subjects that you recognize instantly as their essences. Note how the picture is off-center–you can see that Bernstein is actually moving, the picture has that movement in it, he is moving toward the center; his hips show that his right legs is further forward than his left. I’d venture (without getting up to check) that the pictures that Avedon took of people who stayed still — whom he had stay still — are militantly centered. Bernstein was about movement. You don’t plan these these things, you don’t tell Bernstein to move his hand into a certain line, no. You develop an internal instrument that sees these elements, that knows when to push the button, that knows looking at the proofs which pictures are doing what they need to do. And if you have Avedon’s instrument, you find the picture that does more than it needs to do; you find the picture that is transcendentally human and true. As with beer, and Bach, and many other complex and near-perfect things, I didn’t like Avedon when I was younger. He doesn’t feed one’s immediate reward centers, visually; or he didn’t mine. It took years of looking at pictures for me to learn how great he is.

WTF write, I want to know.

Saw an author photo in the Times Book Review. Two days ago, and already I’ve forgotten the book and the author’s name. But not the photo. So square-jawed a pose, so perfectly lit.

It’s funny, the efforts that are made, in certain cases, to make writers looks glamorous and sexually potent in their author photos. Money is spent on this either by the authors themselves or, if by the publishers, only for the young and good-looking who have gotten big contracts—contracts of a certain magnitude offered at times because the author is young and good-looking. This is one of the fantasies that keeps literary trade publishing going, when corporate oversight should force its elimination. Glamorous author photos fit into the same category of senselessness where most literary book marketing resides (look at the blurb quotes on the front coversyou wonder, is this supposed to induce someone to buy the book? Do the folks in sales and marketing really believe that, or is the quote placed there in fulfillment of some sort of required literary trade publishing kabuki gesture, as in it’s not a book if there’s no line in that space at that moment?)

These efforts become funny when you know that the whole enterprise is so hopeless, and, more important, that its hopelessness is its most powerful attribute … which is to say, the very best work is written because it must be written, and minimally (or not for long) for other reasons, such as vanity or those of commingled desires for fame, money and sexual conquest.

Anyone (such as I) who has held on to literary magazines and clipped stories and the like, not to mention novels, for decades—gather around you now just a handful of these, say a dozen, and note all the work—and, yes, it’s work—that no one heard of at the time, no one heard of after, and no one ever will hear of. There is an enormous daily flow of pre-forgotten literature in the land—even now when no one, including a good many of the writers, reads more than 350 words at a time. (I wonder how many writers now read, at length and carefully, only themselves?) Still the stuff rides in on every curling wave, ocean-tangled strings of language.

So a sane person might ask why do we do it … That is, why do we continue to produce and try to publish the stuff? As far as I can tell, the answers are, first, for the beauty of it when it’s right. Then, for the flame it might ignite in someone else’s imagination, for the new open space it might make in their language—in a larger sense, as the man once said, to purify the language of the tribe. And for the electric connection. We’re baby Zeus, running around fervent, tossing our toy thunder bolts.

(Unfinished—I will add to these thoughts as I have time and spirit.)

… he gazed at her steadily

From the library I’ve taken four books by Rachel Cusk: first the memoir, Aftermath, which I loved the brutality of; and now the trilogy of novels culminating in Kudos, which I’m reading first, out of order.

I’m excited by Cusk’s work, by her particular form of literary ambition, which is to alter and undermine the narrative expectations we bring to fiction, to do in English what Thomas Bernhard and Max Frisch and Ingeborg Bachmann long ago did in German, what Natalia Guinzberg did two generations ago in Italian and what Annie Ernaux has been doing for a long time in French–to replace story with person I suppose is the easiest way to describe it. To rely for the reading momentum not on incidents or the hope of change or plot clues strung along like hints in a treasure hunt but on the power of the human voice in describing a certain reality, a reality that might well be static or dotted with events that do not relate and lead to no coherent conclusions. There are, obviously, many other authors of the more innovative type besides those named, even authors in English. Nathanael West comes to mind; so does Evan Connell. But the post-Edwardian, lyrical-realist novel, in English far more than in the other major languages devoted to the form, hangs on like a bad cold that’s gotten into the chest and lingered.  English-speaking book buyers like such novels, they expect them; such books sell, they rarely challenge anyone unduly, and they often convert quite nicely to our preferred narrative format, film. But–the more comfortable we are with such narrative modes, the more interesting it is to see them assaulted.

