Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Apologia



“Through more than thirty years of writing and behavior, Simon has shown us how easy it is to be a snake.” So ends an attack on me of a good many years ago on Salon by Charles Taylor, showing how easy it is to misjudge me from a widely held but unexaminedly researched, lazily hostile point of view.

People who have unprejudicedly read my criticism in magazines, or collected in book form, must know how mistaken dear Mr. Taylor is. “Dear” because he has, however belatedly and unintentionally, given me this occasion to set things to right.

Let me begin with the most commonplace attacks on me as an alleged disburser of gratuitous vitriol, a view of which a little more honesty and effort would have revealed me, on the contrary, as a good praiser frequently as well. In fact, one would probably find a positive review for every four or five negative ones, which seems perfectly justified when you consider how much trash is being offered on stage and screen, and only a little less so in literature. But that would not be viewed as  a legitimate proportion by the typical reviewers, who find it more profitable to gush than to discriminate, of which, in any case, they are rarely capable.

So let me start with the serpentine view of me, most conveniently promulgated on the basis of my satirical remarks about something which the poor actors could not control. But are not performers in shows and movies supposed to be appealing,
indeed exemplars of something all of us strive for, or do we go to the theater and  cinema to look at unsightliness? Except, of course, where the latter is predicated, or do we want the witches in “Macbeth” played by or acted as gorgeous women?

The old Hollywood dedicated to glamour knew what it was doing all right, even if its notion of beauty wasn’t always of the subtlest kind. This has changed, with populism insisting that it would rather look democratically at a homely Zoe Kazan or Jessica Hecht than romantically at a Laura Osnes, Laura Denanti, or Katrina Lesk. And yes, if we desire sets and costumes—again with meaningful exceptions—to be beautiful,
why not the faces and figures of performers? Are they not part of the spectacle? Or do young women aiming for stage or screen careers grow up yearning to be Barbra Streisands? Heaven help us, maybe they do. Still, I would like to think that, however unavowedly, they would rather be a Jane Fonda or a Sharon Stone.

Note that this does not mean that acting talent does not come first, only that aesthetics should not lag too far behind. Yet does not some of my wit at their expense hurt the actors’ feelings? No doubt it does, but that is the consequence of being a public figure and of lack of self-criticism. The early Maggie Smith and the greatly gifted Judi Dench would not have gone out for parts that required beauty queens, or else would have used their talents to make us believe that they could. Suffice it to say that I have never praised an actress for nothing but looks alone, take for example this from an early review of “Les Enfants du Paradis”:

“Maria Casares as the desperate wife. Who else could have made nagging, choking, marathon jealousy look so touching, lovable, even heroic? How that plain face of hers can become transfigured with the humblest happiness; how, in the agonies of rejection and anger, its ugliness remains profoundly human.”

Next comes the accusation of my alleged enjoying curmudgeonliness overmuch. There is no denying that writing a well-turned, well-deserved slam is fun, but so is a convincing rave. The only rather less enjoyable thing is writing a mixed review, chiefly neither praise nor disparagement. But even that should be readable as a specimen of justness, of the agility in sorting out the good and the not good in the mediocre. One must make the merely tolerable resonate as well as the enthusiastic, albeit with a lesser clangor.

What I would ask from any reader—and I admit it is no small thing—is to have checked out one of my critical collections in a library or bookstore, without necessary purchase, but enough to elicit either approbation or censure. As an example of a truly positive review, consider in “John Simon on Theater” the notice of “Private Lives” on pages 810-11, or that of “Barrymore” on pages 667-68, or yet that of “Comic Potential” on pages 782-84. Only someone who truly enjoys to accord praise could have written any one of those. Even some of what can be read standing up in a bookstore will dismiss the notion of me as an attack dog.

If you try to decide whether not to boggle at my negative reviews, try those of two other productions of “Private Lives,” pages 36-38 or 284-87. The latter takes apart Elizabeth Taylor’s Amanda, but should provide good enough reasons for doing so. As for my alleged homophobia, consider the praise lavished on some known homosexual playwrights or performers, of which you can find plentiful examples. I believe I acknowledged their talents quite irrespective of their, yes, private lives.

None of the foregoing, however, is intended as an elaborate justification of my criticism or me as an individual. I am sure that disagreement with my critiques is not excluded. Certainly perfection eludes me as much as it does the next person, though perhaps a little bit less than it does other reviewers, especially those in the dailies. If you want to use this very blog entry as inducement to proclaim disagreement, by all means do so. I am all for private or public debate as one of the best sources of discoveries. I only wish I had a better outlet for reviews than afforded by my blog entries and occasional magazine publication, especially now that The Weekly Standard has bitten the dust. The one thing I am perfectly confident about is that my views are thoroughly clear, unlike, say, those of French and American structuralists and semioticists. Also devoid of talking (or writing) from both corners of my mouth.



Friday, January 4, 2019

Of Love and Food



In a recent blog post I enumerated poems or parts of poems that have been amiably haunting me all my life. Yet there is one of them that, though frequently recurrent, I did not mention. It runs “Ce lourd secret que tu quemandes”—this heavy secret that you beg for.

It comes from a sequence of quatrains by Guillaume Apollinaire entitled “Vitam Impendere Amori’ (to overhang life with love,) an allusion to Rousseau’s “Vitam Impendere Vero,” to overhang life with truth. Apollinaire’s sequence was written about a troubled love affair with one of his several inamoratas, and its penultimate quatrain begins “Tu n’a pas surpris mon secret”—you did not apprehend my secret.
The entire concluding quatrain reads “La rose flotte au fil de l’eau/ Les masques ont passés par bandes/ Il tremble en moi comme un grelot/ Ce lourd secret que tu quemandes.” The rose floats along the water’s flow/ The masks have gone by in bands/ There trembles in me like sleigh bells/ This heavy secret that you beg for.”

I take this to mean that the romance of love is over, as are its disguises; what resonates inside the lover, is a deep-seated tremor, like unspoken sleighbells, which the beloved is reduced to seeking, probably in vain. I have no idea why that last single, solitary, out of context verse should so keep affecting me, perhaps because women could not find in me what they were craving, something very private that remained, however intense, uncommunicated. But perhaps it is just a verse that hangs on through sheer euphony, a musically modulated sound sequence.

