WRB—May 13, 2023
Sober essays by the oldest female inhabitant of Baltimore
WRB—le bulletin—est plus obscène que Sade.
This is a move with enormous stakes and a high degree of difficulty. To make it stick, Greenblatt needs to show that Poggio’s sole copy of Lucretius revolutionised Renaissance Florence, or, at the very least, shook it up – caused a stir. He hasn’t. Because it didn’t.
Greenblatt is never able to identify an influential Renaissance champion, let alone champions, of Lucretius. And despite more than a decade of truffling in the manuscript tradition by his acolytes, there is no convincing evidence of a Lucretian stamp of any kind on the Italian Renaissance. The dominant historical school of the Quattrocento, established and maintained under Medici patronage, was a kind of Christianised Neoplatonism. The proposition that Poggio sparked a Lucretian counterculture, which somehow became the dominant culture, is about as plausible as Dan Brown’s Jesus bloodline theory. In fact, the two bear an uncanny resemblance.
[This is a Lucretius newsletter now. De Rerum Natura is completely correct about every subject it addresses. There’s a translation of it by A. E. Stallings. What are you waiting for? —Steve]
One key to the I Ching’s popularity in the US seems to be the way that it could be interpreted in the service of all sorts of different endeavors and ideas. Physicist Fritjof Capra’s bestselling The Tao of Physics (1975) attempted to draw connections between quantum mechanics and various Asian philosophical systems, including the I Ching. Terence and Dennis McKenna suggested that the patterns contained in the I Ching reflected the same “chemical waves” that powered the use of psychedelic plant medicine in the Amazon. Others found parallels to twentieth-century psychology. Jung’s foreword to Wilhelm’s translation, printed in English in a popular new 1961 volume, framed the divination text as a tool for self-evaluation, prompting the birth of a branch of Jungian psychology, followers of which used the text for purposes including dream interpretation.
[I’ve wondered for some time why Bob Dylan cut that reference to the I Ching between earlier takes of “Idiot Wind” and the final product. I suppose from the vantage point of today the fortune teller feels less ’70s. —Steve]
Michael Hofmann on Goethe and Eckermann:
The keynote of the entire book is probably that holding back. Goethe holds back Eckermann, stops him from leaving by giving him tasks; opening up intellectual prospects; taking him on coach rides; showing him letters, manuscripts, and drawings; giving him season tickets to the theater (he himself has long since ceased going; Eckermann seems to go every night; Goethe teases him about it); introducing him at social occasions. There seems always to be some unfinished business, a carrot. Effectively, Goethe is Scheherazade—only for Arabian Nights, read Weimar Years. Eckermann holds back by seeming to be on tiptoe and in whispers all the time, always respectful, dependably adulatory. He agrees with Goethe, and records Goethe agreeing with him: “You’re right”!
Larry Rohter on Miguel Ángel Asturias, who has been neglected by the English-speaking world:
For example, late in the novel, the unnamed president is drunk and, after he vomits all over his closest adviser, recalls the anger and humiliation he felt as a young attorney working in a “third-rate lawyer’s office, among whores, gamblers,” and what Asturias originally called cholojeras. These are the market women, almost always indigenous, who sell cow, pig, and lamb guts for consumption in soups or the Guatemalan version of chitterlings. Partridge renders this as “offal-sellers,” while Unger prefers “shit-sellers,” although “tripe-peddlers” would be more accurate. But I remember being told by Mayan Guatemalans of my acquaintance that cholojera is also a highly pejorative and often racist term, with almost a caste connotation redolent of India. How to convey all of that in a simple one-word translation?
In The Millions, Nick Ripatrazone on poetry written by nuns in the middle of the last century:
Her more stylistic work is no less Catholic than her devotional verse. “When the poet looks at reality,” Eichner wrote, “the mystery within it demands reverence and communication.” Eichner and her fellow nun and sister poets retreated from the wider, bustling world—and sometimes retreated from the communities of their convents and institutions—to discover the song of poetry. Their inspirations varied, and their styles differed, yet they shared a deep concern for the place of an individual woman within a larger order. The legacy of these mid-century nun and sister poets is notable: that in an increasingly secular world, skilled and inspired work from religious poets can still shine, even as those poets wrestle with their identities and faith.
