University-Level Math, Greece.

[T]he Athens Special Affairs Unit carried out an inspection in the Development Grants Account of the National Technical University of Athens and found that during the years 2002-2013, the university submitted false income declarations and as a result it failed to pay 20,796,216 euros in tax returns.

“An irreplaceable repository of Greece’s literary history and heritage”…

… has gone under.

Hestia Publishers and Booksellers,

known as the Gallimard of Greece,
published the Greek translation
of Don DeLillo’s White Noise


along with many other
great modern novels in
translation. It has
not been able to survive
the Greek economic fiasco.

An article attempting to account for the remarkable success of a new fascist party in Greece…

… reminds us about the continued reality of life at Greek universities.

Blogger Konstantinos Palaskas, a contributor to the liberal Ble Milo (Blue Apple) blog, says that the antics of [Greek] left-wing and anarchist troublemakers during protest marches and university and school occupations over the last 30 years, and the public’s acceptance of them, have significantly influenced the players of the new far-right.

“The left’s violent interventions, its disregard for the law, and the acceptance of its lawbreaking activity by a section of society – combined with the state’s tolerance of all this – were a lesson for people at the other end [of the political spectrum],” said Palaskas.

The habit forms at an early stage. The governing of universities has for years been hijacked by political parties and youth party officials. The country only recently scrapped an asylum law that prevented police from entering university campuses, hence allowing left-leaning activists to rampage through laboratories and lecture theaters.

Despite incidents of rectors being taken hostage, university offices being trashed and labs used for non-academic purposes, many Greeks remain uncomfortable with the idea of police entering university grounds …

Greece: Hopelessly out of it on higher education…

… and stubborn as a damn mule about it. The country runs a disgraceful state university system, but won’t give equal rights to private universities because it knows a monopoly when it sees one.

Many of the private schools are better than the state schools.

This is not hard to accomplish.

“The way [the private schools] operate reveals to Greek parents the ills of universities,” [the head of a group of private colleges] said, referring to the crowded classes and lax monitoring of student attendance often complained about in the state sector.

… “No other public sector university environment in the E.U. is as self-centered as Greece’s,” said Jens Bastian, a senior fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy.

He said lack of competition had hindered innovation and led to many outstanding students and academics continuing their careers abroad.

“When did you last hear of a stand-out Greek research paper?” he said.

The EU has had it. They just sent the Greeks a letter saying they’re going to sic the European Court of Justice on them if they don’t join the rest of the world.

As Greece…

implodes, University Diaries readers may find her extensive coverage of the Greek university system of interest.

To find my posts about Greece, you can click on Foreign Universities (under Categories) and scroll through for Greek posts; you can also type Greece Universities or some similar phrase into her search engine.

Greek universities are only one of many arenas of outrageous public spending and outrageous corruption in that country. But they’re a very good entry point to the larger Greek economic failure.

“The court heard of the building and refurbishing of luxury villas, the acquisition of expensive cars such as a Ferrari, holidays on exotic locations and so on – paid from university funds.”

When it comes to university presidents looting their schools, America lags well behind Greece, where the chancellor of Pandio University set the standard by leading (he was only found guilty of failing to note the illegal removal of ten million dollars of university funds, but he seems to have personally benefited from said removal) an extensive conspiracy of robber-administrators. The Greek state gave the school money; the school’s leadership took the money – that seems to have been the straightforward approach – and bought the stuff listed in this post’s headline.

Here in the States, the business of leaders draining millions and billions of university funds is more subtle, more complicated. President Lawrence Summers’ mad insane interest rate speculation cost Harvard one billion dollars but I mean … you know … he meant well. Yeshiva University’s trustees no doubt thought they were enriching the school as much as themselves by their extensive conflicts of interest coupled with avid investments in pieces of work like fellow trustee Bernie Madoff. In the event, they cost the school $1.3 billion.

