Saturday, August 20, 2016

Americans and Venetians

A while ago, in Yeats's Autobiographies, I noticed the passage
In the Dublin National Gallery there hung, perhaps there still hang, upon the same wall, a portrait of some Venetian gentleman by Strozzi, and Mr. Sargent's painting of President Wilson. Whatever thought broods in the dark eyes of that Venetian gentleman has drawn its life from his whole body; it feeds upon it as the flame feeds upon the candle--and should that thought be changed, his pose would change, his very cloak would rustle, for his whole body thinks. President Wilson lives only in the eyes, which are steady and intent; the flesh about the mouth is dead, and the hands are dead, and the clothes suggest no movement of the body, nor any movement but that of the valet, who has brushed and folded in mechanical routine. There all was an energy flowing outward from nature itself; here all is the anxious study and slight deflection of external force; there man's mind and body were predominantly subjective; here all is objective, using those words not as philosophy uses them, but as we use them in conversation.
 (The Trembling of the Veil, The Tragic Generation, section III)

That called to mind a passage remembered from John Jay Chapman:
In looking at the eighteenth century portraits of Puritan Elders, I have often reflected that the Puritans were traders. Whatever they may have been when they first landed, they soon became keen-eyed and practical, hard and cold. Their resemblance to the old Venetian merchants may be traced in the Doge's Palace, where the cold, Yankee faces loom down familiarly on the shuddering American tourist. I could attach to almost every portrait in Venice an honored Puritan name; and, with a little study and reflection, I could tell how each pictured aristocrat must have made his money.
(The essay "Mr. Brimmer",  published in Memories and Milestones.)

Well, each gets what he looks for, when he looks for it. Chapman wrote mostly on culture and politics broadly considered. He had a good eye for art, but "Mr. Brimmer" is about a bygone period of Boston society. Yeats may not have considered that Wilson was not then a young man, particularly by the standards of 1917. Giovanni Battista Brignole (and I suspect he was Genoese, not Venetian) has a receding hairline in Strozzi's portrait; still, he has the look of a man in vigorous middle age.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Read and Remembered

In Not Entitled: A Memoir, the autobiography of Frank Kermode, I happened to notice the other day
The academy has long preferred ways of studying literature which actually permit or enjoin the study of something else in its place, and the success of the new French approaches has in many quarters come close to eliminating the study of literature altogether; indeed, there are many who regard the word as denoting a false category, a term used to dignify, in one's own interest, a one set of text by arbitrarily attributing to them a value arbitrarily denied to others. This position many find grateful, either because it saves trouble or because they have ideological objections to the notion that certain sorts of application can  detect value here and dispute it there; or because they are, as it were, tone-deaf, and are as happy with the new state of affairs as a professor deaf from birth might be if relieved of the nightmare necessity of "teaching" the Beethoven quartets.
(This is about 1970, and the new French approaches are structuralism and deconstruction.)

After the first smirk, it struck me that I had read something not dissimilar long ago. In Albert Jay Nock's Memoirs of a Superfluous Man there occurs
I have seen many a graduate student who had gone to Germany to study under some great classicist, like a colour-blind botanist going to a flower-show with a bad cold in his head; he came back as a doctor of philosophy, knowing a great deal about his subject, I dare say, but not knowing how to appreciate or enjoy it. So between the ineducable pupil on the one hand and the ineducable mechanical gerund-grinder, as Carlyle calls him, on the other, the system, speaking generally, did fail; it failed, as many a good system has failed, through getting into bad hands.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Writing About Writers

Richard Zacks, the author of Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain's Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour, writes adequately. He practices the Time manner of omitting the definite article, writing for example "Rogers's six-foot-tall assistant, twenty-eight-year-old Katherine Harrison", which sets my teeth on edge. Now and then he just has to wedge in some facts--
Twain reached France and brought the family back on May 18 to the famous harbor with more than one hundred piers, the busiest commercial port in America.
That is, New York. He has found that a dollar in the 1890s was the equivalent of $30 today, which is useful information for evaluating Twain's debts, expenses, and revenues; however, he gives 2016 equivalents repeatedly,  as if the reader will have forgotten the ratio, or can't multiply by 30 (or 150, if the money is given as pounds sterling). There are sentences that distract one, such as
(Chatto published elite authors such as H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, Samuel Beckett.)
Chatto and Windus did, but not by 1896.

Still, Zacks conveys the main facts of the trip clearly enough, and the history of Twain's business disasters and family griefs.

