Sunday, June 4, 2017

SEXUAL ATTRACTION


Is there anything more elusive than what constitutes sexual attraction? It comes in a great variety of types, sometimes simple, sometimes complex, and not infrequently indeterminable, undefinable, with an inscrutable etiology. That we do not understand how it operates in others is perhaps not all that surprising, but that we do not understand it in ourselves, as can be the case, surely is.

Let me start with an obvious source: hair color. We recall the books “Men Prefer Blondes” and “But Marry Brunettes.” But what about the distinguished German professor and writer I knew who declared that, for him, blonde hair wasn’t hair at all—a woman’s hair had to be dark? And for how many men, myself included, a woman’s hair had to be on the long side, a boyish haircut being a turnoff.

I myself have been attracted to and involved with far more brunettes than blondes, but that, I firmly believe, had nothing to do with my mother’s hair color than with happenstance: I came across with so many fewer blondes than brunettes interested in me, but to some of the few that were I responded to just as strongly.

One woman I was involved with insisted that men were divisible into those that go for legs and those that go for asses. I myself went equally for both but not principally for either. To some men face matters most; to others, figure. I could not fully respond to anything less than both.

Years ago it was asserted, I don’t know how validly, that American women depilated their armpits, whereas French women nurtured hairy armpits, both according to what their men went for. Some few men even dislike pubic hair and insist on shaved pudenda. Muslims consider hair so erotic that their women must go about with it covered. Religions prescribing this for mere seemliness presumably do so disingenuously.

Some men apparently even like their women bald—how else explain women with shaven heads? In the musical “The King and I,” Yul Brynner, long the king’s seemingly perennial interpreter, was bald, probably because the historic king was hairless, but perhaps also—I can vouch for it— because Yul looked more interesting  without hair.

Some men, like the actor Victor Mature allegedly, scored with an extra large penis, but haven’t women, other things being equal, been just as satisfied with a normal-sized one? Japanese men, I have been told, cherish especially the back of a woman’s neck, or is that only because doggy-fashion sex is preponderant? We are told that for centuries Chinese women’s feet were kept small by foot binding, allegedly so as to make it harder for women to run away from their men. But that is clearly nonsense; it surely had to do with men’s wanting to fondle and toy with a woman’s diminutive, plaything-like feet.

In some societies, e.g., the Minoan, women went about bare-breasted, I assume not so as to advocate their wherewithal for suckling babies. One sees them in paintings, but always with firm, shapely breasts , never with unsightly, pendulous ones. Even in puritanical Britain, you could see stage performers with exposed breasts, provided only that they stood still, presumably because that made them works of art, like statues, so often semi-nude.

All this by way of introduction to an article in the June 3rd Times entitled “In the World of the Sapiosexual, the Hottest Body Part Is the Brain.”  The reference is to men and women who fall sexually for a person of the opposite sex for his or her intelligence rather than anything external. We read: “Darren Stalder, an engineer in Seattle, appears to have coined the term ‘sapiosexual’ in 1998 to describe his own sexuality. He is quoted as having written on a social network “I don’t care too much about the plumbing . . . . I want an incisive, inquisitive, insightful, irreverent mind. I want someone for whom philosophical discussion is foreplay.” The paper goes on to say “Sapio, in Latin, means “I ‘discern’ or ‘understand.’” Actually, the primary meaning is “I know.”

The sapiosexual stimulant is allegedly either intellect or intelligence (there is a difference), which manifests itself in a person’s conversation. Already there is a problem: conversation is a special, independent gift, not necessarily contingent on a person’s intellect or intelligence: some great minds are fairly inarticulate; some much lesser ones, very articulate.

But, fundamentally, what really is intelligent conversation? It can apparently be all the things cited by Stalder as components except, notably unmentioned, subject matter. Someone can be absolutely riveting about baseball or philately, but be totally ignorant about physics or metaphysics—how intelligent or intellectual is that person? Oceanography and metallurgy may be sporadically fascinating topics, but how fulfilling in the long run?

And, in any case, may not so-called sapiosexualists be deceived about others and, notably, about themselves? It is interesting that the two pictures that accompany the Times piece are of a good-looking young black man, Aboubacar Okeke-Diagne, and an attractive young white woman, Teresa Sheffield, a comedian asserting “What I connect most with and value most as a sapiosexual is emotional intelligence and comedic intelligence.” Whoa! Comedic intelligence is a fancy way of saying sense of humor, but heaven knows what is meant by emotional intelligence. Isn’t that rather like white blackness?

Anyway, may not these attractive young individuals really appeal through their looks, which the attracted person tries to elevate into, and justify by, something more dignified, more refined? I wonder whether there is such a thing as a truly homely, unattractive person making it on telling jokes or quoting Aristotle.

One specific example in the Times article is a woman named Jacqueline Cohen, 52 and resident of the Upper West Side, claiming to be attracted even as a teenager by intelligence or even the mystery around someone’s intelligence. Now a divorcee or widow, she cites as example a date who, without being her physical type, unexpectedly recited poetry by Rilke. She says, “I was amazed at how fluid the whole conversation was . . . I could feel something happening inside me.” On the next date, the man takes her to an art exhibition and gives her “all of Rilke’s books,” since when Rilke has been one of her favorite poets.