Not that we don’t boast a few Greek-style university presidents. Karen Pletz, while president of Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences, allegedly paid for her Lexus convertible and a series of amazing foreign trips by the simple expedient of removing what these things cost from the university’s reserves and placing those sums in her private account.


James Ramsey, now routinely described as the disgraced ex-president of the University of Louisville, stands somewhere between high-minded removalists like Summers and flat-out Ferrari larcenists. UL let him, over the years, grow to a big strapping tyrant with his fingers all over every money source available at this public institution in one of America’s poorest states.

I say let him, but as Pandio and other examples suggest, it takes a village to pillage. Ramsey surrounded himself with what one retired UL professor, reviewing the school’s sordid history, calls fellow pirates – people who took as much pleasure in pillaging as he, and who of course had no cause to expose his piratical deeds.

Dennis Menezes, who spent almost forty years at the U of Smell, takes a sentimental journey through some highlights:

Robert Felner, the former education who ended up doing jail time for misappropriating millions of dollars; Alisha Ward siphoning of hundreds of thousands of dollars from U of L’s Equine Industry Program; “Sweetheart contracts” at the College of Business, where administrators continued to receive their significantly higher salaries even after stepping down from their administrative positions, a practice rarely seen at other universities; the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of dollars stolen by Perry Chadwyck Vaughn at the School of Medicine…

At some point the leadership of a university gets so notoriously filthy that career criminals like Felner make a point of applying to work there, thus amplifying the pirate-load. I mean to say that when Menezes tries to puzzle out what makes a university a criminal enterprise, he fails to land on the obvious: Once your university is known to tolerate – nay, encourage – piracy, pirates from all over the world get on board.

The journey to just awful is smoothed by other campus assets, in particular — natch — sports. Let me suggest how this probably works at places like U of L, where, you recall, an entire sports dorm was transformed into a whorehouse for the use of recruits and their fathers. The pattern at sex-crime-crazed places like Penn State, Baylor, and Louisville is for the president to be invisible while the AD, the actual president of the school, does whatever the fuck he and his massive program like. At criminal enterprises like U of L, a president like Ramsey actively takes advantage, let’s say, of all the big scandalous sports noise in the foreground to quietly do his removalist thing.

More than that, enormous sports programs tend to bring quite a few truly scummy and twisted people to a campus and reward those people with enormous salaries and enormous respect (if they win games). Over time the powerful and often scummy sports contingent defines the ethos of the whole university, as in: Jerry Sandusky was EMERITUS PROFESSOR Sandusky at Penn State, I’ll have you know. UD attended a Knight Commission meeting in DC where a coach at a local university stood up and insisted that athletic staff at American universities should have professor status. “They’re educators as much as anyone else. It’s elitist to think otherwise.” So athletics, at many universities including Louisville, certainly does its bit to vulgarize and corrupt everyone, making it much easier for already sketchy people like Ramsey to assume they’re living in a sleaze-friendly world.

UD ain’t saying you must have a big sports program for endemic corruption, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

Anyway. This post is long enough. We’ll be following U of L as they try to decide whether it’s worth suing Ramsey and his pirate crew to get back some of the many millions they removed. We’ll also follow U of L’s difficult effort to find a new president. Would you want to preside over a school suing your predecessor for millions of dollars? Hell, the thing could even end up in criminal court.

Update, Greek Universities

As for student representation in the Rectorate, this is another privilege given to students that essentially ties the hands of university administrations. Students seldom agree with administration decisions. For instance, the issue of hiring private security staff for campuses in 2014 was met with violent reactions from party youths. No security staff was ever hired. As for Rectors and Rectorates, they cannot even report thefts taking place in campuses. When computers are stolen from university premises, university administrations report that “they are missing,” because theft is too strong a word to use.


Can’t argue with the results.

“There is a sense that the university is reeling.”