Unfortunately Cusk shares a disease prevalent in British fiction, one that weakens her attack. Like a host of others, she sees nothing wrong with using the most hoary and feeble conventions of narrative gesture. Such as the one, taken from late in Kudos, that I copied over as a title for this post.

           … he gazed at her steadily. 

Why, at this late date, type this phrase? If you must tell us that someone gazed at someone else, if it means something, if it’s important, then write it to say how it matters. “He looked at her with some intent that held her eyes and unnerved her, left her uncertain whether she was seeing anger or desire or, as so often happens, the coincidence of both.” Or: “The way he looked at her, eyes full of entreaty, bored her; men had been looking at her that way since she was twelve.” Or or or… The standard version is, make no mistake, typing: it’s not creating, it’s not writing, it’s not in the least presenting a challenge to each sentence to be necessary as well as true. It’s the use of the keyboard to insert pre-cut slabs of wood into the structure to hold it aloft. The great challenge of writing prose, the most exhausting challenge in it, is to make each sentence matter. No filler. No shrugs and sighs and smiles and frowns that don’t matter in the highest and most intense meaning of that word. The phrase he gazed at her steadily is not one that needs to exist. And if it doesn’t need to exist we shouldn’t write it.

Of course we will write it anyway. Who the hell is strong enough to put in several hours per day producing sentences or trying to produce them while shutting out all the noise our junk-saturated brains throw up at us. So such phrases do slip in. But then the job is to catch that shit, as does the sieve at the water treatment plant, before it makes into the next stage of the work, or worse, as here, into the final stage, which ought be a cool and limpid glass of water, bright with necessity.

I’m going on with the Cusk–she’s that interesting, still. But such sentences, now that I’m sixty and have been at the job for a long time, usually assassinate any desire to keep reading the work before me. It’s like having to ride in an elevator with someone who’s used a deodorant concocted to smell like a days-old sweaty shirt. Why would you do that? Who would  buy such a product and use it? Only a writer, apparently.

On Philip Roth

One reason, admire him or no, that he is so large in our thinking, in our imagined landscape of American literature, is that he worked very, very hard to be just that large, if not larger. Man, did he work hard. Not just at the typewriter, though he was famous for that. He worked hard at his career.  He was dedicated to that presence as part of his professional life in ways that most of his cohort were not, at least not so fully: not DeLillo, nor Didion, nor Doctorow, nor even Updike for all Updike’s vanity. Before him, Bellow was thus dedicated; so was Mailer. So was, in her New Yorkish way, Susan Sontag, but Sontag was more public intellectual than artist. You might accuse James Baldwin of that kind of ambition but I think you’d be wrong; I think Baldwin’s role was thrust upon him by history. Harold Brodkey would have liked to be that large but he couldn’t bear the exposure to others required in the process. Other people, so crucial to public life, were far too much–horrifyingly–not like himself.

Philip Roth’s death last evening feels like a blow. I’m saddened by it, but at the same time I’m having trouble formulating my thoughts on him; I’ve always had that trouble, though I reviewed his books a few times. I spent my early years not liking him and not liking what I thought he stood for (a naive notion, for what Roth stood for is a topic of continuing interest and mystery). Young and starting out I had looked at Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint and I felt I was being written at; that it was schtick. It still annoys me to see described or alluded to The Breast. I love schtick more than most people but almost never between the cloth and board covers of what purports to be literature. (Also interesting to consider: I’d grown up a Catholic boy in Great Neck, a Rothian milieu; minus perhaps The Breast these were stories I felt I knew already and wanted to escape from; I had moved on–to the Upper West Side, don’t you know.)

Then at age twenty-nine I went to graduate school, and the wise critic, novelist and teacher of literature Robert Towers assigned The Ghost Writer, published six or seven years before; and this, to me, was a book I admired from the first, and grew to admire more and more as time passed. And it turned out that I liked everything of Roth’s that I read thereafter.  The stretch of five novels in eight years, beginning with Operation Shylock in 1993 and culminating with The Human Stain in 2000, are all long drives, deep in the hole or out of the park. But I didn’t read all his books (I just counted, there are twenty-seven novels of which I read ten) and didn’t feel compelled, ever, to read him. A more personal measure of what a writer means to me, utterly idiosyncratic but, for me, quite reliable, is that I can’t quote a line from Roth; I can’t even feel the meter of his prose. I can feel, first, his intelligence: it was present in every line. I can feel his characters, his situations, which were vivid and compelling; he really is a writer of brilliant situations. But I have never internalized the sentences, which were always perfect but rarely beautiful. He was always himself in the most insistent way—you never didn’t feel the force of his personality, but it wasn’t clear what he wanted, what his sustenance was, what drove him (besides, as he joked more than once, all that he hated). The only time I felt in touch with his deepest self was in reading  Patrimony, his memoir of his father, which is a lovely, tender book, and similarly in the Newark/family scenes in The Plot Against America. That’s where his heart resided–but a good deal of his fiction was not about that, so, frequently, it felt as if his heart was not really in his fiction.

