One evening on the way back from the spring for some reason I suddenly thought of a break by Bix in Frankie Trumbauer’s record of Singing the Blues that had always seemed to me to express a moment of the most pure spontaneous happiness. I could never hear this break without feeling happy myself and wanting to do something good. Could one translate this kind of happiness into one’s life? Since this was only a moment of happiness, I seemed involved with irreconcilable impulses. One could not make a moment permanent and perhaps the attempt to try was some form of evil. But was there not some means of suggesting at least the existence of such happiness, that was like what is really meant by freedom, which was like the spring, which was like our love, which was like the desire to be truly good…

No wonder mystics have a hard task describing their illuminations, even though this was not exactly that; yet the experience seemed to be associated with light, even a blinding light, as when years afterwards recalling it I dreamed that my being had transformed into the inlet itself, not at dusk, by the moon, but at sunrise, as we had so often also seen it, suddenly transilluminated by the sun’s light, so that I seemed to contain the reflected sun deeply within my very soul, yet a sun which as I awoke was in turn transformed, Swedenborgwise, with its light and warmth into something perfectly simple, like a desire to be a better man, to be capable of more gentleness, understanding, love –

Malcolm Lowry 1909-1957
“The Forest Path to the Spring”

Color UD Excited About…

… the wonderful new statue of George Orwell at the BBC.

In lieu of a pilgrimage to it, she will read for the hundredth time, laughing again all the way through, “Down and Out in Paris and London.”


It seems to be an open question whether that very weight — the strain and tedium and approximation of everyday existence — was a hindrance to Orwell or an assistance. He himself seems to have thought that the exigencies of poverty, ill health, and overwork were degrading him from being the serious writer he might have been and had reduced him to the status of a drudge and pamphleteer. Reading through these meticulous and occasionally laborious jottings, however, one cannot help but be struck by the degree to which he became, in Henry James’s words, one of those upon whom nothing was lost. By declining to lie, even as far as possible to himself, and by his determination to seek elusive but verifiable truth, he showed how much can be accomplished by an individual who unites the qualities of intellectual honesty and moral courage. And, permanently tempted though he was by cynicism and despair, Orwell also believed in the latent possession of these faculties by those we sometimes have the nerve to call “ordinary people.” Here, then, is some of the unpromising bedrock — hardscrabble soil in Scotland, gritty coal mines in Yorkshire, desert landscapes in Africa, soul-less slums and bureaucratic offices — combined with the richer soil and loam of ever renewing nature, and that tiny, irreducible core of the human personality that somehow manages to put up a resistance to deceit and coercion. Out of the endless attrition between them can come such hope as we may reasonably claim to possess.

Christopher Hitchens, Introduction to Orwell’s diairies.

Long ago, when he was a very young writing student, Angela Carter described his “elegaic sobriety.”

That’s precisely what I remember discovering, and being mesmerized by, in my also long-ago reading of his first novel, A Pale View of Hills.

This year’s Nobel Prize winner in literature, Kazuo Ishiguro, writes with a weird, weight-bearing austerity which really captured and held me. I remember that thin novel more vividly than I remember most.

When you are young, things like your moral stance and your political position seem very important. I’d spend long nights with my friends sorting out moral and political positions that we thought would take us through adult life. And part of that would end up meaning we despised some people not for what they did, but for the opinions they professed to hold. But as I’ve got older I think I’ve realised that while it is important to have principles, you have far less control of what happens. These principles and positions only get you so far because what actually happens is that you don’t carefully chart your way through life.

Sam Shepard, who led one of the more charmed lives…

… talented as he was in so many directions, has died.

True American. True West.


From a 1997 Paris Review interview.

Alcoholism is an insidious disease; until I confronted it I wasn’t aware that it was creeping up on me. I finally did AA in the hardcore down on Pico Boulevard. I said, “Don’t put me in with Elton John or anything, just throw me to the lions.”


Violence and conflict are part of the music… There’s no way to escape the fact that we’ve grown up in a violent culture, we just can’t get away from it, it’s part of our heritage. I think part of it is that we’ve always felt somewhat helpless in the face of this vast continent. Helplessness is answered in many ways, but one of them is violence.

“Far out to sea, and alone”: Fear, and the Death of Anne Dufourmantelle.

The French philosopher, who wrote about the importance of accepting risk and living a truly alive existence, died fearlessly, attempting to rescue children from choppy waves in Saint-Tropez. They survived; she did not.

Risk and fear: From water, and from fire: As we speak, Saint-Tropez is directly menaced by a massive forest fire in the region.