UD hasn’t encountered many totally corrupt American universities. We’re not like Italy and Greece, where one can find schools whose main function is to transfer all available funds to the institution’s leadership. The closest we’ve come is the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and even there they’ve had to shutter much of their shake-down operation after endless unpleasantness with the FBI. (I’m of course talking here only about legitimate universities. The for-profit tax syphons are almost entirely about transfer of all possible funds to management and investors. Whole other category.)

But the University of Louisville, some of whose students and faculty, as a local reporter notes, are “reeling” from one financial or sexual scandal after another, is emerging as America’s new UMDNJ. And it might be instructive to pause at its latest scandal – high-level med school resignations in the wake of an FBI investigation into allegations that (in the words of the only worthwhile UL trustee – a man who subsequently left the board in disgust) a university vice president “owns a piece of a company getting paid by a part of the university that he controls.” It’s alleged that he and several of his UL cronies have essentially stolen around eight million dollars from the university.

No bid contracts and bogus high-paying jobs to friends and family also seem to be part of this particular scandal. But that’s the typical threesome at corrupt schools, where no one’s around to stop you from total corruption:

1. conflict of interest for personal enrichment;
2. no bid contracts to cronies (these often feature kickbacks to you);
3. the creation of pretend jobs for cronies and relatives.

At schools like UL, you don’t do just one or two of these things; you do them all.

How does a school become systemically rotten in the way UL is systemically rotten? How did things get so out of control in virtually all areas of the school’s operation? (I’m not even going to talk about UL athletics, which has been a sewer for years.)

If you ask UD, this can only happen when absolute ignorance of – maybe even contempt for – the nature of a university prevails not only in parts of the local culture (that y’all and shut ma mouth land) but in the president’s office and on the board of trustees. UMDNJ was run by brainless Jersey wise guys; UL seems to be run by corporate backslappers. Even now, with the school in absolute tatters, UL has chosen as its spokesperson a look on the sunny side nitwit who attacks the press for its negativism, denies anything’s the matter, and says stuff that’s too stupid to parse:

“I’m not willing to cross that bridge and give you any information that’s going to appease your accusations.”


A school run – flamboyantly run – largely to make money for the people who lead it will attract unsavory people. Unsavory people want to work at places like UL, since it seems unlikely that anyone at the institution will impede their corrupt activities. This is the way that corrupt schools stay corrupt, and indeed tend to become more corrupt. They attract corrupt people.

UD predicts that UL will, under this extraordinary pressure, finally ditch its president, who has lost all vestige of institutional control. But getting rid of him will cost the school many millions of dollars, and the chance of replacing him with anyone better is small.


UD‘s favorite Don DeLillo novel, The Names, is being made into a film.

It took UD many readings to warm up to – to begin to understand – this moody broody beautifully written book. Indeed its hyper-seriousness means I think that the main problem the director will encounter is avoiding pretentiousness.

Then again, film isn’t such a great medium for big ideas (see for instance Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being), so maybe the writer and director will opt to avoid the various philosophies of language in the book… a book which, now that I think of it, could have been titled The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Both Kundera and DeLillo are interested in how people ground their lives and stop drifting about in the pleasant or unpleasant white noise of postmodernity. The Names is full of archeologists desperately digging under the earth for meaning, presence, authenticity, a sense of grounded existence; it is also full of international security consultants constantly up over the earth, flying from world capital to world capital as they write their reports for corporations wanting to know if it’s safe to do business in Karachi…

There’s a third existential location in the novel: Greece. That’s where the American narrator, James Axton, lives and works; and as a typically white noisy American, he gazes throughout the narrative at the achieved, grounded lives of the Greeks – neither low nor high, but simply here, on the earth.

Laundry hung in the walled gardens, always this sense of realized space, common objects, domestic life going on in that sculpted hush. Stairways bent around houses, disappearing. It was a sea chamber raised to the day, to the detailing light, a textured pigment on the hills. There was something artless and trusting in the place despite the street meanders, the narrow turns and ravels. Striped flagpoles and aired-out rugs, houses joined by closed wooden balconies, plants in battered cans, a willingness to share the oddments of some gathering-up. Passageways captured the eye with one touch, a sea green door, a handrail varnished to a nautical gloss. A heart barely beating in the summer heat, and always the climb, the small birds in cages, the framed approaches to nowhere. Doorways were paved with pebble mosaics, the terrace stones were outlined in white.