There used to be a saying in baseball, not used much anymore: all field, no hit, describing the perennial utility infielder, great defensively but never more than .235 hitter. Roth was all hit, no field. The nuances and filaments of human consciousness, the tissue of relations, as Henry James called it, among people and between people and the world around them was not his bag. He was not delicate. He had an imagination, a fine and colorful one, and he brought it to bear powerfully and deftly upon his experience and his ideas,  and wrote it down as well as anyone could ever write it down. He was unfailingly funny, and about the larger patterns of American culture he was usually accurate, if not always right; those patterns were almost always a presence in his books. He found a good deal of imaginative fodder in the idiocies of lust and it could be said that he opened that terrain to serious writers in a way no other writer of his generation could lay claim to.

And he worked insanely hard. Generally speaking the more hours you spend writing the better you will be at it, and no one spent more hours at it than he did. By the middle of his career, he was flawless. (Unless you count the limitations of one’s vision–all that one does not see and does not address–a flaw in art. I do not, as long as what the artist does see is compelling and true, as long as it is personal, authentic, and necessary. Almost everything Roth ever wrote was that.)

Actually, I fibbed–there is one line of Roth’s that I remember, that I can quote, from Everyman, one of his small, later books that I liked a lot (some portions of that book, in fact, are uncharacteristically  Jamesian: they tremble). The line was one he would amplify as the years gained on him: “Old age is not a battleground; old age is a massacre.”

I wonder if anyone — any writer, that is — will ever work that hard again to occupy our attention and our imaginations. And succeed.


My abrupt departure

For those who know to look for me here, a word explaining my disappearance from Facebook. I deactivated my account today because I cannot stand the corporation that owns it (and, in the dynamic of its possession of our ‘content’, us). I do not believe that corporation has the best interests of its clients in mind, i is duplicitous and exploitative, I think it colludes with governments and other corporations for purposes of surreptitious influence and control, etc etc etc. I took the leap without preliminaries because I knew that if I tried to make some speech about it I’d never do it. So here I am. You can find me here, and on Twitter @passerpiccolo, and via my email which is widely available. If you reverse my names and attach that info to the name of a giant corporation that has PROMISED not be evil, but now clearly is, you’ll have it. Apologies to anyone–I really mean it–who might have been inconvenienced or upset by my departure or the disappearance of stuff I might have written in threads you are involved in. Love and peace and, when we’re ready for it, a little joy as well. Because what could it hurt.

In Memoriam: Isabel Quintanilla 1938-2017

In the summer of 1985 I happened upon an exhibition of little note at the Hirshhorn Gallery in Washington, called “Representation Abroad”. The idea of “representation” was hardly a presence in major art circles in the United States (though it would become so later) and it has never been clear to me why this exhibition even took place—-recognition of a frail new figurative movement in Europe that seemed to have no influence here whatsoever. But in it I discovered a small group of artists from Spain who constituted a movement called “Realismo Español” —-Spanish Realism. The papa bear of this group was Antonio López-García but the artist whose work froze me in place was a disciple of his, named Isabel Quintanilla.

I don’t know that Quintanilla’s work was shown in the United States again; not in any major show that I was ever aware of. Intermittently I have searched for it—-longed for it, nearly—-wishing I could see roomsful of her simple moments, her carefully framed domestic scenes, with their gorgeous, perfect light. None of the art people I knew at the time considered this to be important work. But it was important to me. And seeking her out yet one more time, just yesterday, online, I discovered that she died in October, at the age of 79. So, first, doña Isabel: Requiascat in pace.

