Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Beginnings


Like first impressions in life, and rather more so, first impressions, i.e., beginnings in fiction matter. They may not be quite all important, but they do invite and influence readership.

Take that terrific opening sentence that many people who know nothing else about Tolstoi’s “Anna Karenina” (more properly “Anna Karenin”) are familiar (!) with, “Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” No one is let down by that novel, but “War and Peace” must be a veritable graveyard of readers who gave up midway or sooner.

Pretty famous, deservedly, is also the beginning of L. P. Hartley’s “The Go-Between,” “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” The whole novel is good, although the fine film based upon it may be even better.

Both of these are apt beginnings because they lay their finger on something we “oft have thought but ne’er so well express’d,” as Alexander Pope so well put it. But are other beginnings as good as that, I wondered. So I decided to pluck ten worthy books at random from my shelves and check out their beginnings. See how ably they invite further reading or not.

Only one of them is well-known, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” which starts: “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do; once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations.’”

Very clever, this, since it appeals not only to children (no pictures) but even to their elders (no conversations).  What characterizes the passage is impatience (very tired of sitting) and what is more characteristic of young children than their lack of what German calls “Sitzfleisch,” hard to put into English short of “flesh to sit on.” Conversations, of course, know no age. So our author appeals to all ages.

Now take what may be my favorite English (British) novel of all time, Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier.” Here the very short opening sentence gets us where we live: “This is the saddest story I ever heard.” How succinctly the author establishes the presence of both a narrator and of the characters whose story it is. Presumably equally sad for those who lived it and the one who heard and recorded it. And who can resist reading on compassionately?

There is, however, a tricky way of telling a tragic story humorously: a double-bottomed treasure chest. This is the Turkish American Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Orhan Pamuk’s “My Name Is Red,” which begins: “I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well. Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what’s happened to me. As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below.” This opening paragraph goes on to list further gory details, but already you see its burlesque effectiveness. Which would be less remarkable but for the victim telling it (The same device figures in that splendid movie, “Sunset Boulevard.”)

The comic tone—gallows or black humor if you like—comes from the details so carefully enumerated by the corpse; it is bizarre, but somehow also reassuring, if dead men do tell tales. Even the almost convivial “that wretch,” plays a droll role.
As does something worse than mere death: entombment in a well. We want to know more.

Now take the start of George du Maurier’s “Peter Ibbetson” (1891). “The writer of this singular autobiography was my cousin, who died at the ---- Criminal Lunatic Asylum, of which he had been an inmate three years. He had been removed thither after a sudden and violent attack of homicidal mania (which fortunately had no serious coincidences) from ----Jail, where he had spent twenty-five years having been condemned to penal servitude for life, for murder of ---- his relative. He had been originally sentenced to death. It was at ----Lunatic Asylum that he wrote his memoir . . .” etc.

Note especially the adroitness of the double dash (----). It cleverly makes the story universal, allowing the reader to fill in the lacunas with the jail and asylum nearest him. The narrator is essentially genteel, a later paragraph reveals that it is a woman, the loony’s literary executrix, who tells the story with refined discretion, hence also all those masking dashes. Our curiosity for what follows is chastely aroused, allowing for the propriety of the Victorian readers as well as their secret love of horror.

Next, consider the skillful beginning of Milan Kundera’s early ‘The Farewell Party” (1976), in its French original the more lyrical “La Valse aux adieux.” “Autumn had arrived. In the lovely valley trees were turning yellow, red, brown, and the small health-resort town seemed to be surrounded by flames. Women were strolling under the colonnade of the spa, now and again pausing to lean over the spouting springs. These were childless women who had come to the spa in the hope of gaining fertility. There was a handful of men among the patient too, for in addition to gynecological wonders a cure at the spa was supposedly beneficial for heart ailments. All the same, females outnumbered males nine to one—an infuriating ration for a young nurse like Ruzena, ministering all day to the needs of sterile matrons.”