Blake Smith translates Jean-Louis Bouttes’ “Diamond Lightning,” “a sort of commentary on, or response to, Barthes’ text (A Lover’s Discourse, 1977) [About which, see What we’re reading]:
Do Werthers still kill themselves? What else can they do, except hope for the world to be made safe for love, or rather for leaps and spins to reunite the eternal adoration of language (the discursive position) with the beloved himself, the gods and choruses rutting like goats in the grand horny-plenty pasture of the imaginary.
At this moment Mephistophele suddenly appears. Mocking Faust for his failure to get Marguerite into bed—“Professor, you need to be sent back to school,” he jibes—the devil tells him to wait and listen to what she will sing when she thinks she’s alone. What follows is an aria of such unabashed desire—Marguerite sings of “trembling” and “palpitating,” waiting for Faust to return—that he betrays his promise and rushes back to her. As the two fall into bed, we hear the derisive laughter of Mephistopheles. All this talk of eternity is just a way of dressing up our biological urges; if you put a man and woman together, they’ll end up doing the same thing as any pair of animals. The consequences prove to be just as dire as Marguerite feared: she gets pregnant, Faust abandons her, and in the last act we find her in prison for infanticide, having lost her sanity.
In the Journal, William Pritchard reviews a forthcoming critical biography (Ford Madox Ford, May 15) of Ford Madox Ford [About whom, see Critical Notes.]:
From the book’s outset, Ford’s achievement is given the highest marks. The Good Soldier and Parade’s End are “masterpieces.” Ford is a “writer’s writer” committed not to “telling”—à la Thackeray or Dickens—but to “showing.” The proper subject of the Impressionist writer, Ford believed, was not a sequence of events seen externally, by an omniscient, objective narrator, but rather events—stories—as experienced subjectively, by one or more characters. Such writing takes the reader closer to the experiences described and constitutes Ford’s chief contribution to “modernist studies.” The effect is of a “total picture” made up of “fragmentary impressions.” The Good Soldier, as Anthony Burgess wrote and Mr. Saunders approvingly quotes, “pushes the technique to its limit”; there is no “special dispensation” for the narrator “to see or understand anything more than a fallible being can.” It is “a masterpiece of tone, style and structure,” concludes Mr. Saunders, as if Impressionism alone, as practiced by Ford and Joseph Conrad, were a guarantee of fictional greatness.
The trouble with this notion, and the limitation of Mr. Saunders as a critical commentator both on The Good Soldier and Ford’s work generally, is that it leaves no room for the skeptical reader to demur. Such a reader—and I count myself one—is less than credulous when he meets the novel’s first sentence: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” introducing us to Edward Ashburnham, the book’s philandering hero. The reader familiar with other unhappy stories, like that of Hamlet or Emma Bovary, may wonder whether Dowell—the inept American teller of this adulterous tale—will bear such narrative weight.
For, Peter Brooks (recently, the Seduced by Story guy) has some notes on the new Proust papers Yale is putting out [Recall the Upcoming book from WRB April 8, 2023.]:
To be sure, Proust did not live to put his manuscript into final form, and the volumes published by Gallimard after his death (and even before) contain a number of arbitrary editorial corrections. We don’t know, for some of the later volumes, quite what the definitive text should be, and never will.
Still, the claim that literary works are enriched by their earlier states—by the material their authors discarded—seems to me a dubious proposition, or at least one that should be confined to the genetic critic’s playground and not take over the city. Beyond the hyperbolic claims made for the importance of these seventy-five folios, they are of course of interest to the Proust lover. … But we may want to remember that it was by getting rid of life, transmuting experience into fiction, that Proust became the writer we want to read. As his narrator says in the final part of the novel, people must die in order for the work to live.
Madeline Cash, of Forever Magazine profiles fame, has a book out (Earth Angel, April), notes Valerie Stivers, a Compact columnist: “If you don’t like what’s out there, make something yourself. If mass-market fiction is processed, formulaic, and predictable, write something more interesting and publish where you can.”