So much for this matter; now for something entirely different. What about the presumptive birth places of various comestibles that they truthfully or falsely proclaim in their names, thus adding to their desirability? Take, for example, the so-called Belgian endives. Do they really all come from Belgium, and can they not take root for whatever reason elsewhere, say in our own USA? Is there something about the Belgian soil, climate, or cultivators that is so inimitably unique? Or is it just the exotic aura of foreignness?

Or what about Parma prosciutto? I am aware that in some markets it is available in a cheaper domestic version. But the imported kind from Italy, though quite a bit more expensive, is also tastier, At some outlets, in fact, there are numerous costlier versions, rising stepwise to real luxuries my kind cannot, and does not need to, afford. At the market where I shop, I have seen Prosciutto di Parma convincingly packaged and labeled in giant hunks. Wouldn’t it be nice to shlepp the whole thing home with me? And eating it, think affectionately of Parma’s favorite son in red and black? Similarly, I doubt if most Genoa salame has ever had a birthplace in Genoa. 

Now what about the balsamic Modena vinegar, different even in its opulently dark hue from the colorless domestic kind? I trust that it really does come from Modena,
But couldn’t it be replicated here—or is that already done? I don’t think so, as I see the name Modena proudly displayed on all its varieties, as ladies and gentlemen prefer brunettes to blondes. I truly believe that it does come from Modena, and not just because that sounds so pretty or that Modena suggests a la mode.

And how about ham? Here we run into a plethora of possibilities. Though not so denominated, much of it comes from Poland—either because it really does or because one thinks of wild Polish woods propitious to savory porkers. But one also thinks of Black Forest Ham (Schwarzwalder Schinken), even though most of the real Black Forest, subject to commercial deforestation, is practically gone by now, and is alive only in swine.

In France, there is a delicious ham, called if I remember correctly, jambon de Bayonne (but I may have it wrong, confused by tapestries from Bayeux). This brings me to obviously fictitious origins, such as the tasty Virginia ham, which, I would bet, does not necessarily come from Virginia. I also used to buy a lot of Danish ham, which I think was authentic, though I have a hard time envisaging  something Nordic as not made from reindeer.

Or think of Swiss cheese, Surely it originated, and still often does come, as Switzerland’s cheese, as if it had just skied down from an Alp. But it is a generic moniker and I have eaten Finnish Swiss cheese, just as good as any. And even in America. . . but let us not go there. I have also eaten Swedish meatballs in the heart of Manhattan.

Now what about salmon? Is it genuinely Scotch or Norwegian, or is it even, as honestly labeled, Scotch or Norwegian style? I would hate to think, though, that it might come from the Hudson or East River.

I am also puzzled by Turkish delight, which the musical “Kismet” correctly identifies as Rahat lokum. It is something that I would think can be persuasively fabricated (or whatever the word) nearer to us than Turkey. But, as I say, some of these titular attributes are fake. Have they even heard of hamburgers in Hamburg? Or in Moscow of a Moscow mule?

Ah, well, with potables there are as many nominally inauthentic as authentic ones. Burgundy, to be sure, comes from Burgundy, even as champaign (which the Times always capitalizes) comes from Champaign. Then again, most German and Austrian wines come with geographic names, like my current favorite, the Gruener Veltliner, where the green seems like a redundancy.


And now back to love, with which we began. Is music really, as Shakespeare’s Orlando would have it, “the food of love,” then what kind of food and what kind of love was he thinking of? If real food, no wonder opera divas, ostentatiously in love with themselves, are understandably of Wagnerian girth. Though, happily, recently not so much. And lovers of chocolate, Swiss or Belgian, should we not have to untighten our belts? By what miracle can I squeeze into 38 inch underwear and weigh usually something between 70 pounds and less? Luckily, though I am part Hungarian, I don’t drink Tokay, and though part Yugoslav, do not eat srpski sir, i.e., Serbian cheese. So it has become late, and I can go to bed lovingly thinking  of two favorite cheeses, Humboldt Fog, which I can sometimes afford, and Vacherin Liegois, which I really can’t.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Death

Herewith a number of lyric verse quotations about death or dying from books in my collection. Where the source is formal, rhyming verse, I tend to include the original; where it is prose or free verse, I tend to limit myself to a mere English translation.  Except in a couple of cases, I provide the entire poem. I do not believe that these lyrics seriously facilitate our demise, but they may offer old-timers some sense of what is ahead. I will also try to assess the value of individual quotations.

In the foreword to a collection of Robert Graves’s poems, which I no longer own, Graves asserted that there were mainly (or only--I quote from imperfect memory) two subjects, love and death, fully appropriate for verse, though, needless to say, he touched on other subjects much of the time. I start with what I consider two of his best poems on the subject.

The Suicide in the Copse

The suicide, far from content,
Stared down at his own shattered skull.
Was this what he meant?

Had not his purpose been
To liberate himself from duns and dolts
By a change of scene?

From somewhere came a roll of laughter.
He had looked so on his wedding-day,
And the day after.

There was nowhere at all to go,
And no diversion now but to peruse
What literature the winds might blow

Into the copse where his body lay:
A year-old sheet of sporting news,
A crumpled schoolboy essay.

And now a poem for a more universal form of demise.

The Villagers and Death

The Rector’s pallid neighbour at The Firs,
Death, did not flurry the parishioners.
Yet from a weight of superstitious fears,
Each tried to lengthen his term of years;
He was congratulated who combined
Toughness of flesh with weakness of the mind
In consequential rosiness of face.
The dull and not ill-mannered populace
Pulled off their caps to Death, as they slouched by,
But rumoured him both atheist and spy.
All vowed to outlast him (though none ever did)
And hear the earth drum on his coffin-lid.
Their groans and whispers down the village street
Soon soured his nature, which was never sweet.

Clearly Graves did not have use for suicide and presumably scorned the general fear and reprehension of death, though this by no means meant atheism as the only solution.

Now let us start our survey of death poetry through the ages as I can find it on my bookshelves. We begin at the Renaissance in Italy with Gaspara Stampa
(1523-54), a wonderful scholar and poet who lived mostly in Venice. She was the member of at least one academy, a student of Greek and Latin, and corresponded with most of the eminent men of her time. Her sonnets are the record of an unhappy love affair; herewith one of them.

Cui mi dara socorso a l’ora estrema.
   Che verra  morte trarmi fuor di vita
   Tosto dopo, l’acerba dispartita
   Onde fin d’ora il cor paventa e trema?