Here is a famous sentence from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) — a rivulet of Clarissa’s consciousness:

This has the balance and beauty, the well-observed ‘interior’ feel, of the great modernist’s sentences. That is, this is not speech; it’s the intimate candid mulling mind, the mind observing London in motion and talking to itself about it. Woolf never forgets to meld the objective world and the subjective, to cast subjectivity as always in response to the world outside itself. All those repetitions – out, out, out; very, very – are the squirreling mind circling its deep familiar themes, its odd, personal, peculiar obsessions and dreads. The ever-circulating cabs function as an objective correlative for, a provocation in the direction of, nihilistic despair: They go in and out, in and out, around the taxi stands and the streets, perpetually, conveying the pointless fever and fret of existence (hence Clarissa’s sympathetic apprehension of what the frightened, shell-shocked Great War veteran Septimus Smith has communicated in killing himself).

The word perpetual, with its religious undertones, comes to this aggressively secular woman (“love and religion would destroy that, whatever it was, the privacy of the soul”) from what has inevitably clung to her from having grown up in a religious (though itself rapidly secularizing) culture. Lux perpetuam, in traumatized godless post-war London, becomes the infernal machinery (tanks, cabs) of perpetual motion. (And perpetual, paired with sense, offers Woolf the assonance that gives her sentences their poetic feel, just as a routine assonantal phrase like taxi cabs does.)

In this sentence’s reference to the sea, we get three crucial elements of human awareness and engagement: nature, culture, consciousness. If you look at the sentence in isolation, it doesn’t make much sense: Why, in the midst of intense city life, would one feel oneself alone and adrift at sea? Why would one say such a silly thing as that it’s very very dangerous to live for even one day?

At sea: Well, that one’s not too hard. The phrase to be at sea conveys confusion, bewilderment, displacement to a wilderness; and the vast formless sea rising up in Clarissa’s mind in the midst of the sharply delimited city of forms communicates her psychic distance from the ongoingness of life, her preoccupation with the majesty and stupendousness and vacancy of death itself. For, having no religious frame (heaven; hell) in which to place, narrate, furnish the event, she can only summon up the strongest image possible of nothingness and separation from all people and things.

The day is like wide water, without sound.


And why does it feel exceedingly dangerous to live even one day?

Two reasons come to mind: First of all, very simply, life is in fact quite treacherous, moment to moment. Read Robert Louis Stevenson’s spectacular essay, “Aes Triplex,” for the best evocation of our ridiculous and noble denial of this reality. You are lazing on an elegant beach in Saint-Tropez. Just behind you fires rage in its beautiful forest, and in front of you the placid ocean is also a devourer.

But every day is dangerous as well because life is so seductive: “Heaven only knows why one loves it so.” But one does; almost everyone desperately loves life. So the danger life extends toward us as we rush to embrace it every day is the danger of being caught up in the lie that it never ends. (Freud: “To endure life remains, when all is said, the first duty of all living beings. Illusion can have no value if it makes this more difficult for us.”) Both Woolf and James Joyce set their novels (I have Ulysses in mind) in one day; we follow their characters through one morning, afternoon, and night, and then the novel ends with the night. This is fiction allowing us access to the truth of our brevity.

In Ulysses, at the graveside of his friend Paddy Dignam, Martin Cunningham laments: “In the midst of life…”

In the midst of life, we are in death.

At the end of the same episode, Joyce’s hero, Leopold Bloom, inverts this: “In the midst of death we are in life.”

A Note on Austen.

Coming soon.

New Year’s Resolutions.

1. Resolved: There are no holidays.

Our text this evening is “Holiday,” a short story by Katherine Anne Porter (she began writing it in the 1920’s but put it aside for decades until finally publishing it in 1960). We will follow this story closely as we gather into this uncharacteristically lengthy post the wisdom of the ages.

Yes. UD now shares with you, on this long drunken night, the truths of being, all of which are handily packed into this obscure little tale. “Holiday” is a meandering narrative, the sort of thing hyper-connected millennials have trouble reading, because in order to read “Holiday,” you have to settle into a very very slow cud-chewing state of mind, or mindfulness, or mindlessness, as if you were seated on a thin cushion in a room in which someone is taking their sweet time with a dharma talk. Porter’s stories “read as if they were composed at one sitting, and they have the spontaneity of a running stream,” writes an admirer, and indeed “Holiday” flows real and true, but you have to stay afloat, you have to keep faith with it and nothing else, or you’ll drift over to familiar dry banks.

So relax and work with me here as we start with the title. In this story, an unnamed young woman, tense and exhausted by unspecified personal problems, takes a one-month holiday to the Texas countryside, where she rents a room in the house of a large hard-working prosperous German-American farming family. She thinks it will be therapeutic to get away from herself, but – as the saying goes – wherever you go, there you are. And this is the first great truth with which the narrator begins: “[W]e do not run from the troubles and dangers which are truly ours, and it is better to learn what they are earlier than later…” Porter had a very settled sense of our entrapment, each of us, in our particular nature – the form of being which is truly ours – and she regarded a meaningful life as one in which you come to know, to face, to accept, the contours as well as the inescapability of your particular being. In an interview, she recalls a friend of hers who “was not able to take care of herself, because she was not able to face her own nature and was afraid of everything.”

