“Nothing that is mere wordplay is ever witty,” says Clive James in today’s Grauniad. This statement is so profoundly wrong, one has to wonder if it is meant to be satire. To see how wrong it is, start by reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, where mere wordplay produces some of the most clever wit in English. Finish by reading or watching pretty much any play by Tom Stoppard, or any episode of Seinfeld. What was James thinking?
Archive for the 'Poetry' Category
In his personal memoir, Dance of a Fallen Monk, George Fowler describes a person he met when a late teenager who had an enormous influence on his personal development and his life. This person, whom Fowler calls Adeodatus Nikos, is a young man, not much older than Fowler, who was immensely well-read, particularly in matters spiritual and religious. Nikos is an engineer assigned to work for several months in the boondocks town in Montana where Fowler is at school, and they quickly become fast friends. Fowler is devastated when his older friend is killed in a car accident soon after leaving the town.
Interested to know more, I searched on Nikos’ name but found nada. I soon realised his name may be a pseudonym, particularly as Adeodatus could be translated as “Gift of God”. Fowler says the death happened in June 1946. There were 683 recorded deaths in Montana in 1946, of whom just 4 were of people born between 1918-1922 (inclusive). The most likely candidate is perhaps Pedro Santos, aged 25 when he died on 25 June 1946; Santos may have been from the Philippines. The name “Pedro Santos”, of course, would translate as “Saint Peter”. Fowler says that Nikos had two older twin brothers, both of whom were already married when Fowler met Nikos.
Meanwhile, I recalled that John Milton’s close teenage friend was named Charles Diodati (c.1608-1638), which surname also translates as “Gift of God”. Diodati also died young, when Milton was traveling abroad. Upon learning of his friend’s death from Diodati’s uncle in Geneva, Milton wrote a lament, Epitaphium Damonis, published in 1645. I wonder if Fowler knew about Diodati when he came to write about his own friend.
The image shows Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, built originally for a relative of Charles Diodati. Byron and friends rented this house in the summer of 1816.
Why do we read? Many people seem to assume that the only reason for reading is to obtain information about the world. With this view, reading fiction is perhaps hard to justify. But if one only reads to learn new facts, then one’s life is impoverished and Gradgrindian. Indeed, this reason strikes me as like learning to play the trumpet in order to have a means to practice circular breathing.
In fact, we read for many other reasons than just this one. One could say we primarily read novels for the pleasure that reading them provides:
- the pleasure of reading poetic text (as in the novels of Hardy, Joyce or Faulkner, for instance)
- the pleasure of reading elegant, finely-crafted prose (eg, Burney, Doris Lessing, Perec, Brautigan)
- the pleasure of engaging in deductive reasoning (any detective or espionage novel)
- the pleasure of imagining alternative societal futures (scifi), presents (political thrillers, espionage novels), or pasts (historical fiction)
- the pleasure of being scared (crime thrillers, horror stories)
- or the pleasure of parsing an intricate narrative structure (eg, Calvino, Fowles, Murnane, Pynchon).
These various pleasures are very distinct, and are orthogonal to the desire to gain information about the world. And some of these pleasures may also be gained from reading non-fiction, for example the finely-honed journalism of AJ Liebling or Christopher Hitchens, or the writing of Oliver Sacks, who passed on today.
People who have passed on during 2014 whose life or works have influenced me:
- Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) (1934- 2014), American poet
- Charles Barsotti (1933-2014), American cartoonist
- Sid Caesar (1922-2014), American comedian
- Al Feldstein (1925-2014), American artist and editor of Mad magazine
- Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014), South African writer
- Stuart Hall (1932- 2014), British cultural theorist
- Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014), American actor
- Rik Mayall (1955-2014), British actor and comedian
- Tony Meale (c. 1963-2014), Australian wit
- Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys) (1935-2014), Belgian-Australian political analyst
- Maximilian Schell (1930-2014), German actor
- Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014), Australian composer
- Pete Seeger (1919-2014), American folk singer
- Eduard Shevardnadze (1928-2014), Georgian politician
- Horace Silver (1928-2014), American jazz pianist
- Edward Gough Whitlam (1916-2014), Australian statesman
- Robin Williams (1951-2014), American comedian and actor
- Neville Wran (1926-2014), Australian politician
Last year’s post is here.
An excerpt from a 1959 Australian Broadcasting Commission TV programme on the Beats, featuring interviews with Sydney University students, Clive James and Robert Hughes (pictured, image from ABC).
Some buildings and spaces provide pleasure to the eye and heart, and an inexplicable lift to the spirits. One such place is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Chicago, whose intimacy and proportions are ineffably balanced. Another is the Italianate Church of St Brigid in Wavertree, Liverpool. This Anglican church was designed by E. A. (Arthur) Heffer and built between 1868 and 1872. The building can be clearly seen from the inter-city trains approaching and departing Liverpool’s Lime Street station, and seeing it never fails to lift my spirits.
Perhaps the pleasure arises from the stark contrast between the tall bell tower and the flat, surrounding landscape of two-story Victorian terraces. Or perhaps it is the shape and size of the tower; certainly, the visual pleasure would be much less if the tower were pyramid-shaped, or conical, or any shorter.
(On the death of Vadim Delaunay)
Closer than a brother, the first and youngest
of us seven, whence no return.
Sweeter than sweet life, whereas there were seven,
hacking, digging the frozen earth?
To fall asleep that way, and to wake, detached from the earth,
beyond exile, KPP, barbed-wire . . .
beyond the thorny stars. Pray for us,
offer your fraternal help.
Natalya Gorbanevskaya [1983/2011]: Selected Poems. Translated by Daniel Weissbort. Manchester, UK: Carcanet.
KPP (Kontrol’no-propusknoi punkt) is Frontier Control Point.
A sonnet by George Santayana, inspired by Shakespeare’s Sonnet #29:
When times are hard and old friends fall away
And all alone I lose my hope and pluck,
Doubting if God can hear me when I pray,
And brood upon myself and curse my luck,
Envying some stranger for his handsome face,
His wit, his wealth, his chances, or his friends,
Desiring this man’s brains and that man’s place,
And vexed with all I have that makes amends,
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising, –
By chance I think of you; and then my mind,
Like music from deep sullen murmurs rising
To peals and raptures, leaves the earth behind:
For if you care for me, what need I care
To own the world or be a millionaire?
And here is Shakespeare’s #29:
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Mere purposive rationality unaided by such phenomena as art, religion, dream and the like, is necessarily pathogenic and destructive of life; and . . . its virulence springs specifically from the circumstance that life depends upon interlocking circuits of contingency, while consciousness can see only such short arcs of such circuits as human purpose may direct.”
Gregory Bateson : “Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art.” Page 146 in: Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York, NY: Ballentine Books.
George Santayana said something similar in his Sonnet III:
It is not wisdom to be only wise,
And on the inward vision close the eyes,
But it is wisdom to believe the heart.