A good film could do a lot, visually, with the contrast between that sort of scene and this one:

At the boarding gate, the last of the static chambers, the stillness is more compact, the waiting narrowed. He will notice hands and eyes, the covers of books, a man with a turban and netted beard. The crew is Japanese, the security Japanese… He hears Tamil, Hindi, and begins curiously to feel a sense of apartness, something in the smell of the place, the amplified voice in the distance. It doesn’t feel like earth. And then aboard, even softer seats. He will feel the systems running power through the aircraft, running light, running air. To the edge of the stratosphere, world hum, the sudden night. Even the night seems engineered, Japanese, his brief sleep calmed by the plane’s massive heartbeat.

Newspaper poem.

The source of the poem is here.


What Will Survive of Us Is Love

A team of excavators find
Bony lovers intertwined.

Flickering light illumes
Their prior-day Arundel Tomb.


Atop a terraced slope,
Their bodies yield to isotope:

The crania of their burial bones
Have been pelted by occultic stones.

Blended Classroom

Not sure how I missed this one.

“The Names is a prophetic, pre-9/11 masterpiece: a 21st-century novel published in 1982.”

Wonderful brief appreciation of UD‘s beloved Don DeLillo in the Guardian, where Geoff Dyer reckons that if the Booker Prize had been open in the past to Americans, three of DeLillo’s novels would have won.

Yet Dyer doesn’t really get at why The Names is such a great novel. For that he’d need more space, because there are lots of reasons.

Above all, The Names is extremely beautifully written.

One recurrent tension in the book is between the white noisy, airy, superficial, radically present, restless life of postmodern Americans, and the deeper, grounded, realer life of pretty much everyone else. The Americans literally spend much of their time up in the air – they are multinational businesspeople, constantly flying from place to place. Here DeLillo evokes the feel of air travel:

At the boarding gate, the last of the static chambers, the stillness is more compact, the waiting narrowed. He will notice hands and eyes, the covers of books, a man with a turban and netted beard. The crew is Japanese, the security Japanese… He hears Tamil, Hindi, and begins curiously to feel a sense of apartness, something in the smell of the place, the amplified voice in the distance. It doesn’t feel like earth. And then aboard, even softer seats. He will feel the systems running power through the aircraft, running light, running air. To the edge of the stratosphere, world hum, the sudden night. Even the night seems engineered, Japanese, his brief sleep calmed by the plane’s massive heartbeat.

Where to start? With even the night seems engineered, no? Not only for its strange but true content, the way so many hugely powerful and transformative techno-moments are managed for us, their massive underlying powerful systems quieted and calmed for us (WhisperJet), their deformations of nature so radical that from their theater of simulacra they can seem to pull open the curtains of our very morning noon and night … But also for its poetry, the long ee sound eerily recurrent not only in this phrase but throughout the passage (the repetition of Japanese, of feel, and then, after seems engineered, brief sleep…). And note along with this incantatory word music the language of the spirit, prayer, loftiness (chambers, stillness, stratosphere) — “it doesn’t feel like earth.”

The character senses, is alive to, a certain affiliation between traditional spiritual experience and what he is being lifted into here; but the language of radical artifice, and of a kind of drugged drowsiness, makes clear that this experience is far from truly spiritual. It is empty, engineered.