I looked at web images of her work for a good while yesterday (there aren’t that many of them posted to look at, see links below), and all these years later, encountering these images once again, I think I finally have some idea why they mattered so much to me. I knew even then that what she was doing with oil on canvas was something I wanted to do as  writer of fiction, a vocation I was just beginning to undertake; I wanted, as she did, to get common things so exactly right that you—-the viewer, the reader, either or both—-see them completely anew, see them as redefined and, more than that, glorified, glorified in the exactness of the loyalty the artist has given to their truth. Such work is a form of prayer, I think. What moved me in Quintanilla’s work, I can now see, was the force of an artist’s love for the physical world. The real force of the love it revealed: as in, I love this moment, this normal, mundane, kitchen-reality, this life, so much I will dedicate hours, and every bit of craft I have painfully acquired, to its representation. To see the paintings, especially live, as I got to see four or five of them, allows you to feel Quintanilla’s devotion to reality as she labored to perceive it. The paintings are—-some would say to a fault, I suppose—-flawless.

Sometime in my undergraduate years I read an essay by Lionel Trilling, an introduction he’d written for a particular edition of Anna Karenina. I was very affected by this piece: indeed, as with Quintanilla’s work, I never forgot it and long associated it with my own inclinations and development. In it Trilling wrote that Tolstoy’s great strength as a writer, his unmatchable achievement, resided in his love for his characters. I came to think, eventually, that there is no way to do ‘realism’ in fiction of any importance without something close to this Tolstoyan love. For more modern approaches, that relationship of author to created persons, scenes, circumstances is not a necessity, but in realism it is. Otherwise, why bother? This is why, for instance, I have never been a fan of the longer fiction of John Updike or any that I’ve found so far of Saul Bellow: I don’t think they like people much. I think they like their own sentences, their own ability to describe reality, but the people in those sentences, those realities, not so much. Updike has a humanity (by which I mean a tenderness) in his short stories sometimes that is not to be found in any of his novels that I’ve tried. I’d go so far as to say, Tolstoy aside, the kind of precision of effect that Quintanilla’s work suggests can better be matched in short fiction than in long. In long fiction there is so much furniture to move around, so many bills to pay, one loses touch with the quality of the light, as it were.

This love and devotion for a perceived reality is an idiosyncratic critical principle. I don’t mean to claim it as comprehensive or even, for anyone but me, useful. It’s not easy to resist infusing it with one or another unnatural form of style, and too much style applied to such subject matter, to the essence of lived reality, to felt life, would lead quickly to sentimentality and myth (think, everything that Hemingway wrote after 1930 or so…). Of course the realism itself you might call a ‘style’ but you’d be hard pressed in Quintanilla’s case to attach it to any but the most pious and selfless kind of artist. It is suffused with humility, and the pleasure to be discovered in the basic truth of this vision is overwhelming. I still remember standing there, thirty-odd years ago, galvanized. /#

http://www.artelibre.net/autor/5772 (Linked here with gratitude: that’s the site from which I lifted the images shown above…)



Kill Your Acknowledgements Page

Just yesterday I was recollecting how my agent chided me, after my first book came out, that I hadn’t expressed in it my gratitude to my editor, who had waited a long time for me to finish the book, it’s true, but who, I assume, found other things to occupy himself in that interim of years. Didn’t he get paid to do this work? I said. He makes more in a year than I’ll ever make from this book. I’ll happily take my thanks in cash, won’t he? She just shook her head. Of course implicit in the conversation was the fact that I should have thanked her too, another matter altogether, in that having left a big agency and gone indie during those years, she did not in fact get paid for whatever she later did for the book. Anyway the memory brought back to me a matter that’s been caught up among the graying hairs on my breastbone for years and years now, and that finally I wish to remove therefrom (see under “My chest, getting things off of” ).

I wish to speak of the “Acknowledgements” page that frequently appears in literary works, in works of the imagination, i.e., fiction, poetry, etc* — please, fellow writers, drop it. Do any of our actually great novelists/poets do these pages? Can you imagine Philip Roth doing one? Don DeLillo? Louise Erdrich? (Actually I should check Erdrich; I haven’t read enough of her books to feel I really know her.) The acknowledgements page as current fashion presents it to us essentially is a display of the author’s social life or social network as such has touched on her working life; it’s a not very subtle form of bragging, in other words, and, even when such a page manages against all odds to avoid seeming so, it still shouldn’t be in the book, especially at the outset, where the author is thanking his lineup of connections before (in the reader’s mind) he’s actually accomplished anything.