I find this suspect for several reasons. First, did the man recite Rilke in German? There is, I speak from knowledge, no such thing as a fully satisfactory Rilke translation, indeed none seems possible of such preponderantly musical poetry. And all of Rilke’s books? Much of that Rilke’s prose output even, including volumes upon volumes of letters, mostly to women, remains untranslated. For “all” of his books in German, a full supermarket cart would be necessary, hardly suitable for visits to an art exhibition. So utter, unsapient balderdash.

Another unanswered question: how new is this supposed phenomenon? Was it there, though unmentioned, throughout history, or was engineer Stalder the first to practice it, or at least first to name and record it in 1998?

We have all known couples where one or both were physically unattractive, and God only knows what made the attraction sexual--or could there perhaps be a platonic sapiosexual attraction? I can just imagine them discoursing, preferably wittily, about the most recondite matters conceivable, and immediately thereupon falling into bed  for exemplary sex. They would not be put off by anything, not even the man’s name, Aboubacar Okeke-Diagne—one could, after all, call him Abu.

On the bottom of the Times front page, there is a small color picture of a beautiful woman I take to be Teresa unbuttoning her red blouse. I cannot envision a man for whom that would not be a greater come-on than her fluidly quoting Santayana or Schopenhauer at length.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Canadians and Others


I have nothing against Canadians save that their export in shows is always questionable, whether it is “To Grandmother’s House We Go,” “The Drowsy Chaperone, the one about the Canadian wartime flying ace whose name I have forgotten  or now “Come From Away.”

The first trouble with “Come From Away” is the ungrammatical title. You can come from afar but not from away, which is a direction, not a place. The second, bigger trouble is that the show is a bore.

Shows about multiple characters of supposedly equal importance are always problematic, and even more so here, where almost all characters play multiple parts and it becomes hard to tell who they are at any given moment.

Yet another problem is the scenery, which, aside from a back wall and a few tree trunks, consists of twelve chairs, repeatedly rearranged for diverse locations. The authors, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, a married couple, are no doubt proud of their device—just think how much cheaper are a dozen inexpensive chairs than anything more elaborate.

The musical is about what ensued when because of 9/11 no planes were temporarily allowed entry into the U.S. As a result, 38 airplanes from abroad where confined to the small town of Gander on Newfoundland, whose tiny population was redoubled by the stranded passengers. How to feed and lodge them?

What emerges is a show of tremendous good intentions, the proverbial pavement leading to Hell, so that I kept waiting for its gates to gape open and start devouring. No such thing occurred, so that the lack of Hell translated into lack of interest. Worst of all was the absence of even a single decent tune, attributable to the authors’ equal lack of expertise in yet another basic ingredient. This left me and my musical comedy professor wife a couple of very drowsy chaperones. In Canada, “drowsy” can apparently mean tipsy; here it means only somnolent.

But even the chairs could not help representing in each given arrangement one of several different locations, it all contributing ultimately to a no longer avoidable indifference. This said, no blame attaches to the valiant set designer Beowulf Borritt or the equally able non-Canadian director, Christopher Ashley. Nor could the dozen actors, Canadian or American, for all their competence, achieve much with material begging for oblivion.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Another disappointment is Sara Ruhl’s “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage.” Although  having succeeded with several tries mostly well received by others, Ruhl’s  plays worked only once for me. Pretentiousness does not make good bread and butter. What we have here is a quasi-serious comedy trying to be several things: an ambivalent bow to polymorphous sex, a display of the learning worthy of a poeta doctus, a conglomeration of philosophical apothegms, and speculations about whether one should slaughter—and perhaps even hunt down—the animals one eats.

The plot? Paul and his wife George (note the masculine short for Georgia) are a happily married fortyish couple, best friends with the only slightly older Jane and Michael. They all have unseen children, the latter couple an intermittently runaway high school problem daughter, Jenna. All is well enough until they become fascinated by the thought of a temp in Jane’s law office, Daborah,,self-declared member of a sexual threesome, who will casually slaughter a goat for dinner. This young woman lives with David and Freddie, and sleeps with both. That occupies the conversation of the two couples for a whole scene, at the end of which they decide to invite the trio for New Year’s Eve supper.

In the next scene, Jane and Michael are duly hosting that supper for Dah-vid, as his foreign origin has him pronounce his name, the childlike Freddie, and the lovely temp now named Pip. They all have a whale of a good time, first discussing and finally indulging in an orgy for seven. All sorts of shenanigans prevail, involving such things as karaoke singing, verse recitation, and Paul’s revelation that he once slaughtered a chicken and is now ready to do a duck.  

In the next scene, Pip, presently under yet another name, is out hunting with George in the wilds of New Jersey.  Bow and arrows somehow bring the women closer than ever, disrupted only by George’s accidentally shooting a dog she mistakes for a deer. Moreover, unlicensed for hunting, the women are briefly imprisoned (no bail?), but Pip vanishes, changed, as George speculates, into a bird.

Lastly, except for David and Freddie searching for the vanished Pip, with even George briefly running after them, pursued in turn by Paul, things are looking up, and even the escape-prone Jenna is back home reconciled.  George delivers a closing monologue, exclaiming, “Oh my God, we’re all straining so hard for transcendence, and there it was all along.”
                                                                                                                                                          
Herewith some specimens of how Ms. Ruhl (Lady of Misrule?) writes, beyond her invention of arcane words like flexitarian, polyamory, and compersive, and her word games such as “something feral, smelling slightly of fur.”