So although this may sound like a counsel of despair – sink into the hopeless business of being who you hopelessly are – it’s not that at all. Once you’ve assumed the intellectual and emotional burden of your radically limited identity, once you’ve “walked the length of your mind,” as Philip Larkin put it, you are free to embark on the courageous project of – in Porter’s words – taking care of yourself.

2. Resolved: “Human life itself is almost pure chaos.”

The narrative begins and ends with a farcical wagon ride. The family member who picks the woman up at the train station to take her to the farm has brought an old rickety vehicle for the journey:

The wheels themselves spun not dully around and around in the way of common wheels, but elliptically, being loosened at the hubs, so that we proceeded with a drunken, hilarious swagger, like the rolling motion of a small boat on a choppy sea.

At the end of the story she herself ineptly drives a similarly ridiculous wagon:

We careened down the road at a grudging trot, the pony jolting like a churn, the wheels spinning elliptically in a truly broad comedy swagger.

Where are you getting in this narrative? You started on a set of vaudevillian wheels and you’re ending on the same. If you insist on the payoff of satisfyingly rounded events – resolutions, if you like – instead of the ridiculously elliptical stuff real life throws at you, you’re not going to get anywhere actual. You’ll stay on the evasive holiday everyone tries to stay on.

And Porter really pours on the chaos. The main family member with whom her unnamed heroine interacts, Ottilie, seems to suffer from severe cerebral palsy.

Her face was so bowed over it was almost hidden, and her whole body was maimed in some painful, mysterious way, probably congenital, I supposed, though she seemed wiry and tough. Her knotted hands shook continually, her wagging head kept pace with her restless elbows.

The wheels are really falling off the world of “Holiday.” Even the seemingly well-ordered routines of the family’s all-consuming maintenance of the farm – “the repose, the almost mystical inertia of their minds in the midst of [their] muscular life” – is a facade about to be torn apart by a violently destructive storm, and by the sudden death of their beloved mother.

3. Resolved: And yet, and yet.

We struggle, strangers to ourselves amid a world in turmoil. Yet (see Resolution #2) it’s only “almost” pure chaos. The wheels don’t actually fall off, and, grudgingly, they get us there. Ottilie’s physical chaos seems complete, yet she turns out to be perhaps the most ordered and essential mainstay of the family, since she is capable of cooking and serving excellent meals. She sustains them all.

Her muteness seemed nearly absolute; she had no coherent language of signs. Yet three times a day she spread that enormous table with solid food, freshly baked bread, huge platters of vegetables, immoderate roasts of meat, extravagant tarts, strudels, pies — enough for twenty people. If neighbors came in for an afternoon on some holiday, Ottilie would stumble into the big north room, the parlor, with its golden oak melodeon, a harsh-green Brussels carpet, Nottingham lace curtains, crocheted lace antimacassars on the chair backs, to serve them coffee with cream and sugar and thick slices of yellow cake.

… Her face was a brown smudge of anxiety, her eyes were wide and dazed. Her uncertain hands rattled among the pans, but nothing could make her seem real, or in any way connected with the life around her. Yet when I set my pitcher on the stove, she lifted the heavy kettle and poured the scalding water into it without spilling a drop.

Strangers to ourselves, we perceive others as equally strange. Untouchable, unreachable. Nothing can make them seem real. Yet in time the chaos that seems to reign in ourselves and others begins to hint of an underlying order. The wheels get us there; the heavy kettle gets held and the scalding water poured.

4. Resolved: Greet the world’s overtures, especially the ones that scare you, because they may reveal the truth.

Ottilie shows our heroine a photograph of herself, taken before she became misshapen.

The bit of cardboard connected her at once somehow to the world of human beings I knew; for an instant some filament lighter than cobweb spun itself out between that living center in her and in me, a filament from some center that held us all bound to our unescapable common source, so that her life and mine were kin, even a part of each other, and the painfulness and strangeness of her vanished. She knew well that she had been Ottilie, with those steady legs and watching eyes, and she was Ottilie still within herself. For a moment, being alive, she knew she suffered…

There’s a strikingly similar scene in Don DeLillo’s early novel, Great Jones Street, when a handsome, charismatic rock star who is undergoing some sort of nervous breakdown encounters a physically misshapen boy:

I must have seemed a shadow to him, thin liquid, incidental to the block of light he lived in. For the first time I began to note his embryonic beauty. The blank eyes ticked. The mouth opened slightly, closing on loomed mucus. I’d thought the fear of being peeled to this limp circumstance had caused my panic, the astonishment of blood pausing in the body. But maybe it was something else as well, the possibility that such a circumstance concludes in beauty. There was a lure to the boy, an unsettling lunar pull, and I moved my hand over the moist surface of his face. Beauty is dangerous in narrow times, a knife in the slender neck of the rational man, and only those who live between the layers of these strange days can know its name and shape. When I took my hand from his face, the head resumed its metronomic roll. I was still afraid of him, more than ever in fact, but willing now to breathe his air, to smell the bland gases coming off him, to work myself into his consciousness, whatever there was of that. It would have been better (and even cheering) to think of him as some kind of super-crustacean or diabolic boiled vegetable. But he was too human for that, adhering to me as though by suction or sticky filaments.