Observe the skillful progression from the beauty of nature to the anguished childless women, thence to the zeroing in on the unfulfilled needs of a specific heroine. A movie camera could not have made these transitions more vividly effective, from an establishing shot through a tracking shot to a close-up. We are caught in Kundera’s clever manipulation, ready to be taken into the heart of the story.


Similarly involving and evolving is the progression at the start of the French-Alsacian Rene Schickele’s delightful novel (written in German) “Die Flaschenpost” (“The Bottle Mail”), which I translate, keeping the spacing that resembles free verse. “Cloud./ Richard Cloud . . ./ Today the matutinal mini-boats all foregathered on the horizon. As the sun rose, someone gave a signal, and they sailed in a race across the sky. // One after another they capsized, filled up on blueness and sank—I said to myself contentedly: ‘among them also Richard Cloud.’ . . . // My family lived in the United States, there where it is most boring.”

Here, too, we start with a nature description, lyrical but also ironic, mocking. The hero, Richard Cloud, watches his namesakes in the sky overturn and, smiling, projects himself among them, a rich young man who will similarly capsize. And the very next sentence is a challenge: what is this America, the most boring place in the world? Again, we are seduced into wanting to find out what clouds the life horizon of this Mr. Cloud.

Now take Arthur Schnitzler’s marvelous novella, “Casanova’s Homecoming” (1918), though the German “Heimfahrt” inadequarely translatable as homegoing or home journey. I translate.  “In his fifty-third year, when Casanova had long since given up being chased through the world by the adventurousness of youth, but by the restlessness of approaching old age, he felt arise so powerfully in his soul a nostalgic longing [Heimweh] for his birth city, Venice, that, like a bird that from airy heights gradually descends toward death, he began surrounding it in ever narrower and narrower circles.”

We have here Schnitzler’s gift for blending, in an elaborate but elegant style, psychological insight with poetic prose. The long sentence weaves its way through senescence and an avian image to a vagabond’s yearning for the true final home. A long but carefully constructed sentence is itself a kind of journey toward a resting place as it carries us along toward greater realization impending.

Contrast this sympathetic approach to human yearning with the severity of the beginning of V. S, Naipaul’s novella, “The Second Rebellion” (l979) in the volume entitled “A Bend in the River.” “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”

Naipaul’s antipathy for much of humanity is crystallized in this hostile opening.  Where other writers’ motivation is usually sympathetic, Naipaul’s is condescending and contemptuous. But it works in its negative way just as much as other authors' positive one.

Take now the good-natured approach in “The Caliph Stork” (1913) by the great Hungarian poet and prosaist, Mihaly Babits. Captioned “The Autobiography of Elemer Tabory,” it begins (I translate): “I want to gather together the acts of my life.

Who knows how much time I have left? The step I have resolved to take may prove fatal, Slowly, inexorably night is waning. Surely there will come sometime, tiptoe like a murderer, the black Dream, and step soundlessly behind me. Suddenly, it will press its palm on my eyes. And then I will no longer belong to myself. Then anything can happen to me. I want to collect the acts of my life before I would go to sleep once more.”

Note how calm this writing is, how empathetic. Death as a black dream, silently pressing from behind its palm on one’s eyes, does not sound too awful, leaving one time to collect one’s past actions, presumably on paper. The repetition makes it all the more resolute, the tone more resigned. We are eager to read those recorded acts.

But the recording of the past can be much more unnerving, as in that superb novel, Italo Svevo’s “Zeno’s Conscience,” (1925) published in Italian as La coscienza di Zeno, which I would translate more euphoniously as “The Conscience of Zeno,” but who am I to dispute the premier translator from the Italian, William Weaver? Herewith the beginning of the “Preamble” following a very brief doctor’s note. The hero is commenting on the doctor’s recommendation.

“Review my childhood? More than a half-century stretches between that time and me, but my farsighted eyes could perhaps perceive it if the light still aglow there were not blocked by obstacles of every sort, outright mountain peaks: all my years and some of my hours.”

The jacket copy informs us that this is “the story of a hapless, doubting, guilt-ridden man, paralized by his fits of ecstasy and despair and tickled by his own cleverness” in this “pioneering psychoanalytical novel.” The tone of that beginning establishes an attitude of imaginative, jocular pessimism.” We want to read on and find out whether those blocking mountains could be climbed.