“People judge you, you know, even in Portland.” [Wit.] “Prairie vole” as distinct from ordinary vole. [Erudition.] “In fact, it might be [Pip’s] ordinary relationship with her fearless sensuality, which does not require deodorant or lipstick, that makes everyone immediately think about sex. She is unvarnished and unashamed.”  [Phrase-making.] Throwing “garbage into garbage—it’s like our whole culture.” [Sociology.] “I feel a little foggy, like a boat. Maybe we could all go kayaking.” [Prose poetry.] Stage direction: “They kiss, it’s about forgiveness and love.” [Psychology.]
“ Maybe we should not all be fucking each other all the time. But maybe we could form like a band, or something” [Humor.] Stage direction, with reference to Jenna’s violin playing: “More and more violins are playing [Bach of course] until it feels as though 300 children were playing in one church.” [ Secular piety.]

There is good direction by Rdbecca Teichman, interestingly sleak scenery by David Zinn, apt costumes from the dependable Susan Hilferty, and good acting from the cast. We get a manly Paul from Omar Metwally, a tender George from Marisa Tomei, a sympathetic Jane from Robin Weigert, and a handsome Pip from Lena Hall. That a supposedly white European immigrant, David, is played by a manifestly American black actor, Austin Smith, is only slightly jarring. Todd Almond contributed discreet music.

“Linda” is a silly play by Penelope Skinner with a superb performance in the title role by Janie Dee, who smartly turns dross into gold. I hesitate to pronounce a performance as redeeming an entire dreary play, but this one actually does. Ms. Dee was here 17 years ago in Alan Ayckbourn’s “Comic Potential,”a much better part in a far superior play, but regrettably nothing else until now.
My comment about her performance in the Ayckbourn concluded, “It leaves one pleasurably gasping. I am not sure that I have ever seen its equal, but I am quite certain I have never seen, nor ever will see, its superior.” And here she finally is in a less good role in a much lesser play, but being no less extraordinary. All I can say is hallelujah. 

Marriage, Good, Bad and Indifferent




Marriage, what a glorious and godawful, tremendous and terrible thing it is! Of all inventions one of the few rightfully enduring ones, but surely an invention. Not something born into one automatically. Only quirkily imaginable among cavemen and women,  or what else would so many New Yorker cartoons revel in?

Precarious in some ways, yet almost universally desiderated, even unto some seemingly unexpectable ones. I refer to the same-sex kind, which a gay friend of mine couldn’t see the purpose of, and a lot of people deplored unless they could find some other name for it and leave the traditional kind, for better or worse, alone.

Even at a time when homosexuals no longer had to hide in the closet or (term courtesy “The King and I”) kiss in the shadows, marriage became highly useful to gays for all kinds of legal, financial or just existential purposes. And yet, and yet . . .

Although I approve of same-sex marriage with both my brain and heart, there are times when a small twinge, I can’t deny it, persists. It is by no means a twinge of disapproval, only a twinge of the unexpected, as if, say, something I dreamt about the night before actually came true in the morning, or someone I approved of managed to obtain a genius award rather than the customary politically correct winners in the arts.

But to get to the conventional marriage. The rare case among spouses is a couple whom a friend of mine knew very well since school days. They were college sweethearts who after many years of marriage remained just as emotionally and sexually attracted  to each other as before, gung ho in bed and everywhere else. I take that friend’s word for it, although I myself never encountered such a couple. The nearest thing to it I have known is a couple where the wife wore a different wig to bed every night and made her husband feel he was conquering a new woman. But even there, I wonder, how many different kinds of wigs are there in the world and would a Lady GaGa  or other kind of fright wig do the trick?

I also wonder what happens when a, let’s say, ordinary guy marries a gorgeous woman, e.g., a Diane Lane or Laura Osnes or Laura Dinanti, or even a more modest but enormously pleasant-looking Laura, her looks clearly supplemented by intelligence, like Laura Linney? A woman, let’s further say, who manages to look terrific even in her later years? Can sexual attraction possibly not wane much or at all?

Marcel Proust, who knew about such things, stipulated that sexual passion could not outlast two years, and I have heard similar things from less authoritative sources. Thus I have gathered from some smart and trustworthy couples that, although it now occurred only once or twice a week, they still had some pretty good times in the sheets.

And then, too, sex isn’t everything, in marriage as out of it. Charm, brains, wit, jolliness, genuine deep goodness, manifold individuality, and all-around helpfulness  go a long way toward cementing marriages, don’t they? Besides, there is a kind of manifest attractiveness possible in a woman who, without being explicitly pretty, is hugely appealing, perhaps just by looking winningly different. Originality is a magnet not to be underestimated. I myself have been attracted to such women almost as often as to very beautiful ones.

There are to be sure marriages that end up in pure mutual hatred. I have never  encountered one such, but have heard or read about plenty of them. There was even a recent cartoon in the New Yorker (one of the now relatively rare not inscrutable ones) with an ordinary couple facing each other across the table and the caption reading something like “Isn’t it time we started hating someone on the outside?” Indifference is more frequent than such an extreme, but not, I believe, all that much more.