The other side of the tension is DeLillo’s evocation throughout the book (most of which is set in Greece) of grounded existence, or, more precisely, the postmodern American’s yearning toward it. The main character feels it, sort of, when talking one beautiful quiet evening with his wife:

This talk we were having about familiar things was itself ordinary and familiar. It seemed to yield up the mystery that is part of such things, the nameless way in which we sometimes feel our connections to the physical world. Being here. Everything is where it should be. Our senses are collecting at the primal edge. The woman’s arm trailing down a shroud, my wife, whatever her name. I felt I was in an early stage of teenage drunkenness, lightheaded, brilliantly happy and stupid, knowing the real meaning of every word.

We sometimes feel our connections to the physical world. And again in a passage about Greece:

The sun, the colors, the sea light, the great black bees, what physical delight, what fertile slow-working delight. Then the goatherd on the barren hill, the terrible wind…. Look to the small things for your truth, your joy. This is the Greek specific.

The Greek Ideal

In Athens, the Olympic Ideal is not just for the Olympics. Scenes from the Greek Cup final:

[The game was] halted when a firecracker was thrown onto the pitch.

Before the match Panathinaikos supporters threw broken plastic seats at riot police on the pitch and flares, firecrackers and other objects were thrown between supporters.

Police used tear gas to bring order and the presidents of both clubs, Giannis Alafouzos of Panathinaikos and Ivan Savvidis of PAOK, pleaded to fans from the stadium’s loudspeakers for calm.

Outside the stadium a police car was destroyed by a firebomb thrown by a motorbike rider.

One coach carrying PAOK supporters was attacked with rocks by Panathinaikos fans causing minor damage to the vehicle.

A large section of Athens Olympic Stadium was left empty to separate the two groups of supporters while a police helicopter kept a watch from above.

… Police … arrested the two owners of a PAOK supporters’ clubhouse in the centre of Athens after confiscating fireworks, iron bars, bottles filled with petrol, knives and baseball bats.

Some 4,000 police officers were deployed to keep the peace in the Greek capital for the match.


And as for the Platonic Academy:

Photini Tomai, a Wilson Center favorite, and Director of the Service of Diplomatic and Historical Archives of the Hellenic Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is running for the European Parliament. Her background:

Foreign Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos appointed her as the country’s special envoy for Holocaust issues, a decision that withdrawn that June after 40 historians and other figures petitioned the minister over their concerns at the “unethical way” Tomai has run the ministry’s archives.

They said access to the archives involved “a very complicated and lengthy process in which the head of the archive takes part herself, and sometimes intrusively”. They also claimed that the “30-year rule” is not applied in many cases, meaning files from the 1950s remain inaccessible. Nevertheless, Tomai publishes extracts from files otherwise out of bounds to researchers in her Sunday newspaper articles.

“In a time when dozens of civil servants are suspended without judicial or disciplinary convictions, we, the undersigned, believe that if Ms Tomai remains the head of the Diplomatic and Historical Archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, especially after her conviction, it will raise major issues in academic ethics and in equal treatment. For the same reason we believe that Ms Tomai could not represent Greece in international organisations, conferences and meetings, jeopardising the prestige of our country.”

But that’s not all, folks!

In an October 2013 appeal court decision that has only recently been published, Photini Tomai, director of the foreign ministry’s archive, was told again that she must pay €20,000 in compensation to two authors after she published a children’s book that they wrote under her own name.

The decision confirmed an earlier ruling by Athens first instance court that Tomai was guilty of copyright infringement. That court ruled that a book entitled 1,2,3 … 11 True Olympian Stories, … was the work of screenwriter Eleni Kefalopoulou and her husband, film director Aris Fotiadis.

The couple told the court that, ahead of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, they came up with an idea to make an animated series on ancient Greek Olympians and sent a script to the national broadcaster ERT and a number of private companies. On the recommendation of friends, they also sent a copy to Tomai, in her position as head of the foreign ministry’s archives.

The authors received no offers and animation was never made. But in 2008, they noticed 1,2,3 … 11 True Olympian Stories in a bookstore and immediately recognised the characters in it as ones they had created. In many instances, they saw that text had been copied verbatim and the court agreed.