What’s at stake here is the reader’s connection to the text — her intimacy with the voice of the work should not be broken or burdened with this material, this alien ‘Saturday voice’ of the writer, whether at front or back. After you make love to someone you’ve much desired — or, if you prefer, fucked that person, we hope very well — you don’t sit up and declare, “First, I’d like to thank my father and mother — from your pain, I sought respite here. To Bobby Durrell — you know why. My first wife Laura taught me so much, thank you, Laura. To my kids: you also were here with me tonight but fortunately for you, you didn’t know it. Finally, to all the women and men who’ve played a part, all the way back to the days of stolen cans of Schlitz turned half-warm in Cicely’s basement, you will never know what my heart owes to all of you, and how large it has grown so that it can joyfully hold you in it.” 

The chirpy claptrap of most acknowledgement pages practically erases the hard won authority of the text.  This authority resides, from the opening lines of the book to its final word, in our acquiescence to the necessity of the existence of this language, this story, this voice speaking low and urgent in our ear. The kind of necessity I’m speaking of is, for me, the indisputable measure, or almost indisputable measure, of greatness in art.

Yes, it’s true, other people do help us. Often, they love us and, boy, do we need it. Send each of them a NOTE. Make it beautiful and true. The reader should not be involved. It doesn’t matter to him and it shouldn’t matter to the people who’ve helped us that we have or have not blared their names at said reader, who will in any case almost instantly forget them.



* Please note I do not mean to include in this denunciation those works of nonfiction to which so many people professionally contribute and in which such people should indeed be named. I also don’t mind when I get to the end of a crime novel, say, to see thanked the specialists who (again, as a professional act of generosity) assisted the author on technical matters. But in a work of art? All the readers of my Wednesday writing group? My agent’s assistant? The publicist? My dad? My spouse? My dog? My cousin Elroy? Clara the robot? No.

MORE POLICE! to protect us from all the cowards

First of all, to rent a van and drive it into pedestrians and bike riders and collide with a school bus and run out of the van into the street waving a pellet and a paintball gun so you get shot by the police, likely to be killed but miraculously not, is a horrifying and cruel and insane action and you can accurately characterize it in many, many other negative ways — but to call it “cowardly” is idiotic. Every politician marches this word out when there’s an attack and every one of them knows he or she is lying. If you think it’s so cowardly go try it. I’m baffled why we think this word is necessary — I don’t understand how it actually makes people feel better. Somebody mugs me, shoots me, knifes me, runs me down, I don’t think, well, he’s a coward. He should have what? Argued with me? Challenged me to a duel?

Second: I’m listening to the press conference in NYC now; the Mayor and Governor, after deploying their “coward” and “cowardly” charges, are sanctifying, as with a Lenten litany, the MANY agencies of security and police that were called in to action yesterday to deal with the emergency and to investigate it in its aftermath. This is a core ritual of the Holy Church of Security; each invocation increases the power of these agencies, makes them unassailable politically and thereby solidifies the power of the state.

Meanwhile, in related world news, the French yesterday rendered as permanent the powers of policing that were instituted temporarily two years ago there, in the form of measures taken to address “a state of emergency”. We did this, in the US, with Patriot Act renewals (carrying huge majorities in both houses) in 2006, 2011, and 2015, creating permanent security apparatuses out of a host of measures taken and authorized originally, and in a high emotional state, as TEMPORARY. So remember, always remember — these powers are NEVER TEMPORARY. The modern state, granted a new licit power, will NEVER relinquish it. What has happened in the United States since 9/11 is the relentless creation of a police state– at the local level, where the number of homicides by police have risen exponentially, killing few enemies of the United States but many poor people; at the state level where large state police forces (and many urban ones too) have been provided weapons of war by the Department of Defense, weapons which in such hands can ONLY be deployed against our own citizens; and nationally, where no form of surveillance seems to be outside the authority of the national security agencies, and where we have essentially invisible and unregulated prisons from which people can never be released as well as dozens more “high security” prisons in which people are routinely brutalized and isolated, which is another way of saying tortured.

So — did those cowardly terrorists of 9/11 fail to destroy us? It appears not.

To a dear friend burdened with regret

It made me so happy today, if happy is a word that can be applied to how one feels walking out of the funeral service of a friend, who died too young, a beautiful man, to find you, to see your face after all these years, another beautiful man. How often I have thought of you, remembered you, remembered your kindness to me during the period when my mother was dying and then died, what a total pain in the ass I was. You were amazingly patient, more patient than almost anyone else could have been. I clung to you, I clung to your life, I clung to your living of your life, because yours looked so much better than mine, so much more to be desired, and because whatever mine was I certainly did not know how to occupy it with any grace or ease, as you did yours.