Madre e sorella no; perche la tema
     Questa e quella a dolersi meco invita;
      E poi per prova omaicla loro aita
       Non giova a questa doglia alta e suprema.

E le vostre fidate amiche scorte’
       Che di giovarmi avriano sole il come,
      Saran lontane in quell’ altera corte.

Dunque io porro queste terrene some
       Senza conforto alcun, se non di morte
       Sospirando e chiamando il vostro nome.

As Richard Aldington translates: “Who shall succour me in my extremest hour/ when death is tearing me from life, ah!/ bitter parting!! whereat the heart doth trmble and fear,/ Mother and sister, no; because fear urges both/ to grieve with me; and at that time to accept their help does not avail this last and lofty woe./ And then your faithful, kindly guidance that alone knew how to help me/ will be far away in that so lofty Court. / So I shall lay aside these earthly burdens/ with naught to comfort me except at death/ the sighing and the calling on your name!”
                                                                                                                                                           Next we skip to 1950, when the poet and fiction writer Cesare Pavese, unhappily in love with the American actress Constance Dowling (sister of the more famous Doris), committed suicide. A sequence of ten poems, eight in Italian and two in English, were found in a folder upon his death. Most famously the following, in short, unrhyming verses, beginning “Death will come and will have your eyes,” and ending with “For each man Death has a look he knows./ Death will come and will have your eyes./ It will be like giving up a vice,/ like seeing in a glass/ a dead face reappearing/ like listening to closed lips./ Dumb we shall descend into the abyss.”

We move now to French, speclfically  to a poem by the Belgian quasi-surrealist Henri Michaux, who lived from 1899 to 1984, and often changed allegiances and styles. I don’t know from what date the poem translated by Anthony Hartley is, but here goes. “Nausea or Is It Death Coming On”.

Surrender, my heart. We have struggled enough. And let my life stop. We have not been cowards, we have done what we could.

Oh! my soul, you go or you stay; you must decide. Do not finger my organs in that way, sometimes attentively, sometimes distractedly. You go or stay, you must decide. I myself can bear it no longer.

Lords of death, I have never blasphemed against you nor applauded you. Have pity on me, already the traveler of so many journeys, without a suitcase, without a master either. Without wealth, and the fame went elsewhere; you are powerful assuredly and comical above all, have pity on the crazy man who already shouts his name to you before crossing the barrier; catch him on the wing, let him accustom himself, if it can be done, to your temperaments and your habits, and if it please you to help him, help him, help him, I beg you.

Or take this poem by the Uruguay-born French poet and prose writer Jules Supervielle (1884-1960), irregularly rhymed but printed as verse, and entitled “For a Dead Poet.” I translate:

Quickly give him an ant
And however little it may be,
But let it well be his!
One must not cheat on a dead man.
Give it to him, or the beak of a swallow,
A bit of grass, a bit of Paris,
He has no more than a great void to himself
And still understands only poorly his fate.

To choose from


All this, he gives you in exchange
Darker presents that the hand cannot grasp:
A reflection lying under the snow,
Or the reverse of the highest of clouds,
The silence in the middle of the din,
Or the star that nothing protects.
All this he names and bestows,
He who is without a dog or anyone.

I don’t know the exact date of the poem, but it must be from his rejected surrealist period.

Let us now move to Germany, where we
start with a poem by Detlev von Liliencron (1844-1909) whose name alone is almost a poem. The piece is “Tod auf Aehren” (Death in the Corn). Note that lacking  diaresis,I use the alternate added E after a vowel.


Im Weizenfeld, in Korn und Mohn,
Liegt ein Soldat unaufgefunden.
Zwei Tage schon,  zwei Naechte schon.
Mit schweren Wunden, unverbunden.

Durst ueberquaelt und fieberwild.
Im Todeskampf den Kopf erhoben.
Ein letzter Traum, ein letztes Bild,
Sein brechend Auge schlaegt nach oben.

Die Sense sirrt im Aehrenfeld,
Er sieht sein Dorf im Arbeitsfrieden.
Ade, ade du Heimatswelt—
Und beugt das Haupt und ist verschieden.

In the wheatfield, in corn and poppies,/ Lies a soldier undiscovered./ Two days already, two nights already./ With heavy wounds unbandaged.// Overtortured by thirst and wild with fever,/ With lifted head in death struggle./ A final dream, a final image/ His breaking eye projects upward. // The scythe hisses in the wheat field,/ He sees his village in the Sunday rest./ Farewell, farewell, my home world--/ And bows his head and has departed.

Now for a poem by the wonderful poet and prose writer Theodor Storm (1817-88), I believe about his deceased wife, “Einer Toten” (To a Dead Lady):


Das aber kann ich nicht ertragen,
Dass so wie sonst die Sonne lacht;
Dass wie in deinen Lebenstagen
Die Uhren gehn, die Glocken schlagen,
Einfoerming wechseln Tag und Nacht;

Dass wenn des Tages Lichter schwanden,
Wie sonst der Abend uns vereint;
Und dass, wo sonst dein Stuhl gestanden,
Schon andre ihre Plaetze fanden,
Und nichts dich zu vermissen scheint;

Indessen von den Gitterstaeben
Die Mondesstreifen schmal und karg
In deine Gruft hinunterweben,
Und mit gespenstig truebem Leben
Hinwandeln ueber deinen Sarg.

That, however, I cannot bear/ That the sun laughs as usual./ That as in your living days,/ The clocks go and the bells ring/ Unchangedly alternating day and night;// That when the lights of day vaned,/ Evening as usual  united us;/ And that where as usual your chair stood,/ Others already found their places,/ And nothing seemed to be missing you;// Meanwhile between the fence staves, narrow and stingy,/ The moon stripes weave their way down/ With ghostly and murky life into your vault,/ To  wander on across your coffin.

Here the translation cannot render German’s ability to turn words like moon and stripes into compounds, which somehow objectifies them. Still the deep melancholy prevails.

And now we come to the somewhat longer section of Anglophone poetry. I skip the most obvious, Dylan Thomas’s villanelle for his dying father, as too well known, but I include this almost as well-known poem by Walter Savage Landor, “Rose Aylmer.”

Ah what avails the sceptred race!
   Ah what the form divine!
What every virtue, every grace!
  Rose Aylmer, all were thine.

Rose Aylmer, whom these wakeful eyes
    May weep, but never see,
A night of memories and sighs
     I consecrate to thee.