The truth is human, all too human, and UD figures it’s pretty clear in these sorts of encounters that what’s being met with is one’s sense of one’s own impossible twistedness, one’s own frightening unworkability. This is reality; this ain’t no holiday. Both characters are in fact drawn to these badly damaged, seemingly alien creatures, even as they’re frightened by them. They sense that here lies the felt truth of human suffering, and they won’t get anywhere with themselves until they get up close and personal with it. For this is precisely the graphic entrapment in one’s own peculiar nature Porter was talking about, and until one perceives both its reality and the possibility of somewhat transcending that reality, one’s self won’t be very workable. Recall that both the DeLillo and the Porter plots are propelled by the close-to-nervous breakdown of the main character.

5. Resolved: Anyway, most of life will remain incomprehension – of oneself and others… But! If you are willing to keep risking being ridiculous and uncomprehending (if the fool would persist in his folly…), you will experience certain incredibly important rewards. Certain meanings will begin to glimmer; other people’s humanity may cease to feel so alien and frightening to you; and out of the felt, shared, burden/joke of everyone’s suffering may come – curiously – a nourishing sense of the delight of existence itself.

The family has gone off to the mother’s funeral, leaving Ottilie, who after all is a member of the family, behind. Our heroine hears her crying and assumes she’s in despair at having been left at home.

[S]he howled with a great wrench of her body, an upward reach of the neck, without tears. At sight of me she got up and came over to me and laid her head on my breast, and her hands dangled forward a moment. Shuddering, she babbled and howled and waved her arms in a frenzy through the open window over the stripped branches of the orchard toward the lane where the [funeral] procession had straightened out into formal order.

And so our heroine decides to take the creaky old wagon that’s left in the barn, place (with great difficulty) Ottilie in it, and take her to the funeral. And this is what happens.

Ottilie, now silent, was doubled upon herself, slipping loosely on the edge of the seat. I caught hold of her stout belt with my free hand, and my fingers slipped between her clothes and bare flesh, ribbed and gaunt and dry against my knuckles. My sense of her realness, her humanity, this shattered being that was a woman, was so shocking to me that a howl as doglike and despairing as her own rose in me unuttered and died again, to be a perpetual ghost. Ottilie slanted her eyes and peered at me, and I gazed back. The knotted wrinkles of her face were grotesquely changed, she gave a choked little whimper, and suddenly she laughed out, a kind of yelp but unmistakably laughter, and clapped her hands for joy, the grinning mouth and suffering eyes turned to the sky. Her head nodded and wagged with the clownish humor of our trundling lurching progress. The feel of the hot sun on her back, the bright air, the jolly senseless staggering of the wheels, the peacock green of the heavens: something of these had reached her. She was happy and gay, and she gurgled and rocked in her seat, leaning upon me and waving loosely around her as if to show me what wonders she saw.

Drawing the pony to a standstill, I studied her face for a while and pondered my ironical mistake. There was nothing I could do for Ottilie, selfishly as I wished to ease my heart of her; she was beyond my reach as well as any other human reach, and yet, had I not come nearer to her than I had to anyone else in my attempt to deny and bridge the distance between us, or rather, her distance from me? Well, we were both equally the fools of life, equally fellow fugitives from death. We had escaped for one day more at least. We would celebrate our good luck, we would have a little stolen holiday, a breath of spring air and freedom on this lovely, festive afternoon.

‘She feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China.’

So, in honor of Leonard Cohen, who has died, and with UD‘s new tea series in mind, she features his great song, Suzanne.

The real Suzanne “would invite Cohen to visit her apartment by the harbour in Montreal, where she would serve him Constant Comment tea…”

I’ve sung this song, with guitar when I was a tyke, and on the piano post-tyke, for forty years. Its lack of dynamics, its few, unchallenging notes for the singer (no high notes), and its strange lyrics, give it a soft hypnotic insistence, a whispery chanting truthful feel. A religious song, it sounds like a litany. It lulls you like a child’s lullaby, yet its words are charged with enigmatic-but-feels-importantly-meaningful power.

Like Henry Purcell’s great song Music For Awhile, Suzanne (and many other Cohen works) gets its simple/complex, lulling/enigmatic, balladic/liturgical mix from Cohen’s use of counterpoint as much as from its lyrics. “[T]he counterpoint lines — they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs,” says Bob Dylan. “As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music.”