Let me conclude with the first sentence of the Russian poet-novelist Valeri Briusov’s “The Fiery Angel” (1930), excellent advice to both writers and would-be writers. “It is my view that everyone who has happened to be witness of events out of the ordinary and not easily comprehensible should leave behind a record of them, made sincerely and without bias.” It should be taken to heart: something that we don’t quite understand, if written down sincerely and without bias might become comprehensible in the process of committing to paper. That is what Babits had in mind too, and that is what Zeno is advised to do. The past may be a foreign country, as Hartley opined, but we can become observant tourists in it.

Briussov’s exciting novel has become the basis of Prokofiev’s terrific opera, all too rarely performed. But there are at least a couple of worthy recordings of it that will afford repeated happy listening.

And one further comment. Isn’t it interesting that half my prosaists were also poets? To wit Babits, Briussov, Carroll, Schickele and Schnitzler. It bears out my contention that the best training for a prosaist is to have also been a poet.                                                                                                          

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Fetish, Anyone?



Fetishes are called kinks or perversions and refer to any deviance from the accepted “normal” sexual practice. But is there not a certain flexibility allowed for them? Homosexuality, for example, has been called a perversion and in certain places still is deemed one, though no longer so in enlightened Western societies.



Then there are practices that opinion is divided about. Take anal intercourse between men and women. Whereas oral sex is no longer considered kinky, anal sex is still judged such in certain quarters, where not much has changed since Annabella Lady Byron was granted a divorce from her husband for requiring anal sex..


Certain perversions are associated with some kind of violence espoused by consenting adults, e.g., sadism and masochism (S&M). Others, however, are more peaceable, as, for instance, foot fetishism. An entire society, the Chinese, went in for foot binding, which had nothing to do with preventing wives from escaping their husbands, but with the latter liking to toy with tiny feet.

Why this impulse? On the one hand (or foot) because smallness itself is appealing—think puppies, kittens, babies, and miniatures of every kind. But also, I think, because for the smaller foot, toes are more proportionate. They can be only so big, and on a large foot they have a way of looking like a puny appendage. On a smaller foot, they have a way of blending in seamlessly into a symmetrical balance.

Still, why a foot fetish, and none on, say, a calf or knee? It would seem to have to do  with feet being usually hidden in shoes, and thus, when exposed, a kind of revelation. Other parts that would be erotic if bared, like breasts, remain mainly concealed. In any case, male attraction to the female bosom, an approved erotic zone, is considered normal.

Because hands are on full display, there seems to be no serious hand fetishism. There is, however, shoe fetishism for high-heeled women’s shoes, a kind of transference from feet, but I would wager offhand not all that frequent.

Much as I respond to a beautiful bare female foot, the stimulus is minimal on a beach full of bikinied women. Partly, this is a matter of excess, of indiscriminate exposure devoid of mystery. More so perhaps because there the exposed foot does not carry a promise of greater things to come. Conversely, a fully clad woman’s bare foot does induce further expectations of disrobing. Then again, a skilled woman can, with a bare foot, induce a fricative male orgasm. In any case, scantily clad ubiquitousness invites detumescence.

Why, all things considered, should it be all right for a man to caress, kiss, suck or nibble a woman’s breast, but not her foot? The answer would appear to be that, in the former, pleasure is shared; in the latter, one-sided. But then why is fellatio approved, when a woman would more likely prefer a lollypop or ice-cream cone to a penis and sperm?

Or is it enough for the woman to simultaneously merely sense the pleasure she is giving?

The eroticism of the foot has quite an outlet in literature. Take, for instance, Sir Thomas Wyatt’s famous poem that begins, “They flee from me, that sometimes did me seek/ With naked foot stalking in my chamber . . .” The epithet naked in preference to bare may be simply due to the need of a bisyllable to make the iambic line scan. But then what of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome,” where the drooling Herod mutters, “Ah, thou art to dance with naked feet! ‘Tis well! ‘Tis well. Thy little feet will be like white doves. They will be like little white flowers that dance upon the trees.” Of course it could be argued that Wilde wrote the play in French, where it had to be “pieds nus” because there is no word for bare. But surely he and his lover “Bosie” Douglas, who translated the play into English, must have been aware of the implications of “naked.”