Probably the more common type is what a colleague has called a Strindbergian marriage, though in a somewhat less August fashion. That means steady petty bickering, though possibly with a more hostile implicit undercurrent. There are apt to bethough not so much in real Strindberg) real brief reconciliations, even some dormant affections mostly through habituation, but the stream of insult or injury soon dependably recommences. This is especially embarrassing when there are visitors present whom this spectacle acutely discomfits.

Perhaps the most Strindbergian marriage, albeit without outside observers, is not even by Strindberg, but—you guessed it—Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which manages to shock no matter how often we experience it, and can even achieve new, startling dimensions of horror, as it apparently does in a current London production. Albee, by the way, has acknowledged his debt to the great Swede. What makes his play particularly frightening is that it contains two embattled marriages, young and middle-aged, taking place in Academia, with the elder spouses both intellectuals from whom you would expect something more civilized.

But the sad truth, mined by the play, is that intellectuals may be even better at hurting each other, although lesser couples do it well enough too. The obvious reason is that marriage partners come to know each other’s vulnerabilities and Achilles heels better than anybody else, and can thus hurl all the more hurtful darts at each other. Fiction and theater provide infinite examples of this, something so real and pervasive that neither authors nor readers or audiences ever get tired of it. It also has the advantage of lending itself to every kind of treatment from deeply tragic to madly farcical.

Lord Byron famously, though not necessarily correctly, observed something like “Women, we cannot get along with or without them.” Something similar might be applicable to marriage as well. To be sure, there is the confirmed bachelor who voluntarily, and the spinster wallflower who involuntarily, go through life alone. This is unfairly much easier for men, who can readily get their sex while single, than for women, who, save for some exceptional ones, only relatively recently acquired such sexual freedom. But the vast majority of men and women seek out marriage, sanguinely or precariously. As the seventeenth-century poet, Sir John Suckling put it (I quote from memory), “One is no number till that two be one.” (Quite a character, Sir John, who also wrote “Love is the fart/ Of every heart:/ It pains a man when ‘tis kept close,/ And others doth offend, when ‘tis let loose.”

Perhaps the best proof of the value of marriage—other than the obvious one, progeny—is that throughout literature and history we get impassioned utterances by men and women about their spouses, and is there a greater fictional ending than Charlotte Bronte’s “Reader, I married him”? And is there a more exalted term in the language than “helpmate”? (“Helpmeet” by the way is incorrect, based on the Bible’s“help meet,” where, however, “meet’ is an adjective meaning suitable, as Bryan Garner reminds us in his invaluable ”Garner’s Modern English Usage.”)
                                                                                                                                              Yes,history and literature provide far more examples of amazingly noble wives than of like husbands—which has me using the nowadays most abused word in the English language, “amazing,” without which television would apparently be inconceivable. This fidelity goes back at least to Homer and faithful Penelope, whose husband Ulysses was repeatedly unfaithful—but then what man wouldn’t be during a troubled twenty-year absence from home? Still, where is there a husband quite like Boccaccio’s patient Griselda, faithfully obedient despite her tyrannical spouse’s monstrous meted out trials?

Offhand I cannot think of a husband so faithful. There is even the one who allegedly put a chastity belt on his wife’s vagina while he was off on the  Crusades. In literature, the tendency is for men to be supremely devoted to other men, as for instance, in myth, Damon and Pythias, and in literature, the two friends in Schiller’s poem “Die Buergschaft.” In both cases, a friend is willing to endure execution in place for an absent friend. How selfish, by contrast, are Shakespeare’s Claudios, either the one in “Measure for Measure” or the one in “Much Ado About Nothing.”

But what about marriage, for which, in literature, Menander (342 BC to 292) set the tone: “Marriage, if one will face the truth, is an evil, but a necessary evil.” And so it usually figures, from Socrates to Emma Bovary and beyond, rather like Tolstoy’s families, noteworthy only when unhappy. It took a solidly Victorian poet, Coventry Patmore, with a beautiful wife, to come up with a work called “The Angel in the House,” the ultimate sentimental tribute to the missus. There is, however, no lack of uxorial tributes, sometimes even to promiscuous wives, though the latter usually from homosexual writers, who didn’t have any (viz. Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, etc.).

I could go on, but let me conclude with a well-deserved paean to  Ingmar Bergman’s “Story of a Marriage,” the uncut version, which manages to say everything that is good and everything that isn’t about modern marriage. It is a kind of compendium packed into a few hours of magisterial film that everyone concerned with marriage, as well as everyone who is not, should see and reflect about. It is by a genius who was both obsessed with and clear-eyed about who loved them and left as he was loved and sometimes left by them. In the end, though, he settled into what was a calm marriage with an extremely understanding woman who, after his quiet demise, singly outlived him. A mother figure, perhaps, and certainly the fitting haven for a profuse serial womanizer, several times previously married, at last, come to conjugal rest.

But not until he had said everything that could be said about men and women, together or apart.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

STYLE

In his “Books for Living,” Will Schwalbe refers to a friend as having an enjoyable style in his writing. He does not elaborate on what made it enjoyable. But whatever it was, it had to be basically in one of two modes, formal or informal, literary or conversational. Each is subject to personal variations, but by one or the other category all writing is subsumed.