The unsettling independence of Cohen’s two musical lines has, UD thinks, the same effect as the same technique in the Purcell piece, where the singer calmly and simply and affirmatively sings above a dark and complex ground bass; we are in a harmonic and at the same time disharmonic location in these sorts of songs, where manifest human assertions about the world are latently undermined and complicated by a subterranean countervailing pure-musical insinuation. This beautiful but corrosive pure music seems to come from some tragic, obdurate, humanly unavailable, realm of metaphysical power. Cohen’s songs, says Suzanna Vega, are “a combination of very real details and a sense of mystery, like prayers or spells.” Cohen himself at the end of his life said “You hear this other deep reality singing to you all the time, and much of the time you can’t decipher it. Even when I was healthy, I was sensitive to the process.”

Cohen describing his lifelong struggles with depression could be describing the dynamic of many of his songs. There were “periods when I was fully operative but the background noise of anguish still prevailed.”


There’s a gentle waltzy circularity to Suzanne, underscoring its theme of willing but confused erotic/spiritual entrapment by Suzanne/Jesus. One keeps going back to her. You want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind. That is the travel of everyone through this seductive song – it’s the sort of song whose two reconcilable/irreconcilable lines somehow reconcile you to the impossible truths of mortality.

I’m describing here a variant of great art’s cathartic power.

Of its many versions, I like Judy Collins’ best, because her very breathy, low-vibrato, balladic voice (you take in, almost pruriently, her intakes of air before many lines) is a perfect match for the drifty, openly musing, openly sexual content of the piece.


Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover

And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone


[Wisdom’s the killer – the divinity killer. Wisdom understood as the refusal to travel blind, the refusal to trust Suzanne as she takes your hand.]


And you want to travel with him, and you want to travel blind
And you think you maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with her mind

Now, Suzanne takes your hand and she leads you to the river
She’s wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love and they wil lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds her mirror
And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind


This last verse skirts sentimentality (children in the morning); yet it’s also true that whenever she sings the words And the sun pours down like honey (with melisma on sun and a soft/explosive release of air on the h of honey), UD finds forming in her eyes what she’d called triumphant tears. For her, that is the true climax of the song, the cathartic payoff where the natural/metaphysical world finally drops its dark counterpoint against us and opens up a world so unproblematically bright that we can suddenly see everything with a Blakeian double vision that makes the counterpointed world finally (fleetingly) harmonic: flowers in the garbage, heroes in the seaweed.

That Shakespeherian Trump

A brilliant little essay that doesn’t even mention his name.


As Trump’s campaign collapses into one long lost weekend, more and more observers zoom out and get literary.

There’s something both grotesque and bracing about the confrontation between Clinton, with her disciplined professionalism, and Trump, with his increasingly frenzied assertions of male prerogative. Like the female protagonist of a quest narrative — or, perhaps, of a dystopian fantasy — Clinton has made it through all her challenges to face the bull-headed Minotaur of sexism at the end of the maze.

Umberto Eco Has Died.

No one wrote about American kitsch better than Eco. This is from his 1975 book, Travels in Hyperreality. He’s describing Hearst Castle.

The striking aspect of the whole is not the quantity of antique pieces plundered from half of Europe, or the nonchalance with which the artificial tissue seamlessly connects fake and genuine, but rather the sense of fullness, the obsessive determination not to leave a single space that doesn’t suggest something, and hence the masterpiece of bricolage, haunted by horror vacui, that is here achieved. The insane abundance makes the place unlivable, just as it is hard to eat those dishes that many classy American restaurants, all darkness and wood paneling, dotted with soft red lights and invaded by nonstop music, offer the customer as evidence of his own situation of “affluence”: steaks four inches thick with lobster (and baked potato and sour cream and melted butter, and grilled tomato and horse radish sauce) so the customer will have “more and more” and can wish nothing further.

An incomparable collection of genuine pieces too, the Castle of Citizen Kane achieves a psychedelic effect and a kitsch result not because the Past is not distinguished from the Present (because after all this was how the great lords of the past amassed rare objects, and the same continuum of styles can be found in many Romanesque churches where the nave is now baroque and perhaps the campanile is eighteenth century), but because what offends is the voracity of the selection, and what distresses is the fear of being caught up by this jungle of venerable beauties, which unquestionably has its own wild flavor, its own pathetic sadness, barbarian grandeur, and sensual perversity, redolent of contamination, blasphemy, the Black Mass. It is like making love in a confessional with a prostitute dressed in a prelate’s liturgical robes reciting Baudelaire while ten electronic organs reproduce The Well-Tempered Clavier, played by Scriabin.

Oliver Sacks, a spectacular writer and a complex and intriguing human being…

… has died.

He did interesting things.

In 1974, Dr. Sacks tore his left quadriceps while running from a bull on a Norwegian mountaintop...


