WRB—Feb. 1, 2023
We recommend avoiding general and often dehumanizing “the” labels such as the Managing Editors. Instead, use wording such as people with mental illnesses.
Brief editorial note:
[This week makes a year—and this email makes 100 issues—of the WRB. It’s been a lot of fun and an honor, &c. To celebrate, we’re going to be making some changes and expanding a bit.
The only thing the WRB exists to do is to help introduce educated, interested people to the wealth of art and culture which is available to them—Becoming literate is a lifelong task, but it shouldn’t take your entire day. I think we’re succeeding at that for you, our readers, and we want to continue doing that for a very long time and in the most entertaining and helpful fashion possible.
Next Monday, you’ll see the first edition of our new monthly Film Supplement, being organized for our pleasure and edification as I type this brief note by one Steve Larkin.
And the Monday after that, Nic will have ready for you the first in a new series of monthly bulletins covering local art offerings. (And of course, Sarah will continue to provide the Children’s Literature Supplement on the third Monday of every month.)
And one to-do list item: email me, tell me what you want, tell me what you like and don’t like, tell me I link to too many Marxists or too many Catholics or too many offbeat little magazines and presses, or that you’re only in it for the snarky comments or that you hate the snarky comments. I can tell that rather a lot of people get a kick out of what we’re doing here, because they keep subscribing to this newsletter and clicking on it, but I have very little way of knowing what works and what doesn’t if you don’t tell me. So if you have time today, shoot us an email. And if you include an address, I’ll send you some WRB stickers. And if you haven’t:
This is all going to continue to be a load of fun, at least for all of you, and, as I said, an honor for me. Thank you. —Chris]
Post45 has a new collection of essays on the life and work of David Berman (and two previously unpublished poems from the late great). From Andrew Epstein’s essay:
To highlight Berman’s aphoristic imagination is not to downplay the many other dimensions of his writing—his knack for fresh, vivid imagery, his inventive surrealism, his collage aesthetic, his weird humor, his heartbreaking melancholy and compassion, all of which are rich and indispensable parts of Berman’s poetics. But Berman’s fascination with the aphorism as a form is among the most distinctive and interesting features of his work, since it stands at the center of both his music and his poetry, and even offers a way of understanding what unites these otherwise quite different facets of his oeuvre.
Two in the Marginalia Review of Books:
James Diamond on the place of angels in the Jewish tradition:
The two cherubim remind human beings that they inhabit a material realm of multiplicity sustained by collaboration between all its working parts, while only God is truly unified, unique, and alone, the only “One” worthy of veneration. In this sense the cherubim are a constant reminder of the deficient state in which Adam, as a solitary individual, was first created, when the One himself acknowledged his own defective creation, declaring “It is not good for man to be alone.”
And Sophus Helle on a Sanskrit lexicon (Words for the Heart: A Treasury of Emotions from Classical India, August 2022): “Part of the joy of delving into the world of classical India is the wealth of traditions—both literary, philosophical, religious, and political—that gather there, from the great Hindu epics through Buddhist polemics to Jain moral musings, all of which illuminate the inner life of our emotions differently.”
Johanna Thomas-Corr in the New Statesman on the literary language of grief.
Verso has online the introduction from their recently released translation of Ludovico Silva’s treatment of Marx (Marx’s Literary Style, January):
We might say that, where the ideological surplus largely operates behind our backs, style, as manifest in the person and writing of Marx, is a matter of the political appropriation of our unconscious as social individuals, the forging of a combative singularity open to the vast reservoirs of world literature and the world’s languages—as well as, and above all, to the collective historical sedimentations and idiosyncrasies of one’s idiom.
Related: In Jacobin, Helen Charman reviews Anahid Nersessian’s personal-critical treatment of Keats (Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse, 2021):
Rather than disfiguring Keats’s poem in search of ideological clarity, Nersessian focuses on the perfection of the text itself. The completeness of the poem shows us that “the problem with beauty is not that it is so fragile but that it is so durable.” This is, for her, where the value of Keats’s poetry lies: it shows us that we are “attached, despite everything, to this place that has been weaponized against us.” In these moments, Keats’s seeming indifference to hardship comes concerningly close to a conservative abandonment of politics, justified on aesthetic grounds as a turn away from ugly earthly matters and toward profound feelings. Nersessian herself is unwilling to bridge this gap, or give any easy answers. Returning to di Prima, she reminds us instead that poems, too, are structures that will not persist unchanged after revolution.