As we all begin swigging olive oil…

… because we’ve lately been told that the Mediterranean diet is the only way to go, let us note that poets have long been swigging olives and their oil and the trees that hold the olives, and there must be a reason for this olive-love on the part of so many poets. The most recent of poetic olivephiles, A.E. Stallings (read UD‘s appreciation of a poem of hers here), has just been nominated for a National Book Critics Circle prize, and the name of the nominated book is … Olives.


A quick read of a bunch of poems featuring things olive confirms that poets like the olivesque because… Well, let’s go to the tape! Let’s do five olive poems! I bet we’ll discover that all poets – at least all the poets on our list — i.e., Richard Wilbur, James Merrill, Karl Shapiro, Rachel Hadas, A.E. Stallings — like the same stuff about olives.

Pour la première, M. Wilbur, “Grasse: The Olive Trees.” (Go here for the complete poem.) So the poet’s in the south of France, marveling at the incredible lushness – almost to excess – of natural bounty there:

… the grass
Mashes under the foot, and all is full
Of heat and juice and a heavy jammed excess.

… The whole South swells
To a soft rigor, a rich and crowded calm.

But no – not everything around the poet is like that:

… olives lie
Like clouds of doubt against the earth’s array.

And why? Well, they look different, for one thing, all gray and gnarly and oldish and “anxious,” says the poet, in their thin arthritic presence.

What’s their problem? Their problem is that they’re at odds with their lush relaxed just let the rain drip all over me and the sun warm me up setting; they don’t trust the natural generosity of the cosmos; or, rather, they – like Kafka’s Hunger Artist – know that no matter how generous the universe, the lives it gives us are finite and difficult, and we will always be hungry and thirsty, wanting more joy, and more life. The olive is

a tree which grows
Unearthly pale, which ever dims and dries,
And whose great thirst, exceeding all excess,
Teaches the South it is not paradise.

So the olive is there to remind us that even in our most famous paradises – here, the south of France – the reality of life and death pertains: Our lives are treacherous, we’re barely getting by, and we grow unearthly pale, asking of existence compensations and fulfillments that will never occur. This is earth, not paradise, says the olive tree, and this is an important message, worth the poet’s notice…

Just so in James Merrill, the olive features in a poem about the frustration of being mortal, of having too little time to overcome one’s convoluted beginnings and break through to the elemental paradisal person one wishes to be (see Philip Larkin’s Aubade: “An only life can take so long to climb / Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never…”). In “After Greece,” Merrill describes coming back to the States, back to his personal history, back to the story that made him and that he’ll never – however many times he leaves for Greece – escape. It’s an earnest New Englandy sort of inheritance – Christian, or maybe if not Christian at least animated by “Art, Public Spirit…” But Merrill wants neither of these – neither the moral piety of the religious life, nor the moral piety of the post-religious public spirited life. He wants essentials:

how I want
Essentials: salt, wine, olive, the light…

The poet is – in Wilbur’s words about the olive tree – “rooted hunger wrung.” His hunger for essentials has him calling out to the olives, begging their sun-laden natural fulfillment for himself; but “I have scarcely named you” when instead of that idealized earthy plentitude, what materializes is the gradually killing radiance of the Greek sun, turning things “unearthly pale.”

Shapiro? Same old same old.

The fruit is hard,
Multitudinous, acid, tight on the stem;
The leaves ride boat-like in the brimming sun,
Going nowhere and scooping up the light.
It is the silver tree, the holy tree,
Tree of all attributes.

Now on the lawn
The olives fall by thousands, and I delight
To shed my tennis shoes and walk on them,
Pressing them coldly into the deep grass,
In love and reverence for the total loss.

All attributes, multitudinous, holding on to life tightly; and yet the olive is going to fall to the ground, pregnant with nothing, and the poet celebrates this reverent opportunity the fall gives him to press his feet into the “cold pastoral” grave of his own abundant nothingness.

Next up, Rachel Hadas, who just says it:

Ideas of the eternal,

once molten, harden; cool.
Oil, oil in the lock.