Like James Merrill, who notes in his great poem Santorini: Stopping the Leak that as an artist he has always suffered from “psychic incontinence” – an uncontrollable tendency to imagine the experience of others, to lose himself and get inside them sympathetically and try to give language to their experience – Sacks says he was

fascinated by my patients ….[I] cared for them deeply, and felt something of a mission to tell their stories — stories of situations virtually unknown, almost unimaginable, to the general public and, indeed, to many of my colleagues. I had discovered my vocation …

He also put it like this:

“I would like it to be thought that I had listened carefully to what patients and others have told me … that I’ve tried to imagine what it was like for them, and that I tried to convey this.”

It’s what Iris Murdoch describes as the artist’s capacity/compulsion to “see the vast interesting collection of what is other than himself and … not picture the world in his own image.” The larger Murdoch quotation makes clear that this impulse is as moral as it is aesthetic:

[M]ost great writers have a sort of calm merciful vision because they can see how different people are and why they are different. Tolerance is connected with being able to imagine centers of reality which are remote from oneself. The great artist sees the vast interesting collection of what is other than himself and does not picture the world in his own image. I think this kind of merciful objectivity is virtue…


Like Christopher Hitchens, who wrote up to the last moments of his life, a friend of Sacks said of him toward the end, ” We are pretty sure he will go with fountain pen in hand.”

E.L. Doctorow’s Death Happens.

NYT obit.


I’ve had very little experience in my life. In fact, I try to avoid experience if I can. Most experience is bad… A writer’s life is so hazardous that anything he does is bad for him. Anything that happens to him is bad: failure’s bad, success is bad; impoverishment is bad, money is very, very bad. Nothing good can happen.


For the White Noise fans among us, this comment brings to mind Murray Jay Siskind:

I’m here to avoid situations. Cities are full of situations, sexually cunning people. There are parts of my body I no longer encourage women to handle freely. I was in a situation with a woman in Detroit. She needed my semen in a divorce suit.

Great writing.

Today, Donald Trump became the second major Republican candidate to announce for president in two days,” writes [Democratic National Committee] press secretary Holly Shulman. “He adds some much-needed seriousness that has previously been lacking from the GOP field, and we look forward to hearing more about his ideas for the nation.”

Because it’s often best to play it straight.

For Saul Bellow’s Centenary.

Why is he this country’s greatest mid-twentieth century fiction writer? (Don DeLillo, a great admirer of Bellow’s, is the late twentieth/early twenty-first century great American writer.)

UD has already tried to answer this question here, and here.

On this occasion, let’s try again.

His prose is beautiful and exciting. It is actually exciting to read him, although in the novel I’m going to look at here, Herzog (1964), virtually nothing happens. A gun is carried but not shot. An “old pistol, the barrel nickel-plated,” it probably wouldn’t go off even if you tried to shoot someone with it. People have sex on bathroom floors, but this was a long time ago, and very little is said about it. A man seems to be having a nervous breakdown in the wake of his wife’s infidelity and desertion, but he never breaks down. He wanders around New York and Chicago, and then retreats to his country house.

Basically if the novel has a plot it’s about his gassing on and on about his personal life and American cultural life and then realizing that maybe he’d better shut up.


This man, Moses Herzog, is an attractive, well-heeled, well-educated, modern American, forty-seven years old. The novel will give us just a small slice of his life – a few weeks during which he tries hard to recover from the humiliation of his wife (she’s his second wife; he threw over his first for the second) having dumped him for his ex-best friend. She’s got Herzog’s kid now – they’ve got his kid – and they’ve managed to clean him out financially.

Herzog sums up his situation: “I am a mess.”

Because Herzog is an intellectual, the author of excellent articles on currents in Western civilization, much of the novel is an amusing and provocative take on the great gulf between being able to think at a high level about life and actually being able to conduct one. One of Herzog’s friends says to him: “Somewhere in every intellectual is a dumb prick. You guys can’t answer your own questions…”

Herzog himself, here and there throughout the book, puts it more grandly.

I fail to understand! thought Herzog… I fail to… but this is the difficulty with people who spend their lives in humane studies and therefore imagine once cruelty has been described in books it is ended. Of course he really knew better – understood that human beings would not live so as to be understood by the Herzogs. Why should they?


Believing that reason can make steady progress from disorder to harmony and that the conquest of chaos need not be begun anew every day. How I wish it! How I wish it were so ! How Moses prayed for this!


Not that long disease, my life, but that long convalescence, my life. The liberal-bourgeois revision, the illusion of improvement, the poison of hope.


But I, a learned specialist in intellectual history, handicapped by emotional confusion…


[He was a man who] had strong impulses, even faith, but lacked clear ideas.


Notice in the second example that we shift from first-person narration (How I wish it!) to third (How Moses prayed for this!). Like James Joyce’s Ulysses, from which Bellow learned much about writing, Herzog will shift constantly between a deeply intimate personal voice and a somehow larger, more neutral, third person perspective… Yet the reader feels that both voices belong to Moses Herzog, as if their split mirrors his split consciousness: the vain, wounded, confused, enraged, almost infantile immediacy of Herzog, and the higher level consciousness within him which tries (failingly) to maintain some intellectual dignity and clarity (those clear ideas) amid the ruin he’s made of his life.