The formal style (think, for example, Flaubert) is one as close to poetry as prose can get. It uses profuse imagery, vast vocabulary, careful rhythm, and distinct cadence. It can be rightly called elegant or, in French, soigné. The informal is the way one talks, full of hesitancies, parentheses, digressions, often needless elaborations, uncorseted utterance (think, for example, Whitman.)

It is perfectly possible to score in either manner, just as one can fail in either. The former can become too demanding, too tiring; the latter, too casual, too vague. But both can charm us equally. For the formal style, take this speech attributed by Walter Savage Landor in one of his “Imaginary Conversations” to Aesop, who was for a time a Roman slave, to Rhodope, a young female slave: Laodamia died; Helen died; Leda, the beloved of Jupiter, went before. It is better to repose in the earth betimes than to sit up late; better than to cling pertinaciously to what we feel crumbling under us, and to protract an inevitable fall. We may enjoy the present while we are insensible of infirmity and decay: but the present, like a note in music, is nothing but as it appertains to what is past and what is to come. There are no fields of amaranth on this side of the grave; there are no voices, O Rhodope! that are not soon mute, however tuneful; there is no name, with whatever emphasis of passionate love repeated, of which the echo is not faint at last.

No wonder that this is part of an imaginary conversation; no real one can be styled like this. Note what ingenuity, how much, if you will, style has gone into this passage. Observe the refrain-like near repetitions, the balances between phrases, the use of some fancy words (appertains, pertinaciously) the canny reference to Laodamia, who followed her beloved husband into the underworld and in one version of the myth threw herself on his funeral pyre. Catch the echo between “however” and “whatever,” also the dying fall, achieved partly by using “of which” rather than “whose.” 

For another example, take Oscar Wilde’s tribute to Walter Pater, whom he somewhat underappreciated when, as an Oxford undergraduate, he got to know him. “But Mr. Pater’s essays became to me ‘the golden book of spirit and sense, the holy writ of beauty.’ They are still this to me. It is possible, of course, that I may exaggerate about them. I certainly hope that I do; for where there is no exaggeration there is no love, and where there is no love there is no understanding. It is only about things that do not interest one, that one can give a really unbiassed opinion; and this is no doubt the reason why an unbiassed opinion is always absolutely valueless.” Wilde goes on to eulogize Pater, and we come upon this insight: “The critical pleasure . . . that we receive from tracing, through what may seem the intricacies of a sentence, the working of the constructive intelligence, must not be overlooked.” So here we have one great stylist about another one.  Except for the curious double “s” in “unbiassed”(which may be the British spelling), I could not agree more.

But what now of the opposite, the unbuttoned style? Perhaps the most enthusiastic exponent of it I can think of is the music critic of The New Criterion, Jay Nordlinger. Here he is reviewing a recital by the pianist Igor Levit, which focused on a work by Frederic Rzevski, “Dreams II.” Herewith Nordlinger: “Composers have given us many pieces about bells, and one of those composers is Rachmaninoff. Who wrote ‘The Bells.” a choral symphony. . . Rzewski’s  ‘Bells’ is very belly indeed. Each note has its purpose, and each is placed just so. There is an earnestness about ‘Bells,’ even a gravity. The idiom is something like ‘tonal-sounding atonality,’ to borrow phrase from Lorin Maazel. As I listened to the piece, I thought it sounded Japanese. Is that because, in the program notes, I had just read about the connection between Rzawski’s ‘Dreams” and Kurosawa’s? You have to watch these outside influences, these extra-musical influences. . . . The third piece, ‘Ruins,’ begins with Bachian counterpoint. Actually, I thought of Shostakovich, channeling Bach. (Igor Levit began his recital with some preludes and fugues of Shostakovich) ‘Ruins’ gets grand, very grand, and goes on an on, grandly. Is this visionary or merely undisciplined? I’m inclined toward the latter. “ This, however artfully constructed, conveys sheer spontaneity: spontaneous, improvisatory, conversational stuff, however, I repeat, deliberately replicated.

Not all unbuttoned writing is quite this unbuttoned, but all of it is less formal, rhetorical, more natural-sounding, more pajamas than tuxedos. To be sure these categories are not hermetically self-contained: even a formal writer has informal passages; even an informal one has corseted patches. What I am proposing here under the heading Style is for you to consider what is involved in various styles and appreciate the diversity.

In this context, let me give you another example of the natural, even chatty, style. This one is from Mark Twain. “A few years ago a Jew observed to me that there was no uncourteous reference to his people in my books, and asked how it happened. It happened because the disposition was lacking. I am quite sure that (bar one) I have no race prejudices, and I think I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. Indeed, I know it. I can stand any society. All that I care to know is
 that a man is a human being—he can’t be any worse.” I can’t help feeling a certain irony here. The statement means that to be human is good enough. But can it not imply that there is nothing worse than fallible man? That it is bad enough just to be a man, regardless of race or religion?

As J. A. Cuddon puts it in his wonderful “Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory’—a book I recommend to anyone who is interested in literature or writing in its many aspects—“style defies complete analysis or definition (Remy de Gourmont  put the matter tersely when he said that defining style was like trying to put a sack of flour in a thimble) because it is the tone and ‘voice’ of the writer himself; as peculiar to him as his laugh, his walk, his handwriting and the expression on his face. The style, as Buffon put it, is the man.”