But now it is clear you are sad about your own life. You had no children, never married, said you’d partied through the main years when you were working. You had—in facing all these old school friends I suppose—an air of embarrassment and sadness about your life. You said, when we were joking about hair (we noticed your head had no bald spot) you said, well, you might have a lot of stuff on the outside of your head but not enough stuff on the inside. That particularly was a blade to the heart: you realize, of course you must, that anyone who actually had little going on inside his head, anyone who had no sense of language, metaphor, and wit, would have been incapable of making the joke.

Perhaps you fucked up in life. I have no idea. What constitutes fucking up, really? To the degree I know what fucking up is I know I did plenty of it—in a number of ways that have me dreaming guilty dreams at night (last night, in fact). But I can assert this much, for certain, though I haven’t seen you in nearly four decades—there is nothing more miserable than a miserable old age and our regrets will drown us. Drown us. To get rid of the regret is like ploughing the sea, a seemingly hopeless task. But we have to do it. It’s time to drive back the regrets. I do battle with them every day, and I’ve come to see them as a form of vanity: as if our lives were so important in the scheme of the cosmos that our supposed failures at them actually mattered. We still have bodies to live in, relatively healthy ones, thank God, or thank whatever forces of the universe see to these matters. Because what is left for us now but the joy of others and the joy of the moments we recognize, moments of beauty and truth and life, such as the funeral today, with 150 firefighters in full dress uniform there to honor a man, and with his wife, his daughter, his friends expressing not only their grief but their pride in sharing their lives with that man; those moments of authentic experience in which the world, gorgeous and uncaring, turns no matter what we do, no matter how we might have fucked up, and people continue to love each other, and continue to love us. These years we have left, these days, these hours, are beautiful and they are small miracles. What makes them so pleasurable in a way is that we know so much more than we once did; we can see so much more, we understand so much more. And we accept so much more, fighting off so much less. This acceptance, and this seeing and understanding, fill the moments as they pass, make them larger, make them last longer, if we allow it to happen.

It requires great bravery to forgive oneself: it’s an outlandish act—for who are we, to declare ourselves forgiven? But we must insist on it. I’m trying to do it, I’m trying to make myself stronger physically and more capable of simple joy. I’m trying to let go of years and years of stress and self-punishment and self-neglect. I don’t see anything else that will redeem these last decades that we might be given—that we hope we’re given. (I mean, money would help, if only a little; but that’s apparently not (so far) part of the universe’s plans for me and I’m pretty clear on why. It’s something I chose and I shall have to live with, and just smile at my foolish ways. I wanted to believe in a different kind of world than the one I was living in.)

You are a beautiful human being. You always have been. When we were young, you were full of mischief at times; also incredibly hard working and in my experience always noticeably good at whatever you were doing, often the best. You had from early on a sense of pleasure, physical pleasure, in work and in play and in other realms, a sense of pleasure denied to many of us Catholic boys, your brethren. God didn’t invent such feelings for nothing. I will always think of you as one of the people who contributed, mightily and blessedly, to my survival; for that I am grateful beyond what I can say. I am sure there are others like me. I am certain of it. Love yourself. It’s the hardest thing we’re asked to do, finally, to love ourselves, we know ourselves too well, know our weaknesses and failures to the point of illness. But that’s the request. I am saying all of this more for me—in truth, much more—as I am saying it for you. If I can say it and mean it as I do mean it, for your sake, then how can I deny it for mine? Indeed it occurs to me that seeing you today has given me the opportunity to write these thoughts down so that they will live in me, and I will better remember them. So look—there—you’ve done it again, by being yourself, honestly, authentically yourself, you’ve helped me to save myself. There are some ugly, nasty, hurtful, vile people out in the world. Celebrate how well you’ve done—how spectacularly well—at not being one of them. Enjoy the future, imagine some days at the beach, imagine some days in the mountains. Take deep, deep breaths of the present. The past sits in each of our houses like a large book—we all get our special edition—full of colorful tales; concentrate when looking through it at the beauty of your presence and the power of your endurance.

Know that you are loved, and not for no reason.

Abbreviated thoughts on John Ashbery, James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy and the influence of Henry James.