His life is a convalescence because he’s always busy recovering from his last disastrous spell of belief in progress, reason, and self-improvement. Cruelty, chaos, hopelessness, bewilderment – these he must accept as seemingly permanent aspects of human existence, despite his ever-recurrent desire to

live in an inspired condition, to know truth, to be free, to love another, to consummate existence, to abide with death in clarity of consciousness – without which, racing and conniving to evade death, the spirit holds its breath and hopes to be immortal because it does not live …

No contest there – anyone would wish to stop both deluding and paralyzing herself in the face of her fear of non-existence; anyone would wish, on the contrary, to live a free, lucid, and passionate life. The reality of all lives, however, is a falling short of these excellent desires, a coming to know the fragility of inspired states, as well as the evasiveness of truth (Philip Roth notes that Herzog is “overpoweringly drawn to bullies and bosses, to theatrical know-it-alls, lured by their seeming certainty and by the raw authority of their unambiguity…”). It is coming to know one’s particular mind-forg’d manacles, the fragility of love, and the power of death as it “Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.”

Herzog thus muses on “the monstrousness of life, the wicked dream it was.” He’s quite angry about this, this business of existence being recalcitrant to his desires, and it makes him violent. The intensity of this reactive emotion in turn distresses him. “He was shivering with the extreme violence of thought and feeling.”

The particular content of this violence involves his wife and her lover.

He had a right to kill them. They would even know why they were dying; no explanation necessary. … In spirit she was his murderess, and therefore he was turned loose, could shoot or choke without remorse. He felt in his arms and in his fingers, and to the core of his heart, the sweet exertion of strangling – horrible and sweet, an orgastic rapture of inflicting death. He was sweating violently, his shirt wet and cold under his arms. Into his mouth came a taste of copper, a metabolic poison, a flat but deadly flavor.

Herzog is in fact full of men feeling and then acting violently because of their similar (though much more inchoate) existential frustrations. Herzog, made incendiary by the recognition that as he is a murderer, so is his wife a murderess, recovers the gun from a drawer in which his father used to keep it — his father, who, in a moment of rage against his son, came close to using it on Herzog. The same friend who tells Herzog what a dumb prick he is gets so enraged by his own life-frustrations that he routinely shatters glasses in his kitchen and then “[weeps] with anger. And also at himself, that he should have such emotions.”


And here we enter Adam Phillips territory. Phillips, a British psychoanalyst, presented a series of lectures not long ago on the BCC. He titled them On Being Too Much for Ourselves, and the focus was precisely this condition of emotional excess and the sometimes violent excess – excess of repression, let’s say – that our recognition of and horror at that excess can catalyze.

We are too much for ourselves – in our hungers and our desires, in our griefs and our commitments, in our loves and our hates – because we are unable to include so much of what we feel in the picture we have of ourselves. The whole idea of ourselves as excessive exposes how determined we are to have the wrong picture of what we are like, of how fanatically ignorant we are about ourselves.

Herzog is a magnificent novel in part because it makes a hell of an effort to include everything in the picture one human being has of himself. (Much like its inspiration, Ulysses.) The effort is necessarily a failure; but when we read Herzog what we experience is the heady “excess” that is art itself. It’s a commonplace since Aristotle that aesthetic experience is in fact one of the primary ways (along with religious experience) we “work off,” if you like, our emotional excess. It’s okay to weep cathartically at Lear; everyone else is doing it, and after all it’s not happening to us, it’s not real. Yet the emotions it evokes are entirely real. And it’s okay that we don’t fashion “clear ideas” out of witnessing Lear, a work of art somehow at once about thought and feeling, and very satisfyingly so; and yet we can’t – aren’t supposed to – pin words to the experience. To read the gorgeous word-torrent that is Herzog is to be able to give in to “violent” aesthetic ecstasy even as we empathize with “violent” (excessive) suffering.


Saul Bellow and Don DeLillo share an interest in the fate of these hard realities in the modern and then postmodern world. Bellow’s post-war narrator is haunted not only by the Holocaust, but by the weird rapidity with which that world of pain transformed, in America, into a world of affluent well-being (well-being; not profound-desire-satisfaction):

[The dead in the gas chambers] flow out in smoke from the extermination chimneys, and leave you in the clear light of historical success of the West.

By the time we get to DeLillo’s White Noise (1984), “the Holocaust” is not merely an abstraction; it’s an entertainment. Professor Jack Gladney gathers up his students from their frisbee game on the campus green and has them watch grainy black and white images of the Nuremberg rallies for a few minutes, after which they return to their game. While Herzog agonizingly tries to square the nightmare past with the well-lit present, in DeLillo’s world, no one’s even trying.