And herewith a more modern kind of dirge by  Edna St. Vincent Millay.           

If I should learn in some quite casual way
That you were gone, not to return again—
Read from the back page of some paper, say,
Held by a neighbor in a subway train,
How at the corner of this avenue
And such a street (so are the papers filled)
A hurrying man who happened to be you,
At noon today had happened to be killed—
I should not cry aloud—I could not cry
Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place—
I should but watch the station lights rush by
With a more careful interest on my face;
Or raise my eyes and read with greater care
Where to store furs or how to treat the hair.

And now this, “Here Lies a Lady,” from John Crowe Ransom, more explicit and detailed than most.

Here lies a lady of beauty and high degree,
Of chills and fever she died, of fever and chills
The delight of her husband,  her aunts, an infant of three,
And of medicos marvelling sweetly on her ills.

For either she burned, and her confident eyes would blaze,
And her fingers fly in a manner to puzzle their heads—
What was she making? Why, nothing, she sat in a maze
Of old scraps of laces, snipped into curious shreds—

Or this would pass, and the light of her fire decline
Till she lay discouraged and cold as a thin stalk white and blown,
And would not open her eyes to kisses, to wine;
The sixth of these states was her last; the cold settled down.

Sweet ladies, long may ye bloom, and toughly I hope ye may thole,
But was she not lucky? In flowers and lace and mourning,
In love and great honour we bade God rest her soul;
After six little spaces of chill. And six of burning.”

Why, you may wonder, the archaisms and Britishisms? This, I suppose, is Ransom’s way of making the poem more universal and timeless. Also a good way to end a mini survey.

What are we to conclude? That dying affects, in poetry, women more pathetically than men, who make mourning , however, as touching as women do? That there can be a kind of death in life, as in the Michaux poem? Or that death can be dealt best with fasntasies about it? Notice that none of the poets believes in an afterlife. That both some men and some women can endure a loved one’s demise with a certain amount of restraint, of stoicism?  That many more poems are needed for more than very tentative conclusions? That unlike by the moribund, too absorbed with dying, the poems—obviously--are written by the surviving bereaved? That, although I offer no samples of it, true Christian believers, however misguidedly, find dying easiest?


I do not know the answers to these questions. Reader, do you?

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Favorite Quotations

Some of what follows may be repetition, but a good thing bears repeating, especially in an age when so much bad stuff is prevailing. So what I am discussing and explicating are touchstones and consolations, as far as anything can console and encourage.

Though I consider Guillaume Apollinaire and Jacques Prevert much greater poets, it is one stanza by Louis Aragon that travels with me, and I quote it here, perhaps not entirely correctly, from memory—I am not a very good memorizer.

Mon amour, j’etais dans tes bras.
Au dehors quelqun murmura
Une vieille chanson de France.
Mon mal enfin s’est reconnu
Et son refrain, comme d’un pied nu,
Troubla l’eau verte du silence.

This was written during the Occupation, when people tried to inure themselves  against terrible times, as presumably did the very leftist and quasi-surrealist Aragon, when what this poem says presumably occurred. I translate:

My love, I was in your arms,/ When outside someone murmured/ An old song of France./ My hurt at last recognized itself,/ And its refrain, as with a bare foot,/ Troubled the green water of silence.

What, I wonder, was that old song that had such a great, shaming and redeeming impact on the surrounding silence? The recognition it provokes—that one cannot accept even unspoken Collaboration with the Nazis—stirs up dormant patriotism and Resistance. The allusion, I take it, is to kids on the border of a lake dangling their feet in the water in carefree leisure. But what is that “green” doing there? I assume that it refers to the treasonous allure of resignation. Green can be the peaceable color of standing water, eliciting inaction, however seductive.

But, this being poetry, there is also the matter of sound. In the last line, the ou  and  a and au are dark sounds, with er and e  transitioning to the brightness of u, i. en. and mute e forming a lure toward connivance. That last line is sheer seduction, wrought by alluring music.

Speaking of music, English poetry offers magisterial means for it. This is largely, but by no means solely, so because the poet has such opportunities provided by there being so often a choice between a romance and an anglo-saxon word, on the order of friendly and amicable, lengthy and long, peaceful and pacific, happy and felicitous, murderer and assassin, verity and truth, endanger and imperil, and so on and on. In my book “Paradigms Lost,” I have a whole chapter on that subject, entitled “Sibling Rivalry.”

Even though my favorite poets in English are Robert Graves and Richard Wilbur, let me reach back to a stanza by the melodious (or tuneful) Swinburne. One concluding (or ending) quatrain of his runs, “And the best and the worst of this is/ That neither is most to blame,/ If you have forgotten my kisses/ And I have forgotten your name.”

This I find sublime. Take the wonderful rhyme “this is” and “kisses.” That is a feminine. i.e., bisyllabic rhyme, in pleasing alternation with the masculine, i.e., monosyllabic one, “blame” and “name.” It is good that both sets use rather commonplace words, which still manage to be surprising in context, without having to reach for less plain, more recherché, words to create rhyme. This is what makes the artful device of rhyme come across as perfectly natural.

And then we have the powerful idea of something being both best and worst, both good and bad. That is no ordinary insight. Haven’t we all gotten over lost loves, and yet this calming oblivion (or forgetfulness) makes something basically sad livable with. It not only neutralizes our suffering, it also exculpates the one who caused it. We are both equally guilty and innocent in a world where there is no black and white, but rather a merciful (forgiving or at least extenuating) gray. And how the words sing!

In German, one favorite bit of poetry comes from an obscure poem written for Marthe Hennebert, a weeping young working-class girl whom Rilke encountered in the street and proceeded to console by making her his girlfriend. A final stanza runs like this:

Befriedigungen ungezaehlter Jahre
sind in der Luft, voll Blumen liegt dein Hut
und ein Geruch aus deinem reinen Haare
mischt sich mit Welt als waere alles gut.

Appeasements of innumerable years
are in the air, your hat lies full of flowers
and a smell from your pure hair
mingles with world as if all were well.

The scene is as in Seurat’s immortal painting, a Sunday afternoon  on the shore of the Seine, with the poet and his new young mistress enjoying a respite, regardless of other people with the same idea. It is all very idyllic, the flowers obviously purchased as a rich bouquet, and laid on top of the divested hat, yet the scent is coming not from them, but from the beloved’s pure hair. Somehow that wonderfully clean and presumably opulent hair exudes an odor di femina (as Italians would have it), something not shop-bought but, dare one say, naturally erotic.