[“Poetry for bed-wetters” is kind of a bomb tagline, to be honest —Julia]
More: For Boston Review, Mark Jordan writes about the posthumously published final volume of The History of Sexuality (Confessions of the Flesh, 2022):
Here as in his other books, Foucault’s “literary devices” are not flourishes. They are his method, so far as he has one. Foucault shares with George Orwell a sensibility for how power runs through language—or runs on it. To tell the dystopian future of 1984, Orwell invented Newspeak, a party-dictated language scheduled to replace (our) Oldspeak by 2050. Newspeak shocks readers—if it still does—because they are creatures of a prior language. But Foucault is not drafting a dystopian novel about an oppressive future. (Now that would be a missing manuscript to desire.) He invites old speech to take the stage, to sound again, in hopes that it will disrupt his readers’ expectations. He hopes that estrangement will make obvious all that familiarity has concealed within their current language.
In The New Yorker, Hannah Gold on Patricia Highsmith’s New York notebooks (Patricia Highsmith’s Diaries and Notebooks: The New York Years, 1941–1950, January): “I will be good, good, good!!! I will be feared!” [This is one of those books that has been on my bedside table for a month now. I dip into it now and then. Loads of fun, if you like reading shopping lists. —Nic] [Also on the city up north: “the raw disorder of New York.” (in the New Statesman.) —Chris]
Department of reading problems:
“I do think there is less space for pleasure now, at least the kind of pleasure that transports. I know that when most people set a new year’s resolution to read more, they usually mean they want to get through Cal Newport or Yuval Noah Harari. You know, they want the books they could just as well read a blog post about. Or, if they have pretensions to being real readers, they want to post a stack of books on social media, to show their friends that they are reading the right books—socially conscious, say, or deliberately difficult. Best of all is a seven-book series by a Norwegian dude, ideally if each book is a brick. No one should get the idea that they read frivolously, irresponsibly. If they’re going to read, that should look like discipline too.” —[Also: “Why is it so easy to despise stories of love and adventure?”]
“What are the biggest challenges facing adult common readers today?” —[Besides, we assume, that they are not yet subscribed to the proper Substack newsletters?]
This never happens if you stick with Little Free Libraries. [Read Chris on this very subject in The Lamp this month. —Nic]
Department of writing problems:
A reader writes [Paradoxical]: “It seems like your end goal is to make a magazine about other people’s magazines, and I’m in favor of it.” That’s precisely right.
“In many cases, literary magazines’ mission statements can be wholesome but amorphous: good intentions, few parameters.” [And what’s so wrong with that? —Chris]
“Above all, The TLS Reviewer’s Handbook wished to be seen as taking a stand against lazy-minded linguistic habits.”
But—is copyediting bad? Probably not! [We occasionally act as though we believe it is, though. —Chris]
“Feel that puritanical pressure to do better.” —
“there is no method to escape the roiling entropy of media employment.” —
“As the evening ended, an esteemed editor pointed an accusing finger at me and said, ‘You’re going to write about this.’” [I’m going to start doing this to my friends. —Julia] [Occupational hazard. —Chris]
George Saunders: “What historical figure do you most identify with? Lincoln: a guy who fought against sadness by turning his mind to the needs of others and making filthy jokes.” [Really? Really? —Chris]
Salman Rushdie’s friends want you to know he’s also still a novelist, not just a martyr.
Andasks a question often on our minds: “Did Amis and Rushdie deserve their critical downgrading? In a sense it was inevitable.” [I ran into an old teacher of mine after a funeral a few weeks back, and he remarked (rightly, I think) that most people should stop publishing after they hit 60. —Nic]
A look inside the unjustly-neglected-classic industrial complex:
Brown perhaps puts it best when she describes her dream discovery as “something that feels like time travel,” a book that’s many years old yet somehow feels as though it could have been written only yesterday. “You know how in Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights you look at those Perspex-tube-like confections and they make no sense—they’re too strange, too modern—everything tilts on its axis from the world and the history you expect?” she asks. “I want the book version of that, a revelatory voice.”
Shakespeare Theatre Company is doing Lear, Feb. 23–April 2.
“Many of our books are sourced not very far away, sustainably harvested from book reefs found off the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay.” —@Capitol Hill Books
This Saturday afternoon at NGA, a guided tour of the East Building, “Breaking the Rules in Modern Art.”
February 14 | Yale University Press
Ignorance: A Global History
by Peter Burke
From the publisher: Throughout history, every age has thought of itself as more knowledgeable than the last. Renaissance humanists viewed the Middle Ages as an era of darkness, Enlightenment thinkers tried to sweep superstition away with reason, the modern welfare state sought to slay the “giant” of ignorance, and in today’s hyperconnected world seemingly limitless information is available on demand. But what about the knowledge lost over the centuries? Are we really any less ignorant than our ancestors?
In this highly original account, Peter Burke examines the long history of humanity’s ignorance across religion and science, war and politics, business and catastrophes. Burke reveals remarkable stories of the many forms of ignorance—genuine or feigned, conscious and unconscious—from the willful politicians who redrew Europe’s borders in 1919 to the politics of whistleblowing and climate change denial. The result is a lively exploration of human knowledge across the ages, and the importance of recognizing its limits.