Two on an imminently forthcoming novel about the trouble with Long Island by Emma Cline (The Guest, May) [Recall from WRB April 19, 2023 Jennifer Wilson’s (optimistic) review for The Nation.] [OK, but “the trouble with Long Island” is not the Hamptons. —Steve]
Many will buy The Guest, then, but I’m not sure many will finish it. It’s a 15-page character sketch stretched to novel length; soon, even Cline herself seems bored. The first few dozen pages are undeniably impressive, as bracing as saltwater. As a man on the subway watches the escort, Alex, his wrists are “white under the strain of many plastic bags”; older women “suck violently at glasses of iced tea”; halibut is cooked with so much lemon, Alex “feels her mouth vibrate”; “peppery” blackheads are “smeared” across a teenager’s cheeks.
Unfortunately, Cline’s gift for physical description cannot sustain 304 pages.
The Guest observes the upper crust with a kind of perky cynicism but is less didactic than, for example, White Lotus or the many other pop products that satirize the rich while inviting the audience to identify with them. Class analysis is loose, like a tube of sunscreen groped for at the bottom of a tote bag. The novel is only tentatively social, despite its setting. Instead, Cline puts her fearsome talents to work depicting the deeply destructive capacity of a lone mind that is utterly sick of itself. Like a writer, Alex has an exacting gaze, a cold heart, and too little tact.
Much in the way that Beowulf was once read more as a literary artifact than as a worthwhile narrative poem, Enheduana’s hymns have been interpreted more for their historical value than for literary brilliance. Helle laments, “Because philologists have spent so long arguing about the dating of the hymns, they have paid little attention to their poetic power or popular appeal.” Genre-wise, the poems are hymns, meant to be sung, and as Helle notes, “Their goal is not to describe the world but to change it by invoking the gods and enlisting their help.” Readers should ask, what do we discover about what Enheduana loved through how she worships? Are there parallels or contrasts between these hymns and those of Homer or the Judeo psalms? We might consider closely the varied “torrent of images,” in Helle’s words, that differ from the dominant metaphors in Western culture.
This is a helpful chart of the big five US Trade Book Publishers and their many imprints.
Last week, we got a big uptick in subscribers for no apparent reason. Best we can tell, though, it’s because Tyler Cowen linked to, which, we reiterate, our readers may especially find enjoyable, or at least useful.
“n+1, the Vampire Weekend of political journals” [A reader exclaimed, “You still read n+1?” when they saw the latest issue in my car this week. Well. Yes. I still listen to Vampire Weekend too. —Chris] [I listened to Father of the Bride yesterday, which has consistently moved up in my estimation from my initial reaction back in 2019 of thinking it was just awful. —Steve] [I specifically think of your tweets from 2019 almost every time I listen to that album, actually. —Chris]
Solid State Books’ second location is opening soon, on 14th Street.
Babe wake up. It’s La bohème at the Kennedy Center, running through the 27th. Most shows have attached a pre-performance lecture and/or artist Q&A postscript, which you can scroll to the bottom of that page for more details on.
More from the new Baffler: “It feels like there are fewer opportunities for people who have lived in D.C. for generations to continue to raise families here, become homeowners, or be successful in general. It’s disheartening.”
If you can somehow get to Columbia, the Books in Bloom annual festival is going on right now.
The Washington Jewish Film Festival began Wednesday and will go through the 21st.
May 9 | Artisan
From the publisher: Behold the oyster. Delicious, a little decadent, yet one of the healthiest things to eat, and now completely sustainable and easily available. And behold The Joy of Oysters, a smorgasbord of information, recipes, tips, stories, history, and everything else the oyster lover and the oyster curious could want to know.
Learn how to select the freshest, tastiest oysters. How to store, clean, shuck, and serve. And why we no longer avoid eating them in months without an r.
But best of all, celebrate the joy of eating and cooking with oysters, whether on the half shell—try one of seven sauces to enhance them—to techniques for broiling, frying, roasting, steaming, pickling, and poaching. Here’s a classic Oysters Rockefeller, an irresistible Oyster Po’Boy, a delicious Oyster Stew. Plus oyster preparations from around the world, including Japanese Oyster Rice, Irish Beef and Oyster Pie, a Filipino Oyster Kinilaw, and Korean Oyster Fritters. An oyster shooter too.
[Consider the oyster. —Chris]
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