A terrific effect is achieved by that inner rhyme, “deinem reinen”; not only does it intensify the purity of her hair and so flatter the new mistress, it also speeds up the movement to that terrifying ending despite all these wonders still unable to make the world better.  That “as if” is quietly devastating. But what about “the “appeasement of incalculable years”? A tribute, I suppose, to la Grande Jatte,” that playground for so many folk to indulge themselves as Sunday compensation for  working-class stiffs--no need to evoke the Sondheim musical.
                                                                                                                                                           
By locating te appeasement “in the air,” Rilke makes its charm truly ubiquitous, as universal as can be, and yet ultimately not enough. Particularly poignant is calling the world, which in German should be “die Welt,” merely “Welt,” something more mysteriously permeating, as “World” is more cosmically overpowering than an ordinary, known, cozy, everyday “the world.” And yet, with all these inducements to happiness, to a dejeuner sur l’herbe almost, it is still only that hapless quasi-world or threatening superworld, too little or too much. Or “ the best and the worst”—and, as it were, no real picnic.

That is one of the great attributes of poetry, the ability to say so much in so little, to which the apt rhyme-scheme also contributes: the effective alternation of feminine and masculine rhymes, concluding with that strong yet deceptive closer, “gut.”

All of this leads me to a powerful, to me saddening, proof of the impossibility, or near so, of translating  lyrical poetry, where so much depends on sound. A marvelous poem by Hungary’s Baudelaire, the fountainhead of its modern poetry, Endre Ady, has a great ending in “Testamentumot, szornyet, irni/ Es sirni, sirni, sirni, sirni.” (Imagine accent marks on the second o and on the capital E, making them, respectively, an English  er and an a as in lake). I have tried in vain to translate the poem into rhyming verse; in prose, that ending translates “To write a testament, a dreadful one,/And weep, weep, weep, weep.” The prime reason for the untranslatability of this crushing distich is those four “sirni”s, comparable to Lear’s heartrending four “never”s. In English, weep and cry are monosyllables, and those do not resonate as horribly as a quadruple bisyllable, pronounced more or less like “sheerni.” Four “weep”s, like four “cry”s, just don’t do the trick.

To be sure, sometimes a not so great poem can be effectively translated; I have, if I dare say so, published a Serbian verse translation of Kilmer’s “Trees” that works as well as the original.

In English, there are single lines of poetry that do the job for me, notably Cummings’s “Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands” that affects me even without the assist of Tennessee Williams’s famous appropriation of it. And then there is, horribile dictu, Poe’s horrendous “Quoth the raven Nevermore,” the latter owing its immortality through persiflage. Note that the repeated vowel--e in Poe’s raven and Lear’s outcry, like the i in Ady’s sob--add to the quotability, another poetic device that defies translation. Observe the poetic iteration in device and defies.


Still and all, I tend to wonder why these particular quotations come to me the way equally fine verses do not. Add that fact to the mysteries of poetry. As is the force  of compression, say, in that great early English lyric (circa 1530), which  runs: “O Western wind, when wilt thou blow,/ That the small rain down can rain?/ Christ that my love were in my arms/ And I in my bed again?” Or, perhaps even earlier, the Scot William Dunbar’s “Timor mortis conturbat me,” i.e., “The fear of death unsettles me.”


The penultimate and last quotation are less frequent visitors. The former, because it does not apply to my condition; the latter, because it applies all too much. But even as, in the mystery play, Good Deeds accompanies Everyman to his demise, so do these quotations companion me through life. They do not cure, but they do facilitate.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Foot Fetishism

A fetish is, according to one definition, an object or body part that elicits adoration or sexual arousal, and may in extreme cases be necessary for complete sexual gratification. It involves usually a man’s idea of what is beautiful or sexy about a woman’s foot, foot fetishism by far outnumbering other kind of fetishes.

Most desirable are medium-sized feet. On a large one, toes look like ridiculous, petty appendages; on a small one, they appear ready to devour the entire foot. The main types are the Egyptian foot, with toes of decreasing length from big to little toe; the Roman foot, with the first three toes of more or less the same length, the other two decreasingly smaller; and the Greek or model foot, wit the toes from big to small forming a sort of semicircle. But what constitutes the basic prettiness of a foot?

It is the narrowness, the arch, the coloring and the pliability, what might be covered by the term grace. It constitutes a fine, worthy pedestal for the legs, and so for the entire woman. And it has to belong to a beautiful woman; on an unsightly one, it is merely wasted. Becoming sexualized, it does not transmit social diseases, and does not impregnate, even as it takes over much of the role of the penis under manual stimulation. This is especially useful at a time when social diseases like AIDS are rampant.     

Ultimately, the preferred foot constitutes something delicate and well-proportioned, but definitely not brittle and frangible. And there is also the mystery, that unlike, say, the hand, it is not permanently exposed. What is it like then, hidden under a long skirt or encased in a shoe or boot? How exciting is its revelation when it does become bared. What does induce its being kissed, its toes licked or sucked? Or even, as Freud has emphasized, how attracting by its smell? Moreover, it may be indulged without incurring the onus of profligacy, adultery, or mere unchastity, let alone undesired impregnation.

But finally, it is a special tribute that may signify accepted submission, i.e., satisfy a masochistic trend in the male and a corresponding ascendance of the dominant female. Or, damn it, is it just a tribute to sheer beauty? Otherwise would it be there in so many paintings, particularly in the Renaissance, when beauty was truly appreciated? And beauty does depend on the sensibility of the beholder. Otherwise there would not have been qua ideal the Junoesque, as in Rubens, or the corpulent, as in the Hottentot Venus. Is today’s obeisance to a beautiful foot based on more recent Western aesthetics?

Like it or not, slenderness is a large part of shapeliness, and the foot is where it originates. It is also the locus of ticklishness, which, practiced in moderation, can be aphrodisiac. This is where the reaction of the idol may become relevant. Does the owner of the worshipped foot enjoy it, or merely accept it, or even dislike it? As for the performer, it is what elicits complete though perverse sexual gratification, even if it cannot be rationally explained. But then, can any perversion?