The door to her country house gets old and stiff and hard to open, so she softens it with olive oil to make it young again. But as she gets older ideas of infinitely available regeneration “harden; cool.”

oil in the lock; the key
dipped in lubricity
the boychild’s shining skin
me tired to the bone

And finally Stallings herself – perhaps the most evolved of the poets – finds in the olive a rich equivalent to her acceptance of limitation, her understanding that to be always hungry is not the ideal human outcome. Of the poets, she’s the only one who claims the olive:

These fruits are mine –
Small bitter drupes
Full of the golden past and cured in brine.

That is, Stallings seems to have arrived at the proper attitude to take toward the olive. Not morbid, like Shapiro, or somewhat puling like Merrill. Not somewhat hectoring or lecturing, like Wilbur, who concludes a bit too authoritatively with his reminder to us; and not meanderingly wistful like Hadas (I mean, they’re all fine poems; I just think Stallings is the best). But rather with a toughed-up wisdom, and even a joy based on that difficult knowledge.

Sometimes a craving comes for salt, not sweet…

for the truth, the bitter truth, that is, and the olive contains it. Its gradually darkening skin “charts the slow chromatics of a bruise,” the gradual process, also chronicled in the Hadas poem, of one’s recognition of mortality. The olive is

Daylight packed in treasuries of oil

Paradigmatic summers that decline
Like singular archaic nouns, the troops
Of hours in retreat.

So learn to love that fact of decline and retreat, that singular fast-becoming-archaic thing which is you, packed tightly with your daylight memories into the skin of an indehiscent mind, a mind strong enough not to split when it arrives at maturity.

“The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul …”

This Chesterton quotation is one of those very fine, very annoying things we say to each other at times like these, late Decembers, year ends, year beginnings. Yes yes soul must

clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

and louder sing and

You must change your life.

Take a look at the most significant publishing launch for the American new year if you want to know how tunefully renewed our souls are.

Our souls are clapping pills down their gullets.


Still, we want what we want. We want vivacity, and we want wisdom. We want to feel we are truly alive, and we want to feel we are living in the truth.

This long clunky poem
written in 1897 by Edwin Arlington Robinson – “Octaves” – gets at the problem kind of nicely… Or, since it’s not a very good poem, it gets at the problem in a way ol’ UD finds moving. The bad writing, the unachieved philosophical ambition, the naivete — UD likes these. She likes the peculiar way they’re deployed here, in this particular poem, which records the sound of one man trying to clap.

Some of it’s claptrap, actually, which UD also likes.

You’re welcome to whomp yourself up with Onward Christian Soldiers as you anticipate the new year; UD‘s looking for lyrics that capture the way we shout RETREAT just as loudly as we shout ADVANCE.


So let’s see. We’re not gonna do the whole poem because as I said it’s quite long, one eight-line verse after another after another.

Start here, in the middle of the eighth stanza.

[T]hough forlornly joyless be the ways
We travel, the compensate spirit-gleams
Of Wisdom shaft the darkness here and there,
Like scattered lamps in unfrequented streets.

Clunky, yes? Forlornly joyless feels not only redundant but unpretty as language; and the little points of light that lucid vivid soulfulness sheds are dully compared to streetlights… Reminds UD of Tennyson’s arch, also a dull image:

[A]ll experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

And this is also an image of the glinting into this dull world of the highly lit existence – the new life, the new soul, the new year – that beckons us.

Where does a dead man go?—The dead man dies;
But the free life that would no longer feed
On fagots of outburned and shattered flesh
Wakes to a thrilled invisible advance,
Unchained (or fettered else) of memory;
And when the dead man goes it seems to me
‘T were better for us all to do away
With weeping, and be glad that he is gone.