Let me end this long post with a close reading of a paragraph from the novel that epitomizes what I’m trying to get at. Its manifest content is suffering, and we are comprehending and taking seriously that suffering as we read. But the main thing we’re experiencing – because of the lushness, the wildness, the discipline (the excess under technical constraint), of the brilliant prose – is delight. And this delight is a kind of modest transcendence of the problem of excess about which Phillips writes.

In the mild end of the afternoon, later, at the waterside in Woods Hole, waiting for the ferry, he looked through the green darkness at the net of bright reflections on the bottom. He loved to think about the power of the sun, about light, about the ocean. The purity of the air moved him. There was no stain in the water, where schools of minnows swam. Herzog sighed and said to himself, “Praise God — praise God.” His breathing had become freer. His heart was greatly stirred by the open horizon; the deep colors; the faint iodine pungency of the Atlantic rising from weeds and mollusks; the white, fine, heavy sand; but principally by the green transparency as he looked down to the stony bottom webbed with golden lines. Never still. If his soul could cast a reflection so brilliant, and so intensely sweet, he might beg God to make such use of him. But that would be too simple. But that would be too childish. The actual sphere is not clear like this, but turbulent, angry. A vast human action is going on. Death watches. So if you have some happiness, conceal it. And when your heart is full, keep your mouth shut also.

Keep your mouth shut also. Here are the last lines of Herzog:

At this time he had no messages for anyone. Nothing. Not a single word.

We know that the universe is violence – the stars, the galaxies… Moses Herzog spends a lot of time in the novel gazing at the night sky and thinking about this – the cosmic turbulence beyond our human turbulence. What I’ve just cited is in fact a scene of self-comforting, of Herzog gazing entranced at tranquil depth — not up at the vast fires above, but down at sweet clear water. His first sentence has a long lulling prayer-like feel, mirroring the calm gentle rapt condition of the main character at this moment. It has many clauses and its words are soft, with gentle letters/sounds in them (W, S, M). They are simple words. Many are monosyllabic. We have left Herzog’s theoretical disquisitions behind and settled into a dreamlike calm similar to Peter Walsh’s as he sits on a park bench in Mrs Dalloway. Note that when he wakes up from his nap on the bench, Walsh thinks “Life itself, every moment of it, every drop of it, here, this instant, now, in the sun, in Regent’s Park, was enough.” Enough! Not some too muchness we have to account for, assimilate into our picture of ourselves, fail to assimilate in its too-muchness, be horrified by that failure, and so forth. No, the outcome of these meditative states seems precisely a new reconciliation to the limitations of existence, a calming down of what Herzog describes in this way:

Eager impulses, love, intensity, passionate dizziness that make a man sick. How long can I stand such inner beating? The front wall of this body will go down. My whole life beating against its boundaries, and the force of balked longings coming back as stinging poison. Evil, evil, evil…! Excited, characteristic, ecstatic love turning to evil.

Here, on the other hand, there’s brightness, purity, light, no stain – here is what Herzog, in his persistent innocence (the American trait that so infuriates his European father), seeks and finds oceanside. Nothing is “balked” – one’s vision is clear through to the bottom. Sweetness, pungency, transparency, a golden quality.

“Never still.” Of course this is the never stillness of earthly nature, whose constant movement has nothing in common with our agonized impulses; and our reminder of this, this world of motion without self-consciousness and misery and longings, is consoling, comforting. Slipping into a kind of spiritual surrender, Herzog goes so far as to entertain the idea of being called by God to enter into nature, to become pure soul. But no – his place is in the “actual sphere” of humanity, with all its vileness. With his own vileness. He’ll stay in the battle of life, being careful to conceal from malignant humanity what happiness he might have been able to rescue from this theater of war.

The remedy for bad poetry is good limericks.

The London Review of Books publishes, in its June 4 issue, a rivulet of consciousness by the poet Craig Raine. “Gatwick” expresses the thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season (speaking of which, read this if you want a good poem about being a dried up old guy), and readers are not only grossed out by this dirty old man poem, but they rightly note that in any case it’s a very bad poem. (Nothing wrong with its subject matter, by the way. Great prose as well as poetry has been written about being horny.)

The poet’s passport control agent at the airport tells him she studied his poetry. He writes:

We are close. We are both grinning.
We have come
together by a miracle.
Two sinners simultaneously sinning.
In passport control. No shame.

Miracle? Sinning? Where in this grubby meandering poem is there anything to justify language like that? Nor does it come across as ironic, as it might in, say, T.S. Eliot. It’s just there, lazily wanting to lift the meaning of the encounter, and of the poem, to someplace higher than the merely horny.

Rather than just complain about the LRB printing this poem, one reader wrote a limerick about it.

There once was a poet who went
To very great lengths to invent
An excuse for his boner
Which shamed its poor owner
And turned his shorts into a tent.

Now that’s great poetry.

Next Page »

Latest UD posts at IHE