For the performer toying with, or expressing obeisance to, the toes, those five minipenises can guarantee kinky sexual satisfaction. But the woman may enjoy it too as possessor of an additional, adstititious sexual
attractiveness. Let us not forget the more passive, platonic form of sexual fetishism, consisting merely of pleasurable looking at bare female feet. Speaking for myself, I remember sitting next to one of my most beautiful girlfriends as she was driving us to a summer Long Island lease. She was barefoot, and the black pedal provided her very white foot with an enhancing frame. I commented on the beauty of her foot and she was both surprised and, dare I say, tickled pink.

Other girlfriends did not particularly like their feet, and did not especially care about any involvement with them. I may have played with their toes, but certainly went no further with that sort of thing. And I definitely did not share Francois Villon’s seeming attraction to, among other beauties melted away like yesteryear’s snows, “Berte au grant pié,” i.e., Berta Bigfoot. Which brings me to actual or possible foot fetishism in literature.

Let’s start with Sir Thomas Wyatt (1603-1642), Anne Boleyn’s lover, and his most famous quasi-sonnet, beginning “They flee from me that sometime did me seek/ With naked foot stalking in my chamber.” In the plural where the singular would be expected, suggests frequent and casual sex, reinforced by that “stalking.” Is it not interesting that these amorous women are described not by, say, their bared breasts, but by their naked feet, where “naked” is clearly sexier than “bare.” Whatever else this may indicate, it suggests the sexualized feet, otherwise why point to them, “stalking” yet, on plural occasions?

On now a couple of centuries, to Oscar Wilde’s play “Salome.” Later turned into Richard Strauss’s celebrated opera. Wilde wrote the play in French, which his lover, Alfred Douglas, translated into English. We read of Herod, lecherously doting on his stepdaughter Salome,about to dance for him. He exclaims, “Ah, thou art to dance with naked feet. ‘Tis well! ‘Tis well. Thy little feet will be like little white doves. They will be like little white flowers that dance upon the trees . . .” This, coming from the randy tetrarch, surely indicates sexualization of the feet. Not too much can be made of the “naked,” since the French must have “pieds nus,” there being no other word for bare. But still . . .

Let us skip now to 1894 and Gerald du Maurier’s celebrated novel “Trilby.” The eponymous heroine is a young Irish artist’s model in Paris, Trilby O’ Ferrall, introduced wearing a petticoat, “beneath which were visible her bare white ankles and insteps, and slim, straight, rosy heals, clean cut and smooth as the back of a razor; her toes lost in a huge pair of male slippers. She poses in the altogether . . . “head, hands and feet—everything—especially feet. As she kicks off her heavy masculine slipper, she proclaims, “That’s my foot . . . the handsomest foot in all Paris. There is only one in all Paris to mach it, and here it is.” Whereupon “she laughed heartily . . .  and stuck out the other.”

Du Maurier continues. “And in truth they were astonishingly beautiful feet, such as one only sees in pictures and statues—a true inspiration of shape and color, all made up of delicate lengths and subtly-modulated curves and noble straightnesses and happy little dimpled arrangements in innocent young pink and white.”

The hero of the novel, Little Billee, is “quite bewildered to find that a real, bare, live human foot could be such a charming object to look at, and felt that such a base or pedestal lent quite an antique and Olympian dignity to a figure” etc. Further: “The shape of those lovely slender feet (that were neither large nor small) facsimiled in dusty pale plaster of Paris, survives on the shelves and walls of many a studio throughout the world, and many a sculptor yet unborn has yet to marvel at their strange perfection, in studious despair.” And still further, being covered in leather footwear, the foot “is hidden away in disgrace. A thing to be thrust out of sight and forgotten. It can sometimes be very ugly indeed—the ugliest thing there is, even in the fairest and highest and most gifted of her sex, and then it is of an ugliness to chill and kill romance, and scatter love’s young dream and almost break the heart.” I had that feeling when I saw backstage the bared ungainly foot of one of my favorite British actresses.

“Conversely, when Mother Nature has taken extra pains in the building of [the foot], and proper care and happy chance have kept it free of lamentable deformations, indurations, and discolorations—all those gruesome, boot-begotten abominations which have made it so generally unpopular—the sudden sight of it, uncovered, comes as a very rare and singularly pleasing surprise to the eye that has learned how to see!
Nothing else that Mother Nature has to show, not even the human face divine, has more power to suggest high physical distinction, happy evolution, and supreme development, the lordship of man over beast, the lordship of man over man, the lordship of woman over all!

Trilby had respected Mother Nature’s special gift to herself—had never worn a leather boot or shoe, had always taken as much care of her feet as many a fine lady takes of her hands.” To be sure, du Maurier does not write about actual fetishist sex play, nothing about fingering, licking, smelling, and whatever that can be very disturbing to the nonfetishist. It should decidedly pose no problem in a world that has accepted as normal much of what had previously been considered otherwise.

I myself have never become a true foot fetishist, beyond enjoying a beautiful female foot when I see one. This may have originated when I was a boy in Belgrade, gazing at the way maidservants there cleaned floors. They would use a brush attached by a metallic strap to their bare foot and rub away. I had no sense that my interested gaze was somehow sexual, still less that it would generate an adult proclivity. But there, with due restraint, it is.

Above all, there is nothing destructive about foot fetishism; no one is hurt by it, which is more than one can say for some other kinks. As for me, I watch “Dancing with the Stars” on TV, and especially enjoy it when a woman dances barefoot. I never even call it naked feet.
                      


Monday, October 1, 2018

Irony

The text today is irony, from the Greek for dissimulation, as I learn from J. R. Cuddon’s marvelous book (more about that anon), from which I quote the following, enough for an initial definition. “For the Roman theoreticians (in particular Cicero and Quintilian) ‘ironic’ denoted a rhetorical figure and a manner of discourse in which . . . the meaning was contrary to the words, the double-edgedness appearing to be a diachronic feature of irony.”

Please don’t ask me to explain “diachronic,” which would lead me to one of my bêtes noires, the Swiss pundit Ferdinand de Saussure, father of semiology. What was good enough for Cicero and Quintilian will be sufficient for me for the nonce. To recapitulate, saying one thing and meaning its opposite is a sophisticated device unknown to or uncomprehended by hoi polloi. Let me cite as example the beginning of a note from the subtle and sophisticated novelist James Salter, in response to a communication from me: “Dear John, What beautiful handwriting. If I didn’t know you, I would say it shows an orderly mind of great intelligence.” Here the irony was as it were announced by that “If I didn’t know you.” Ordinarily, no such warning that an irony is intended is deemed necessary.