One would not notice so much the faults of the writing but for the paragraphs of Twain's writing given every few pages and, for those of us who have read Following the Equator, our memories of that book. Eudora Welty, reviewing Arthur Mizener's biography of Ford Madox Ford, wrote of it that
The heaviness of [Mizener's] own style seems always to show most when he comes up against Ford's imagination; that seems to burden him. "The right cadence," so central in Ford's style and in his own test of good writing, is lacking in his biographer. ... This calls insistent attention to itself, for situated among the paragraphs of Mizener are the many quotations from Ford. To read while they alternate is like being carried in a train along the southern coast of France--long tunnel, view of the sea, and over again.
(Collected in The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews.)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Selinsgrove and Sunbury

We drove up to Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, Friday afternoon, and returned on Sunday. The city changes slowly. After the 1990 census results came out, The New York Times ran an article on Selinsgrove as the city that had changed the least demographically over the years. Market Street--the main street, as seems often to be the case in central Pennsylvania--must not be what it was. Susquehanna University continues to do what American universities do, namely build and expand: it looked all the larger and newer for the absence of students. The presence of the university must help keep the town going, as an employer, and as a source of the young with money to spend.

While on an errand, I encountered this:

I was surprised, for I had thought of Coxey as a Midwesterner, and indeed by the time he led his army he was a resident of Ohio.

Sunbury, a few miles away upstream and across the Susquehanna, has suffered from the loss of industry. Market Street here has fallen off a good deal from what it was fifty years ago. The Edison Hotel

appears to be a rooming house. The building that housed the Aldine Hotel has a bar on the first floor, and I suppose apartments above. There are thrift shops where there were department stores. But the park that divides the lanes of Market Street a block above Front Street is well kept up. The churches appear to be in good trim, though not architecturally distinguished.

Lorenzo Da Ponte lived in Sunbury for some years, where he kept a store. In his memoirs, he spoke of it as "the fatal town of Sunbury", I recall. He found the time to tutor the young Simon Cameron, later a senator, cabinet member, and diplomat. But he must have found his work and his residence much more satisfactory when he became a professor of Italian literature at Columbia College.

Sunday, July 31, 2016


Last night we dined late. We then had half an our to wait for our dessert to cool down enough to eat. I sat on the couch and tried to read, but found myself dozing. In the intervals of waking, I remembered that J.V. Cunningham had written an epigram that had something to do with this. It is number 74 in "A Century of Epigrams":

Three matches in a folder, you and me.
I sit and smoke, and now there's only two,
And one, and none: a small finality
In a continuing world, a thing to do.
And you, fast at your book, whose fingers keep
Its single place as you sift down to sleep.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

What Is More Common?

Noticed today in the first of the essays in Newman's The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated: Nine Lectures to the Catholics of Dublin:

It were well if none remained boys all their lives; but what is more common than the sight of grown men, talking on political or moral or religious subjects, in that offhand, idle way, which we signify by the word unreal? “That they simply do not know what they are talking about” is the spontaneous silent remark of any man of sense who hears them. Hence such persons have no difficulty in contradicting themselves in successive sentences, without being conscious of it. Hence others, whose defect in intellectual training is more latent, have their most unfortunate crotchets, as they are called, or hobbies, which deprive them of the influence which their estimable qualities would otherwise secure. Hence others can never look straight before them, never see the point, and have no difficulties in the most difficult subjects. Others are hopelessly obstinate and prejudiced, and, after they have been driven from their opinions, return to them the next moment without even an attempt to explain why. Others are so intemperate and intractable that there is no greater calamity for a good cause than that they should get hold of it. It is very plain from the very particulars I have mentioned that, in this delineation of intellectual infirmities, I am drawing, not from Catholics, but from the world at large; I am referring to an evil which is forced upon us in every railway carriage, in every coffee-room or table-d’hôte, in every mixed company, an evil, however, to which Catholics are not less exposed than the rest of mankind.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Benjamin Constant

In The Last Attachment, Iris Origo tells of Lord Byron sending his mistress Teresa Guiccioli a copy of Benjamin Constant's novel Adolphe. The novel purports to be the history of a young man who seduces a woman from idle vanity, then finds her on his hands; he will not, from a sense of obligation, renounce her, but he cannot be wholeheartedly committed to her, and both live unhappily. To Guiccioli this sounded uncomfortably like the relation existing between Byron and her, and the neutral reader will agree.

A Folio paperback including Adolphe turned up at Carpe Librum a while ago, and I bought it. I can understand Teresa Guiccioli's distress. Byron spoke of it, in the letter accompanying the volume, as "well written and only too true." I am no judge of French prose; I did find it terribly plausible.

The volume included also Le Cahier Rouge, a memoir of Constant's youthand Cécile, a roman-à-clef concerning Constant's efforts to break away from Madame de Stäel and take up with Charlotte von Hardenberg. The memoir was mildly interesting, most of the interest lying in the demonstration of what unreliable and distractable oafs many young men are. About halfway through Cécile, though, I found myself wondering why I kept on reading it. Mme. de Stäel is of interest through her writings, and Constant through his. But as protagonists, they don't really sustain a roman-à-clef. Maybe I had to get the full $1.06 worth from my purchase.

Shortly before reading Cécile, I had seen a quotation from Metternich, "The French are the people of intelligence. Intelligence runs the streets; but behind it is no character, no principle, and no will; they run after everything, can be managed through vanity, and like children must always have a toy." One might think that Metternich had Cécile in mind, but the manuscript was not found and published until the middle of the twentieth century. Is it fair to think of think of Benjamin Constant, born Swiss, as French?