Recently I became a subscriber to The Library of America, which I was once before, long ago in a different life; and as a result three new “free gift” books arrived the other day. John Ashbury’s Collected Poems, 1956-1987; James Baldwin’s Collected Essays; and Mary McCarthy’s early fiction, Novels & Stories 1942-1963.  Having been woken up, by my nervous child, shortly after getting to sleep, I end up sitting at the dining room table with the new books, peeling from them their shrink wrap, jiggling them out of their white slipcases (subscribers get the books not in their paper jackets but in this sturdy white cardboard boxes, which I love and which played some role in my re-subscribing).

Two of them, Baldwin and McCarthy, I opened and read from at random. The Ashbury I went searching through, seeking a particular set of lines I remember hearing him read almost forty years ago. Which set of lines eventually I found. So here are the three passages I read — first the Ashbury, then Baldwin, then McCarthy:

From “The System”, Three Poems, 1972—

These ample digressions of yours have carried you ahead to a distant and seemingly remote place, and it is here that you stop to give emphasis to all the way you have traveled and to your present silence. And it is here that I am quite ready to admit that I am alone, that the film I have been watching all this time may be only a mirror, with all the characters including that of the old aunt played by me in different disguises. If you need a certain vitality you can only supply it yourself, or there comes a point, anyway, when no one’s actions but your own seem dramatically convincing and justifiable in the plot that the number of your days concocts.


From “Stranger in the Village”, Notes of a Native Son, 1955—

 And this [strangeness, separateness] is so despite everything I may do to feel differently, despite my friendly conversations with the bistro owner’s wife, despite their three-year-old son who has at last become my friend, despite the saluts and bonsoirs which I exchange with people as I walk, despite the fact that I know that no individual can be taken to task for what history is doing, or has done. I say that the culture of these people controls me — but they can scarcely be held responsible for European culture. America comes out of Europe, but these people have never seen America, nor have most of them seen more of Europe than the hamlet at the foot of their mountain. Yet they move with an authority that I shall never have; and they regard me, quite rightly, not only as a stranger in their village but as a suspect latecomer, bearing no credentials, to everything they have — however unconsciously — inherited.

 For this village, even were it incomparably more remote and incredibly more primitive, is the West, the West onto which I have been so strangely grafted. These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modern world, in effect, even if they do not know it. The most illiterate among them is related, in a way that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me, as indeed would New York’s Empire State Building, should anyone here ever see it. Out of their hymns and dances come Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few centuries and they are in their full glory — but I am in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive.


From Groves of Academe, 1952 — (The Mulcaheys chaperone a student dance.)

[Catherine Mulcahey] wore her wedding-dress, a white satin and net concoction with a short train; crystal drops sparkled at her ears; lipstick outlined her thin lips; and the pale, somewhat watery blue of her eyes, the sharp cut of her nose, which ordinarily had a secretarial quiver, were lustered and softened with excitement and a heightened sexual aplomb. “Doesn’t Mrs. Mulcahey look beautiful?” the girls cried to their escorts, identifying Catherine’s triumph over four children, housekeeping, and poverty with their own trepidant emergence from the chrysalis of slacks and blue jeans, with the innocent magic of parties, rouge, low dresses, music, with everything silky, shining, glossy, transfigured, and yet everyday and serviceable, like a spool of mercerized cotton or a pair of transparent nylons reinforced at heel and toe.

So I’m dwelling on these three quotes, actually loving these two randomly and one almost randomly arrived-at quotes, when I start doing that thing readers of my generation were taught by our philologically-inclined college faculty to do: comparing, weighing, placing into boxes and labeling. And what then do I see — I see Henry James. I hear Henry James, more accurately; his voice is detectable in all three passages: “ … it is here that you stop to give emphasis to all the way you have traveled and to your present silence”; “…this village, even were it incomparably more remote and incredibly more primitive, is the West, the West onto which I have been so strangely grafted”; “… identifying Catherine’s triumph over four children, housekeeping, and poverty with their own trepidant emergence from the chrysalis of slacks and blue jeans, with the innocent magic of parties, rouge. low dresses, music, with everything silky, shining, glossy, transfigured …”. They resemble James in that order, too: Ashbury the least, Baldwin considerably more, McCarthy, by a hair over Baldwin, the most. McCarthy was close to a number of critics who were key figures in the Henry James ‘revival’, a kind of James mania among literary figures of the mid-twentieth century in the U.S. — a smaller phenomenon than the Roman Catholic mania among writers and intellectuals of that time but with longer lasting effects on our literature, I suspect.