Of course irony should, more or less discreetly, reveal itself as such, as if, for instance, we were to say or write “As the great Stephen King would have it.” To be sure, it may be missed by unsophisticated Americans, the ones whom Hermann Hesse qualified as “blithe and easily satisfied half human.” It can be inferred also by such a remark as Oscar Wilde’s, “Anybody can write a three-volumed novel. It merely requires complete ignorance of both life and literature.” Or, by way of a more salient example, take the following from Fran Leibowitz: ”Your responsibility as a parent is not as great as you might imagine. You need not supply the world with the next conqueror of disease or major motion picture star. If your child simply grows up to be someone who does not use the word ‘collectible’ as a noun, you may consider yourself an unqualified success.” Collectible as a substantive may not be your paradigmatic lapse, like, say, “Greetings from my wife and I,” but it will do. The subtle irony is clear enough.

Or how about this from the great aphorist Georg C. Lichtenberg: “Sometimes men come by the name of genius in the same way that certain insects come by the name of centipede—not because they have a hundred feet, but because most people can’t count above fourteen.” What a wonderfully ironic way of saying that most people are stupid. I would go so far as to claim that certain people invite irony by their very look or name. Take an article in the Times of September 5: “National Chief for Gymnastics Is Forced Out After Turmoil.” The chief in question, whose accompanying picture makes her look like a dimwitted blond kewpie doll, is named  Kerry Perry, which a right-minded daughter would have legally changed. Perry was forced out for championing the nefarious doctor Larry Nasser. She had succeeded a gymnastic president named Steve Penny, close enough, though I would have preferred Benny Penny, but you can’t have everything. Still, the article reads like ironic sympathy for Perry.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 I  myself have practiced conspicuous irony, describing Liza Minnelli as a potential winner of a beauty contest--for beagles. At least I picked the seemingly right canine breed: not too pretty, like Afghan or Briard, nor too homely, like bulldog or chihuahua. I regret even more a remark about Diana Rigg in profile in a play’s nude scene as “a basilica with inadequate flying buttresses.” This is always misquoted, even by Ms. Rigg, as a mausoleum etc. The building in question cannot be faulted, as basilicas do not have flying buttresses, any more than do mausoleums, which in this context would have downright sinister implications. At least a basilica is holy.

I am  inclined not to regret my reply to someone’s question about what good things I thought of Adrienne Rich after a poetry reading. I answered that to do justice to it one would need the attributes of a Homer and a Beethoven, namely blindness and deafness. This is a classic irony, as, without requiring elucidation, where what augurs well really disparages.

One of my favorite ironies stems from the wonderful critic Kenneth Tynan. In a review of “Titus Andronicus,”  he referred to Vivien Leigh as a Lavinia who “received the news that she is about to be ravished on the corpse of her husband as one who would have preferred foam rubber.” Thus in the American version; in the British, Tynan used the name of a popular rubber bed brand, which is even funnier, but would not have traction in America.

Another favorite irony is Hilaire Belloc’s epigram about a British lord: “I heard today Godolphin say/ He never gave himself away./ Come, come, Godolphin, scion of kings,/ Be generous in little things.” This is perfect in its switch from evoked nobility to actual mockery without any warning.

Now how about the great Viennese writer and wit Peter Altenberg , a consummate lover of women (especially girls), who allowed: “Coquetry is the immense decency of a desirable woman, thereby, for the moment at least, to hold off the disappointment she is bound to bring you.” This irony is permitted Altenberg (1859-1919), who wrote some of the most affectionate and lyrical prose in praise of women as well as sarcasm. Be it recalled, however, that this often eloquent advocate was, unfortunately for him, a homely man.

Let me point out some obvious everyday ironies. “What a wonderful day” we exclaim as we look out on another gray morning. “How clever you are,” we comment on a dear one’s folly. “We will always be together” we tell a lover whom we no longer love. “I will never do that again” we say after a clumsiness we damn well know we’ll commit again. And so on.

But the really great ironies are in literature as in Swift’s essay “A Modest Proposal,” about the poor selling their unwanted babies to England for food. Even the full title is redolent of irony: “A Modest Proposal for preventing the Children of Poor People from being a Burthen to their Parents, or the Country, and for making them Beneficial to the Publick.” This piece of a few pages may be the greatest example of irony in the English language; altogether some of irony’s most distinguished practitioners lived in the eighteenth century. It is there also in “Gulliver’s Travels,” and much of the verse and prose of Alexander Pope. Take only this from one of Pope’s letters: “I never knew any man in my life who could not bear another’s misfortunes perfectly like a Christian.” This manages to make fun of people in general as well as Christians in particular.

J. A. Cuddon’s magnificent “Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory,” is most easily available in America in the Penguin version of its fourth edition, edited by C. E. Preston. It covers six pages with its entry on irony. Delightful to readers and indispensable to writers, it contains, for example, the earliest reference to irony in English, dated 1502: “yronie . . . of  grammare, by the whiche a man sayth one & gyveth to understande the contrary. “ I am amused by the reference to a “splendid essay” on irony  of 1970 by one D. C. Muecke, the name in German meaning mosquito, and being perfect for the subject. Of the many ironists Cuddon cites, from Aeschylus to Iris Murdoch, his favorites are Voltaire, Gibbon, Swift, Henry James and Thomas Mann. He is an expert in writings in the obscurest languages the world over.

There are various forms of irony, including the situational, whereby, for instance, Lear endows his hypocritical, worthless daughters but excoriates and expels his truly worthy, loving one. Similarly, Othello trusts the villain Iago, but rejects and eventually strangles the virtuous Desdemona. Dissimulation, i.e., irony, thrives as dramatic irony, whereby the audience knows things the characters don’t.

In conclusion, I would suggest, utopian as my plea may be, that teachers instruct their students in irony, perhaps even offer a course in it. It would provide an emotional outlet vastly preferable to guns and knives.




Saturday, September 1, 2018

Questions

Some questions may be hard to answer, yet they must be asked. And answering is not enough: they must , when answered, also be acted upon. They are like potholes on the roads, so numerous that it would take a lot of effort to correct them, but we must at least try. This may be quixotic, but then isn’t Don Quixote a lovable figure? Isn’t his maladroit meliorism as touching as it is misguided?