Style, however, is something you choose, not something you’re born with. Accordingly, you choose “heavenly” or “celestial,” “tearful” or “lachrymose,” “jolly” or “cheerful,” “funny” or “droll” or “comical,” “person” or “individual,” “awkward” or “clumsy,” “typical” or “characteristic,” “shape” or “form,” “travel” or “voyage,” “hereafter” or “henceforward,” “choose” or “pick” or “select,” “something or other” or “je ne sais quoi.”  Choosing between them heads you toward Landor and Wilde, or Nordlinger and Twain, informal or formal. It enables you, consciously or unconsciously, to espouse a formal or informal style.

But if you are, or aspiring to be, a writer, a style you must have; without it, you are nowhere, a nonentity.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Barbara Hugo



Her name was Barbara Hugo, and she was beautiful, and perhaps a touch otherworldly in her delicate loveliness. But let me make clear, she was no fragile, pretty-pretty China doll. Perhaps more like Pre-Raphaelite Alexa, a slender, exquisite mistress-model of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, really too good for the likes of him. She was very much flesh and blood, only her flesh was somehow soft-spoken, like her clear voice.

A light brunette, she must have been about five-foot-seven, and her bearing and walk were as graceful as bearing and walk can be. But it was all somehow understated without being wishy-washy, with the softness of a pillow, not an ice cream cone.

She was married to Richard Hugo, chunky and rather unprepossessing. A tolerable poet, he was at the University of Washington along with several other disciples or acolytes of the residing genius, the poet Theodore Roethke. I considered him a good minor poet, and was never forgiven for uttering it by the entire English department. I taught at the University for a year, and of course had some use for the library. The library whose librarian was Barbara Hugo. According to the poet J. V. Cunningham reflecting back, I managed to alienate everybody at U of W. But not Barbara Hugo.

It was enchantment at first sight for me, and something like it for her at second. We started seeing each other. I was subletting a one-room ground-floor apartment where Barbara started coming to me on afternoons. The window was always open, and I can still summon up the excitement of hearing the clickety-clack of her high heels approaching on the pavement. It was as lovely as any music I ever heard, perhaps even more so.

  Once in the room, she and I got on top of the bed, but never inside it. We indulged in all kinds of loving sexual play, but there was never any real intercourse. She disallowed any penetration, out of some weird kind of minimal fidelity to her husband.

This went on for most of my year at the university, an instructor in the English and Comparative Literature Department. It is curious how I have forgotten the details of our relationship (if that’s the word for it). I do remember, however, how she told me one day that she had dreamt of still being the unmarried Barbara Williams in her parents’ house, and me driving a car through all the walls to her bedroom. One did not have to be a Freudian to interpret that dream.

As I was headed back East to Cambridge and Harvard, I had to transport some of my stuff from somewhere to somewhere else, I cannot recall from where to where, but there was a lot of schlepping to do and Barbara very touchingly helped. We were both broken-hearted, only slightly comforted by the promise of writing to each other. Nothing more. She had her husband, and I had a sexy student mistress who called herself Cheryle, in incorrect imitation of Lana Turner’s daughter Cheryl.
She joined me in Cambridge and, huge mistake, I ended up marrying her.

  Still, Barbara and I continued our affectionate correspondence until Cheryle dis-
covered Barbara’s hidden letters and, I presume, burned them. In any case, they have vanished. Barbara remained a memory that could not compete with reality, however prosaic. But marriage to Cheryle ended in a not very distant divorce.

A few years later, I attended a reading at the 92nd Street Y by Carolyn Kaiser , a poet I had befriended in Seattle. After the reading, she remarked to me that Barbara Hugo, now divorced, was very lonely, and I should write to her. Carolyn must have known about my “affair” with Barbara.

So I wrote to her, and before long we were again immersed in a glowing correspondence. What made Barbara’s letters even more endearing were the misspellings, droll from a librarian and poet. We decided to meet again as her vacation from the library was imminent. We chose a midway point, Toronto.

I was waiting for her at the airport, and then there she was, as winsome as ever. On the bus to the city, she confided that she had been worried that I might have turned
worse with time; I had similar worries. But we were happily unchanged.

Downtown, she had to go for a haircut, and I could hardly spare her that long. We picked a place called (if I remember correctly) Beaulieu for our French  Canadian holiday, but first she had to buy a bathing suit. The store had only two that fit: a very revealing bikini and I demure black one-piece suit. Barbara asked me to choose, and I chose the latter, which made her extremely happy.

About Beaulieu I can recall only that we felt fulfilled, and one detail. On a bosky hillside, we went picking wild strawberries, and competed for who could gather more. They tasted sweet, we were side by side, and I was pleasantly reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries.” If there was a fly in the ointment, it was Barbara’s smoking, which she did keep infrequent.

At the hotel, we met a middle-aged couple who were driving back to Toronto and gave us a lift in the back seat. And then something happened reminiscent of Bergman. You may recall that in the movie the principal couple pick up a pair of young hitchhikers, who fight so vehemently in the back seat that they have to be ejected. Something similar happened to us. Barbara needed a cigarette for which we had to make a stop.