Let the dead bury the dead, says Robinson; or, rather, Robinson natters away about it while Blake, say, or Allen Ginsberg, or – a prose favorite of UD‘s – Henry Miller – gets it said faster and louder and more jazzily… But, again, UD finds the nattery quality here, the sense of Robinson talking to himself, inquiring rather than announcing, attractive, faithful to most people’s mental reality. A “thrilled invisible advance” is very nice — if one can free oneself from one’s past (UD‘s friend David Kosofsky, who died last year, once lamented in an email to her that he was

feeling self-loathing at never having wrestled my adolescent issues to even a stalemate.)

one can perhaps experience an exciting inward forward motion, a surge of open possibility — that new life everyone’s on about…

But this operation – this wrestling – will probably have to be pretty brutal — “be glad that he is gone.” Blake writes: “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” We may not have the stomach for this psychic savagery. We may prefer, like David, a weak form of wrestling which makes us hate our inability to have done with things and move on.

So through the dusk of dead, blank-legended,
And unremunerative years we search
To get where life begins, and still we groan
Because we do not find the living spark
Where no spark ever was; and thus we die,
Still searching, like poor old astronomers
Who totter off to bed and go to sleep,
To dream of untriangulated stars.

Very nice, no? Every now and then Robinson knocks one out of the park. Untriangulated stars is spectacular, as is blank-legended… And what’s the point here? Only that we set out on our new yearly reanimations all wrong; we assume some originary point of purity, of full light, from which we have strayed into the dark, and we piss our lives away trying to get back (like Citizen Kane with Rosebud) to that first principle, Gatsby’s just-flicked-on green light. We think of ourselves as that singular Thing, a Thing not yet triangulated (of course even if we get as far as accepting triangulation, that’s probably still tragic – think of the images of blighted stars amid the sound ones in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and in Absalom! Absalom!), not yet implicated in the convoluted compromised crowded human story, not yet part of a pattern… We piss our lives away dreaming of getting back to some …

Hold on. Gotta get on the train back to DC. Later.


We lack the courage to be where we are:—
We love too much to travel on old roads,
To triumph on old fields; we love too much
To consecrate the magic of dead things,
And yieldingly to linger by long walls
Of ruin, where the ruinous moonlight
That sheds a lying glory on old stones
Befriends us with a wizard’s enmity.

Not only dead people and their ghostly power over us; not only a disabling sense of our own now-dimmed-but-somehow-maybe-reignitable selves; we also have to reckon with the romance of escapism, the magic of dead things, the malignant wizardry of a world softened into friendly, familiar and lulling shapes. James Merrill, contemplating his love for Greece, writes

[H]ow I want
Essentials: salt, wine, olive, the light, the scream
No! I have scarcely named you,
And look, in a flash you stand full-grown before me,
Row upon row, Essentials …

You want the hard sharp present-time clarity of things themselves; but even when you go to the trouble of moving to iconic things-in-themselves locations, things-in-themselves tend as soon as you’ve noted and named them to shrink into abstractions — the abstraction in this case being, well, Essentials

Merrill writes as a poet desperate to write the world, to perceive and express reality. (Greece meant as much to him as it did to Jack Gilbert and as it does to Don DeLillo.) As does Robinson:

The prophet of dead words defeats himself:
Whoever would acknowledge and include
The foregleam and the glory of the real,
Must work with something else than pen and ink
And painful preparation: he must work
With unseen implements that have no names,
And he must win withal, to do that work,
Good fortitude, clean wisdom, and strong skill.

That last line is a real let-down; the stanza takes us from Keats (“pipe to the spirit/ditties of no tone”) to the Boy Scouts (fortitude, wisdom, skill). But it makes its point well enough: If you want to grasp and express concrete essentials, you are going to have to do a good deal of private soulwork, as Stephen Dedalus says at the end of Portrait:

I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

And – not to lay the discouragement on too thick, but … you recall how well Dedalus did at that ambition, right?

Still, writers can sometimes grasp essentials, internalize them… Or rather say they can metabolize them… Give them new life, a new soul.

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