Both Robert Herrick and Sir John Suckling have written poems celebrating a woman’s foot peeping out from under her skirt while dancing though there the foot remains shod. But what about Shakespeare about Cressida: “Her eye, her cheek, her lip,/ Nay, her foot speaks”?

Still, the apogee of foot fetishism in English is in George du Maurier’s 1894 novel, “Trilby.” Its heroine begins as a teenage Irish beauty in Paris, posing as a model for painters and sculptors, often in the altogether. “’Yes,” she says to her British admirers, “’l’ensemble, you know—head, hands, and feet—everything—especially feet. That’s my foot,’ she said, kicking off her slipper and stretching out her limb. ‘It’s the handsomest foot in all Paris. There is only one in all Paris to match it, and here it is,’ and she laughed heartily (like a merry peal of bells) and stuck out the other.

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

So that Little Billee . . . was quite bewildered to find that a real, bare, live human foot could be such a charming object to look at . . . .

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 . . . .

It is a wondrous thing, the human foot—like the human hand; even more so, perhaps; but, unlike the hand, with which we are so familiar, it is seldom a thing of beauty in civilized adults who go about in leather boots or shoes.

So that it 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.

And all for the sake of high heel and a ridiculously pointed toe--mean things at the best!

Conversely, when Mother Nature has taken extra pains in the building of it, and proper care or happy chance has kept it free of lamentable deformations, indurations, and discolorations—all those grewsome [sic] boot-begotten abominations, which have made it generally upopular—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 subtle 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. . . .

With the point of an old compass, [Little Billie] scratched in white on the dark red wall a three-quarter profile outline of Trilby’s left foot, which was perhaps the more perfect poem of the two.”

Later, the great sculptor Durien comes visiting and, recognizing the foot on the wall, exclaims, “Tiens! Le pied de Trilby! Vous avez fait ca d’apres Nature?” and remarks, “Je voudrais bien avoir fait ca, moi!” The only thing du Maurier does not mention is a high instep, but being as much a visual artist as a writer, he includes among his illustrations for the book two little sketches of Trilby’s foot. There are several references throughout the novel to Trilby’s “beautiful [or alabaster] white feet,” plaster casts of which enriched their vendor and whose mural image was vainly tried to be removed from the studio wall. But let me move on to two incidents that reverberate in my memory.

One long-ago summer, my then girlfriend was driving us in her car. She was barefoot, and I, sitting next to her, pointed out how pretty her foot looked on the gas pedal. She was both surprised and delighted: it had never occurred to her that she had pretty feet. Another time, I went backstage to congratulate a lovely actress on her performance. She was barefoot, and for the first time I really saw her feet. They were large, flat, wide and, not to mince words, ugly. I was appalled, and wondered whether could ever again give her a rave review. Luckily I never saw her again, on or off the stage.

 I truly think I have figured out how I got my (mild enough) foot fetish, even though such a thing, I imagine, rarely has its etiology. Back in my childhood in Belgrade a maid who cleaned floors would attach a special brush by its strap to her bare foot for that purpose and scrub away. This afforded me my first glimpse of female flesh (the leg was bare too) and filled my young soul with erotic excitement.

I still admire a well-turned foot, preferably on the small side. I wonder what Francois Villon meant in his “Ballade des Dames du temps jadis,” in which he celebrates women for their beauty or power. One of them he refers to as “Berte au grant pie.” [Accent aigu on the E.] I recall, by the way, that Eric Partridge designates Bertha as a Teutonic name, meaning bright or shining one. So was this “grand pied,” as we would say now, perhaps also bright and shining, for Villon--an object of admiration or deprecation or merely observation?

Idle but enjoyable speculation. Let us now, however, turn to higher things.