So here are some of my urgent questions—urgent seeming at least to me--yet highly unlikely to be acted upon, given the effort that would require. But let it not be said of me that I never asked.

How many more intolerables are we to tolerate from Donald Trump before we take some kind of punitive action? As my friend Kevin Filipski remarked, just one of them from Obama would have landed him in serious trouble; from Trump, they may not go unimpugned, but they clearly remain unacted upon. Why?

The answer is: because the Republicans, even when they disapprove--rarely enough—have nobody better to put forward as a surefire replacement. There are some perfectly good Republicans, but they lack the kind of following to surely beat the Democrats with. (Please note the split infinitive, which, like the sentence-ending preposition, is perfectly all right, yet constantly put forward as pedantry by ignorant foes unaware of what linguists are really about.) In this case, too, as in so many others, it is the ignoramuses who prevail in society,

What could make an intellectual candidate succeed? Better education, i.e., better schools.
But how are we going to get those? It would require more respect and better salaries for teachers on all levels. Teachers, even most professors, are unlikely beneficiaries. Why is that?

There are several reasons. There is, first of all envy: because teachers get longer vacations than most, teaching is assumed to be a cushy job, being its own reward. Teaching the numerous dunderheads, however, is no easy job; rather one demanding indefatigable effort and the patience of saints. Qualifiers for all that may well have a preference for easier, better paid and more prestigious jobs, such as writing potboilers for television or hugging microphones as singers or rappers.
Which is not to say that most pop singers and rappers are really slumming talents.

To be sure, there are sufficient millionaires and billionaires who could spend some of their munificence on education, but, as far as I can tell, that is not a favorite endowment, though, granted, not quite the least favored either. But the problem is that, let us say, if this or that college or university gets a grant, it is more likely to be put to uses other than better teaching. And, sure enough, money for cancer research or victorious football teams, even with pedophile coaches, have to be prioritized.

This said, it must be reckoned with that the United States is a country in which intellectuals are less respected than in many others. Minorities may be favored, as are radicals. Just think who gets to be a MacArthur fellow. In the arts, anyway, it is radicals first. Now I have nothing against women, blacks or lesbians, especially all three together, getting their fair share, but need they be so obviously preferred? George Soros may be more evenhanded, but of how many others can this be even suspected?
                                                                                                                                                             Now, however, to a different, major question. Why are here so few female tennis champions? Actually, more than one, Serena Williams? In male singles, there are a major four—just as there used to be in Chinese politics, a very different field.

In male singles, it was a possible for Djokovic, Federer and Nadal, and somewhat less even Andy Murray, to be steadily, unswervingly at the top of the game. You could count on one of them to win and be for a good while number one in the world. The others might not even bother to compete—they might as well not be there, although very occasionally an anomalous Cilic, Wawrinka, Kyrgios, or Del Potro could horn in.

You may ask what’s so good about that, why shouldn’t some others get a fair chance? The Zwerews, Thiems, Dimitrovs, or Fogninis? Well, because for us spectators it was very comforting to be rooting for a winner, to have our boy be a champion. There was enough variety among those four, and a relaxing sense that even if one of them lost, there was a good chance he might recoup the next time. Only on clay was there a monotony of Rafa Nadal winning over and over again, a real surfeit. If none of them won, one was at a loss about whom to vote for, even if a Raonic or Goffin might be a temporary winner. The Americans especially were a disappointing lot.

But now look at the women: almost every other month there was a different number one. That is when Serena chose to be a devoted mother to a newborn, and perhaps not even then. There was no getting around the fact that Serena could beat them all without being especially likable. Likable? What does that have to do with it? Quite a bit. Without wishing to take away from his glory, a Federer owes at least some of his successes to his charm, to the love of his numerous international supporters. All the more remarkable that the egregiously charmless Nadal should still so consistently excel. To be sure, he too has the most devoted fans in Hispanics, of whom there seems to be no end whenever and wherever he is playing. Let us look at him for a moment.

Nadal seems to be the only crazy champion. Whenever he serves and almost equally when he receives, he exhibits traits that are at best extremely eccentric, if not totally non compos menti. He performs a serving and also receiving ritual that consists  of touching—or tweaking—one ear, then the nose, then the other ear and back again and sometimes even, unsavorily, the back of his pants, which elicits curious interpretations from his ill wishers, of whom there are not a few. Even the containers of the liquids he consumes have to be lined up in a certain order, and he is inclined to take more time than allowed between points. He also has an unappealingly cutthroat look when playing, as if he liked nothing better than cut his opponents’ throats. On the other hand, he seems to be reasonably normal the rest of the time, and is said to be quite charming. Indeed he has a nice smile and a bald patch on the back of his head that humanize him.

Federer, Djokovic and Murray come across perfectly normal, and even at what is in tennis an advanced age, steadily at or near the top. There are, however, newcomers who occasionally win out. But with women players, it is otherwise: there is a new number one every few months, and with the exception of Serena Williams, no steady champion. In a typical match, the temporary favorite will win one set rather easily, then lose the next set just as easily. The third set then becomes the real battle, and can sometimes be very long. This is what makes women’s tennis so frustrating: you really don’t know whom to root for, and even Serena Williams, the only longtime number one, can be dramatically off her game. Her powerful serve can sometimes be missing, which is how a lesser player can—rarely—beat her.

I myself like women players whom I find both talented and attractive, like Julia Goerges  and Garbine Muguruza, and dislike the unsightly ones, like Svetlana Kuznetsova, Carla Suarez Navarro, Ashleigh Barty, Naomi Osaka and a few others in both categories. Many women players have an innate elegance that makes watching them a kind of balletic experience. Among the men, only Federer has that quality, though Djokovic dazzles us with the ability to retrieve seemingly unanswerable shots, turning defense into offence. Also his sense of humor.

I spend many hours watching tennis on TV. My question is will I ever get bored with it? I hope not, even if among the upcoming players there seems to be no one as interesting as the elite four. Along with reading and classical music, it is one of my chief pleasures. I only wish I could share it with my good wife, who, however, does not care for sports.

P.S.: I realize full well that matches are not won on looks, but that does not prevent a fan from watching with greater pleasure a point won by the appealing Camila Giorgi than by the unappealing Madison Keys. However, if I were an umpire or referee (whatever the difference is), I would not allow myself to be swayed by looks.