Acrimony ensued. Parting in Toronto (or was it Montreal?), was rather cool, but we professed continued correspondence. That, however, did not endure, and soon ended. There was no further contact.
 
I have now looked in Google, where in Richard Hugo’s bio there is mention of his marriage and of his divorce. No details about Barbara, of course. She could still be alive, but only namesakes can be found. Such delicate persons tend not to be long-lived.

Survival in memory is a melancholy business. So good-bye, Barbara, I loved you.



Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Contra Trump

One morning, Lord Byron woke up and found himself famous. One more recent morning, we awoke and found ourselves infamous: Donald J. Trump had been elected President. Only an atom bomb would be a worse alarm clock.

Now you may ask if one did not vote for him, or promulgate him in any fashion, why would one feel guilty. Because what you are surrounded by, submerged in, taints you. Even the time to be spent deriding and deploring him is humiliating, wasted. And, of course, divisive. In a time of plague, even the rare uninfected are bound to be affected. Trump should have been stopped by a joint effort from all of us, though who knows what that might have been other than the nonvote deployed against him, which clearly proved ineffective. So we are stuck with him, his family, his toadies, his ghastly appointees, for years to come, with a couple of weeks of his presidency already proving poisonous.

His very name might have warned us. Donald, Eric Partridge’s informative “Name This Child” tells me, is “the English form of Gaelic Domhnall, [meaning] world-ruler.” Isn’t that the way the Donald sees himself? As for Trump, it has several meanings, one of them, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a helpful and admired person.” I ask you: can you trump that? Evidently part of the man’s delusional repertoire. Finally, there is “trumpery,” defined as “a worthless article” or “junk.” Which covers him, most of his family, and the whole gang of his appointees. Or would you buy a used car from Stephen K. Bannon, or share the views that Mike Pence, with equal measure of fanaticism and smugness, espouses?

Just look at Trump! Even the hair, which, though purportedly genuine, the seventy-year-old surely has blondined, just as he makes his each new spouse that much younger than himself, as if coiffed could constitute coeval. Next, the face, which I would call porcine if it weren’t an insult to honest porkers. Take the way his mouth purses itself into a horrid cuteness, to accompany the childish vocalism and prissy finger and arm gestures. All of which would be laughable if the accompanying utterance weren’t balderdash or a monstrosity. I can think of only one face equally horrible, albeit in a different way, that of Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader.

And what of Trump’s ideas? They run mostly from preposterous to deleterious, with a very rare spark of common sense here and there, though as likely as not an empty boast or promise. And the style? Why, anyone who has read a few good books, which Trump evidently hasn’t, could manage a bit better. But the disheartening thing is that the very grandiloquence and pomposity, snappishness and obloquy are what have turned, even some of his betters, into his defenders, on the naïve assumption that any change has to be for the better. You know the one about the devil we know etc. Still, the majority of Trumpsters seems to consist of uneducated and unemployed whites in the red states, who may well deserve change, but not of this kind.

It is not as if, even so, he had far fewer voters than Mrs. Clinton’s millions. But under the obsolete and absurd system of an Electoral College, no better than the Trump University, the Donald managed to slip in. It should be the eternal shame of the Republicans that they could not come up with a better candidate, although not easy, considering the available field. We did have the overwhelming popular vote, but that manifestly wasn’t enough to get rid of him. So here we are now, at the mercy of a sinister, self-serving sot for years to come. Such narcissism, such egomania, such vengefulness for the slightest disagreement, cannot but wreak substantial harm on this country, this nation.

Our only hope, such as it is, is the courts. The “so-called judge,” as Trump declared the worthy who has been able to foil him, and other judges who joined the opposition, may find  ways to curb Trump, but it will be hard. How does one get around a Republican Congress—all who put party ahead of country? One wonders what circle of hell a contemporary Dante would consign Donald to. Meanwhile what is certain is that he is making America grate, nationally and internationally. But what the hell, he is making Putin happy.

Monday, February 6, 2017

FASHION

What a bizarre, paradoxical, self-contradictory and ephemeral thing is fashion! On the one hand, it challenges haute couture to come up with ever more unique, far out, incomparable women’s clothes, if something that frequently exposes enough flesh to scandalize the conservatives can still be considered clothing. On the other hand, it prods the less affluent to emulate what lesser novelties they can afford. In other, words, it simultaneously stimulates the more daring and moneyed to be wholeheartedly, if often half-nakedly, unique, while encouraging the less fortunate and flamboyant to ignore the runway models while still following trends as much as their means and modesty allow.  

I am concerned here with modern times. I have no idea to what extent, say, the togas of antiquity resembled or differed from one another: what was worn by Demosthenes and Cicero, by Caesar and his assassins, seems all equally like bed-sheets to my unsophisticated eye. My interest in fashion begins with George Bryan Brummell, known as Beau Brummell (1778-1840), a dandy who, contrary to what you might assume, actually launched more simply cut men’s clothes, favoring trousers rather than britches, although still fancying luxuriant neckwear.

Of course, there have been fops (bad) and dandies (okay) from way back, but also aficionados for whom fashion was a more levelheaded affair. Consider Shakespeare’s description of Hamlet as “the glass of fashion and the mould of form,/ The observed of all observers,” clearly intended as a model. Note the implication that he is the mirror in which all observant, discriminating persons would want to see themselves reflected. A fashion plate if you will, but surely no fop.

