“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

greekwhitenoise

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

Cool.

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.

“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 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.

A New Yorker Appreciation of Jack Gilbert…

… who died last week, includes this poem.

Transgressions

He thinks about how important the sinning was,
how much his equity was in simply being alive.
Like the sloth. The days and nights wasted,
doing nothing important adding up to
the favorite years. Long hot afternoons
watching ants while the cicadas railed
in the Chinese elm about the brevity of life.
Indolence so often when no one was watching.
Wasting June mornings with the earth singing
all around. Autumn afternoons doing nothing
but listening to the siren voices of streams
and clouds coaxing him into the sweet happiness
of leaving all of it alone. Using up what
little time we have, relishing our mortality,
waltzing slowly without purpose. Neglecting
the future. Content to let the garden fail
and the house continue on in its usual disorder.
Yes, and coveting his neighbors’ wives.
Their clean hair and soft voices. The seraphim
he was sure were in one of the upstairs rooms.
Hesitant occasions of pride, feeling himself feeling.
Waking in the night and lying there. Discovering
the past in wonderful stillness. The other,
older pride. Watching the ambulance take away
the man whose throat he had crushed. Above all,
his greed. Greed of time, of being. This world,
the pine woods stretching all brown or bare
on either side of the railroad tracks in the winter
twilight. Him feeling the cold, sinfully unshriven.

Well, I wrote about a cicada poem here, and the cicadas do the same thing in John Blair’s poem that they do here in Gilbert’s. They give out, says Blair, with a “warning wail” about, Gilbert says, “the brevity of life.”

Jack Gilbert is famous (among poetry types) for having had so much “greed of time, of being” that early in his career he turned his back on America, and the poetry world (in which he had already had high-profile successes), and lived pretty much alone on Greek islands. As “Trangressions” makes clear, Gilbert’s recognition of life’s brevity catalyzed a determination to be, not so much to do. He wrote some – not many – books of poems, but mainly he placed himself, open and ecstatic, in life. He lived, as it were, a microscopically intense existential ongoingness in one of the earth’s most intense settings.

Many of his poems arise from this peculiar ontological arrangement, this hyper-focused sensitivity to passing objects, moods, weather patterns. Undistracted by work, family, and social life, untethered by ideology or faith, Gilbert produced strange poems that starkly combine the two essentials of each human being’s being in the world: the physical universe, and the mind. His poems are both sharply clarified evocations of people and things in his sun-blasted environment, and insistent conversations with himself about his own motives in moving himself away from ordinary life, and the price he’s paid for that move.

Of course Gilbert would choose Greece for his slow sweet clear declension through time. Don DeLillo chose it too, for a few years, and saw the same things Gilbert did. In his novel, The Names, DeLillo described a Greek village in language that, put into short lines rather than paragraphs, could be Gilbert’s:

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.

Realized space – that’s what the artist is after. The world’s objects and people distributed deeply and fully and feelingly so that when you look at them you see reality, you see the actual world.
In particular, you see the earth’s empty spaces inhabited, elaborated, brought to life, realized by people through use. In Greece, even nowhere is framed.

This needs to be a domestic lived reality, not the techno-phantasmagoria of the great skyscraper city. You seek elemental truths, basic daily gatherings-up, using DeLillo’s word. You want to observe this. So you could live, for instance, on the edge of a Balinese rice paddy just as easily as in a Greek village, for both give you daily and nightly visual access to the interaction of small human communities and natural beauty and bounty. Actually, Greece is better because it’s dry, without natural bounty in the way of watery Bali — you want visual access to small human communities enacting the existential drama of drawing from the earth beauty, sustenance, and meaning.

So, you’re ecstatically, aesthetically, engaged in all of this, but your consciousness – your being a person with a past, with regrets and confusions and worldly avidities – is going to bedevil you, and from the conflict between your settled engagement in a settled world and your neurotic, restless, maybe guilty self (you’re an American behaving like this, for goodness sake) will arise a poem like “Transgressions,” in which the poet talks to himself about his passion for pure being and his sense of the sinfulness of this passion.

The sin of “sloth,” “waste” — yet those were his favorite years, when he was doing “nothing important.”

Using up what
little time we have, relishing our mortality,
waltzing slowly without purpose.

Whitman loafs and invites his own and the universal soul; but Gilbert isn’t inviting. His “transgression” resides in his greedy taking of life for himself. Lust, pride, violence, the narcissism of “feeling himself feeling.” He concludes:

This world,
the pine woods stretching all brown or bare
on either side of the railroad tracks in the winter
twilight. Him feeling the cold, sinfully unshriven.

Nice the way the word shiver shivers through unshriven in that unredeemed cold… But he’s feeling it… Feeling himself feeling the cold, and that’s much more important to him than any reckoning in conventional terms of his transgressions. He wants the true world, all of it, including the true world of his mind and his body and his own ways of being. These may be ugly or beautiful but it is their being existent that elates him, lends him the only redemption he really cares about. Leave all of it alone, he writes – let the world be and let myself be. Let me watch as I become part of the realized space of the globe, and let me transgress and transgress against the higher waste of a labored existence until I come to an end.

Latest UD posts at IHE

Archives

Categories