Wednesday, June 1, 2016

POLITICS


Politics is a mug’s game, and by mug I don’t mean Donald Trump’s countenance that television would have me contemplate with scant respite. Mrs. Clinton looks more presentable, by which I do also mean electable, no matter which computer she used for whatever purpose. As for Bernie Sanders, the superannuated socialist, whose Vermont ill conceals his Brooklyn, and who uses his arms as if worked by a palsied puppeteer, I have my Harvard Ph. D. and no longer need free college tuition. And  I would hate to have to look at and listen to him for four years: his voice and visage are even less prepossessing than Trump’s.

But oh, politics in general! I am in total sympathy with the fine but undeservedly forgotten novelist Anatole France, whose autobiographical hero in that delightful novel “Le Lys rouge” declares, “I am not so devoid of all talents as to occupy myself with politics,” an enlightened view insufficiently shared.

Politics is one of the four high-stakes games along with sport, showbiz, and finance, each gambling for fame, wealth, and power. Yes, power. Think how barely slapped on the wrist are our leading footballers who beat the daylights out of their wives or girlfriends. And just how many women did Cosby have to drug and fuck before the Law finally got interested in his case, and may now—or still may not—pay some attention.

Well, who is or was more famous than Madonna or Sinatra, Beyonce or Michael Jackson? Who is or was more widely known and revered than Michael Jordan or Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth or Serena Williams? Would any of them have any difficulty getting a reservation at the fanciest restaurants? Even without CDs or old movies that won’t go away, these celebs are likely to subsist after the kids no longer know who George Gershwin and Emily Dickinson were.

You may wonder why I don’t include literature or classical music among the major games. It is because their representatives require some effort to make themselves known, some reading or serious listening. And the fine arts require visits to museums and galleries, for which one has to be prompted, and that also requires some effort. That and serious music also demand some sort of input, postulating education and tradition, unavailable to the lower orders and having little mass appeal, I remember how shocked I was when I read about “concerts” being something in arenas and featuring pop stars rather than in concert halls with classical music.

Back to politics. There are many problems with it. Take, for instance, dishonesty, which feeds into politics, combining with hypocrisy in a dreadful duet.. “Just because I lie,” says the politician, “I don’t want others to lie to me; just because I am untrustworthy, I don’t want you to be so.” How hypocritical even we nonpoliticians are. Let the politician be caught in a bit of adultery and his career is over. So, naturally, he hides things and lies. The mistress in South America does not exist, nor does the money come by illegally. More lies. The only reason Bill Clinton was more or less able to get away with the Monica affair is that there was apparently no penetration, only fellation, which, as Bill was first to tell us, is not sex at all.

But politicians have to lie. What adult human does not have an Achilles heel, some lapse or misdemeanor in the distant past, that a muckraker or rival can dig up and blow up out of proportion? What politician can shrug off some false step a rival with an eagle eye and sharp-edged spade can somehow detect?  How else can gossip columnists make a living? In France, to be sure, they are more civilized; there the married president or premier can have a fully recognized mistress and not be the worse off for it—perhaps even better.

The politician parades virtues that he does not in the least possess; he can appropriate illegal millions that he does not confide even to his pillow. Of course there are some honest politicians, sure enough; there are also some girls who are virgins, some men not prey to lust, some persons who find a stuffed wallet and somehow return it to the owner.  Thus when the editor of the New Yorker praised his star contributor Dwight Macdonald for having a hand that once shook the hand of James Joyce, Dwight replied with something like “But you have no idea what other hands it has shaken since.” What with such honesty, no wonder that Dwight’s magazine, “Politics,” did not last long.

I forget which famous person said that, in the street, we should sometimes wink also at unpretty girls. To be sure, nowadays the unpretty feminist might slap your face. Moreover, today’s politician would do more than wink at, even sweet talk, a monster, so long as the monster might contribute to his campaign fund. I wonder, by the way, why today’s politicians no longer seem to kiss other people’s babies. Could it be out of a more advanced sense of hygiene?