Yet there are no terms for female dandies, and indeed the chronicles of male and female fashions tell very different stories. The female fops, perhaps, may be called coquettes; the dandies, perhaps, chic or elegant--mere modest adjectives rather than brash nouns. Basically, the difference lies in that standard male attire resists major change, except on hipsters and showoffs. These may wear odd outfits, as to a degree do fanatical male fashionistas, who however are outside my purview. Women of fashion, conversely, go in for seemingly endless variety, ranging from the merely individual and stylish to the grossly outrageous, say from the Duchess of Cambridge to Lady Gaga.

Why the basic conservatism of male fashion and the dizzying diversity of the female? First consider what any clothing is about. It is to hide the so-called private parts of the body, not suited to public display, but also to protect from the weather. Yet why bypass the chance to make this appealing? To whom? To the dignified wearer himself: solid, but with a certain swing to it, say cinched waist and built-up shoulders. This allows for some flexibility, such as the color or length of the jacket and the choice of two or three front buttons. Also the width of the lapel, with higher or lower notch, and number and style of the pockets. Further, the length and finish of the trousers, cuffs or not, tight jeans or even bell bottoms. All relatively minor divergences, though, as between noodles and dumplings.

Accordingly, in its basic traditionalism or steadfastness, male apparel appeals to women looking for solid relationships, even marriage, from the dependable men who wear it, its near-conformity being a kind of sartorial oasis. The only area where men can safely be fanciful is—Brummell again—the necktie, of which I have a profligately profuse collection.

Thus I own scores of expensive ties, with perhaps twenty or thirty different labels, my probable favorites being, in alphabetical order, Abboud, Armani, Brioni, Chanel, Charvet, Fendi, Ferre, Hermes, Lanvin, Loewe, Mila Schön, Nina Ricci, Saint Laurent, Valentino, Versace, and Zegna, and several others (e.g., Celine and Guy Laroche) close at heel. Yet some fastidious Frenchwomen have mocked my zeal for what the French call griffé i.e., featuring prestigious labels, which they take as a sign of snobbery. But, snobbish or not, I got a nice range from them, a variety over the years, enhanced by changes of width, going from splashily wide to chastely narrow, though not quite the present pencil thin, an exiguity that strikes me as almost as bad as narrowness of mind.

But what now of women’s fashions?  Here freedom and diversity reign, from more sources than I can begin to enumerate, so I will limit myself to two great designers, both as it happens Spaniards by birth, but active in France or Italy. They are Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo and the Catalan Cristobal Balenciaga Eisaguirre, the latter referred to as the king of fashion by, among others, Women’s Wear Daily, and by Christian Dior as “the master of us all.” Fortuny because he was a pioneer; Balenciaga because—but here let me quote what Wikipedia has to say of him “the most brain-catching designer of his period because of his structural designs, that were never seen before—a master of tailoring. . . always able to translate his illustrations from paper to real life. . . . Due to his advanced tailoring skills . . . he reshaped women’s silhouette in the 50s” and beyond.

One of the reasons for the variety and exuberance of women’s fashions is that historical tradition has unjustly limited women to such minor pursuits. But it is also true that women strive for threefold appeal: to men, whom they wish to attract; to other women, whom they want to impress; and to themselves, whom they desire to gratify when they look in the mirror.  Which is where colorfulness and gaiety come in, as well as originality and variety.

All this, however, under some control, elegance or chic dictating certain judicious limitations. Many of today’s fashion designers, European or American, adhere to such restraint, but many, alas, do not.  Let me cite two egregious examples. In a photograph in the Times, which I regrettably did not keep, one of the Trump scions was seen escorting (and probably involved with) a fashion model who wore a truly curious dress--or undress. Its upper part consisted of a maze of ribbons, carefully calculated to the centimeter to reveal as much nudity as permissible while  avoiding what might be outright nakedness and considered sartorial porn. There once was a couturier called Rudy Gernreich who actually designed a topless dress, which, however, did not catch on.

My other example—this time excess rather than subtraction—is a picture in the January 29 Times Sunday Styles section, with the following caption: “Chanel’s belted crystalline slip finished in feathers [creating] an impression of modernity.” Down to well below the knee this is a straightforward dress—except for an overbroad, ostentatious, seemingly metallic belt—with two unassuming shoulder straps. It is made of an acceptable black and white, closely patterned fabric, and all is well until the extensive bottom part. From about mid-calf, we get a surrounding, dustbuster-like excrescence, apparently designed not only to ensnare the eye, but also to sweep the floor nearly as well as a broom. All feathery white, but heaven knows what color after the floors finish with it.

So then, if you are very wealthy or very famous, or better yet both, you can get away with gowns that no prudent woman would wear, such as this one with its alleged “impression of modernity.”  Or the one cited above, with its approximation of nudity. Fashion, I repeat, is a strange thing: embraced with taste and moderation—think, for example, Oscar de la Renta or Carolina Herrera—it can be very impressive, yet also, in excess, depressing or even ludicrous.

But beware! Colley Cibber, the second-rate dramatist ridiculed by Alexander Pope, wrote in his 1696 play “Love’s Last Shift”: “As good be out of the world as out of the fashion.”  Even inferior playwrights can occasionally speak the truth.