What we’re reading:
Nic read Dag Hammarskjöld’s memoir (Markings, 1982), if you can call it that. He also read the Abbess of Crewe again. [Chris requested I type up something I sent him last week about Muriel Spark’s artistic credo. It’s a question I’ve been wondering about for a long time now, and I think her “Watergate, but nuns” novel is the closest she got to explaining herself: “Modern times come into a historical context, and as far as I'm concerned history doesn't work. Here, in the Abbey of Crewe, we have discarded history. We have entered the sphere, dear Sisters, of mythology. My nuns love it. Who doesn't yearn to be part of a myth at whatever the price in comfort? The monastic system is in revolt throughout the rest of the world, thanks to historical development. Here, within the ambience of mythology, we have peace.” Of course, Spark, not one to revel in escapism for too long, always tempers the realm of mythology with that of reality, with herself in the role of God. As she wrote in a later novel, all the best stories take place in “the tract of no-man’s land between dreams and reality, reality and dreams.” —Nic]
Julia has been reading Lucy Alford’s Forms of Poetic Attention (which Chris quoted in the poetry column on Saturday) and has found it to be a helpful tool to think about different mechanisms of attention in poetry. [I’m currently on the chapter about contemplation as a mode of attention, and she makes some good notes on how Weil’s framework of prayer translates into poetry, as well as an interesting point that the proliferation of object-oriented poetry in the early 20th century has its roots in “Romanticism’s relocation of grace, power, and awe in human experiences of early phenomenon,” and how a bridge between the Romantics and modern object-oriented poetics can be seen in Whitman and Hopkins. —Julia] Her progress with Poetic Attention has been slower than planned because she’s been having a hard time putting down Susan Orlean’s The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, a collection of her profile essays, which is just too fun (“The American Man at Age Ten” and “Meet the Shaggs” are both great). She’s also been reading Century of the Wind by Eduardo Galeano [which has wonderful prose] and a couple poetry anthologies, including The Vintage Book of Contemporary Poetry and Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry (2013) edited by Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson.
[It’s Ulysses for me. And I read a bunch of D.H. Lawrence. Rebecca West was probably right about him. —Chris]
“The Illiterate” by William Meredith
Touching your goodness, I am like a man
Who turns a letter over in his hand
And you might think this was because the hand
Was unfamiliar, but, truth is, the man
Has never had a letter from anyone;
And now he is both afraid of what it means
And ashamed because he has no other means
To find out what it says than to ask someone.
His uncle could have left the farm to him,
Or his parents died before he sent them word,
Or the dark girl changed and want him for beloved.
Afraid and letter-proud, he keeps it with him.
What would you call his feeling for the words
That keep him rich and orphaned and beloved?
[This sonnet is from Meredith’s 1997 Effort at Speech: New & Selected Poems.
I love the way the extended simile works here. If you were to cut out the first six words, this poem would be about something completely different: a man who can’t read. But because of the way Meredith sets up the poem in that first line, we know it’s about the speaker touching, presumably, his lover—not just touching her, even, but touching her goodness. There’s a sense of awe implied, as in the lines the man / Has never had a letter from anyone; but this man also holds fear and shame in the face of the mystery of the letter’s words.
I’ve been thinking a lot about a line from Devin’s lovely Substack this week: love has yet to cure me of anything but has told me and shown me, time and time again, something about the light. (See also Devin’s essay at Longreads from last week! —Chris) I love that, and I love the way it runs parallel to the oft-quoted line from Weil’s Gravity and Grace, love is not a consolation, it is light. A friend of mine has a poster on her office door that says Love won’t save you! But it’s always worth a try. Maybe the love of another person won’t save us, or cure us, but it can bring us light to see the world better, and each other, and ourselves, and for us to be seen by others, too. And that is always worth a try, I think, even though it sometimes (maybe even often) isn’t a consoling experience.
(“This is not love of suffering, but the work, the power of love, which may curse, but abides. It is power to be able to attend, powerful or powerless; it is love to laugh bitterly, purgatively, purgatorially, and then to be quiet.” —Chris)
But Meredith is talking about something else here. Here, the meaning behind the love—the words of it—can’t be read by the person holding the letter. He is, in a sense, in the dark, wondering at the goodness of having received the letter in his hand and yet not knowing what it contains. And Meredith is saying, essentially, that’s what being loved is like: not knowing, and still being held. Being kept rich and orphaned and beloved, all at once, by the goodness of the other person, who will, in their depths, always be unreadable.
Well, anyway, a note on form: I really like that the end rhymes here, with little exception, are just repeated words. I think the repeated end-words lend a simplicity of language to this poem that I find charming, and, of course, thematically fitting. —Julia] [I like “Afraid and letter-proud” a lot. —Chris]