But how many people nowadays really trust a politician? Certainly those foolishly cheering young students who think Bernie Sanders will get them a free college education, as if that weren’t just one of his many socialist pipe dreams. They could never make it through the House and Senate. Not in many more years than may be left him after the stress and strain of his unrequited candidacy.

Which somehow made me wonder what Will Shakespeare, one of the smartest judges of men ever (I wish English could match the German Menschenkenner) had to say about politicians. In “Henry IV, Part One,” Hotspur refers to his arch enemy Bolingbroke as “this vile politician.” In “Twelfth Night,” Andrew Aguecheek exclaims in horror “I’d had as lief be a Brownist as a politician,” thus referring to a follower of William Browne, one of the first dissenters from the Church of England, and so a kind of heretic. In “Hamlet,” the Prince contemplates an unearthed skull and remarks, “This might be the pate of a politician . . . one that would circumvent God,” in other words a lowlife who would outwit God himself. And Lear warns, “Get thee glass eyes,/ And like a scurvy politician seem/ To see the things thou dost not”—in other words, a liar. That is a politician: vile, heretical, godless and a liar.
To be sure, an author does not necessarily believe what a character of his says. But such recurrent obloquy, so sharply expressed , does suggest authorial agreement.

Or consider what a fine poet nearer our own time had to say, E. E. Cummings’s “A politician is an arse upon/ which everyone has sat except a man.” How nice of Cummings to spell ass the classic British way, though perhaps he did so merely to emphasize that he meant a derriere, and not just a rather harmless thing, a donkey.

Does anyone of consequence have much good to write about a politician? In the nineteenth century perhaps, but hardly later. Certainly no such encomium makes it into any of the known dictionaries of quotations.

I once acted in the Harvard Dramatic Club’s production of Jean Giraudoux’s wonderful play ”The Trojan War Will Not Take Place,” unfortunately in Christopher Fry’s inadequate version. He called it “Tiger at the Gates,” thus impoverishing even its title. The director asked me what part I wanted to play, and I said Demokos, the cowardly lawyer who could just as well be a politician. It turned out that Fry had stupidly omitted the Demokos scene, and so the director asked me to translate it and play in it.

Incidentally, The Harvard Crimson ridiculed my version of Ajax, “le plus mauvais coucheur parmi les Grecs,” which I rendered as “the meanest plugugly among the Greeks.” But I still stand by plug-ugly, which the dictionary defines as “ruffian, rowdy, tough.” Something the Crimson should have blushed for not knowing.

This Demokos, a corrupt international lawyer who could just as well be a politician, finds for the Greeks in a disputed matter until Hector politely admonishes him, and the wretch fawningly adjudicates in favor of the Trojans. Or, closer to home, consider what our Donald Trump is up to. He speaks out of every corner of his mouth (surely more than two) whatever he deems his particular audience wants to hear, and there is not even a Hector around to threaten him. He’ll remain adamant about a few things, but about many others he goes whichever way the wind blows.

Yet the whole display of current politics, Clinton excepted, is a vast joke, and I can only hope that future writers will score easy belly laughs by reporting the shenanians. These Demokosian twists and turns need to be immortalized as a warning to future generations. The appalling Ted Cruz and a few lesser losers shall not go unremembered and unridiculed, which I hope to live to witness.

One other thing I’d like to ascertain: what is it with the Donald’s hair? Can it be natural or is it, as it looks to me, an ill-fitting, inexpensive wig? If that is all he allows himself, what favors can the nation expect from him should he be elected? Bernie’s white fringe is, I daresay, his own, and may even serve him as a flag of justice. What is it that Barbara Fritchie says in the famous poem? “’Shoot if you must this old gray head,/ But spare your country’s flag’ she said.” Hillary’s hair seems at any rate her own, ample and rather nice. What lodges beneath that thatch we cannot always tell, and perhaps not always approve of, but it is surely better than any other hirsuteness now on political offer.

Monday, May 16, 2016

ESSAY


This was a brief introductory comment to a prize-giving dinner for student essayists at Hunter College.

I would imagine that all of you have heard of the Pen Club, the premier international organization for writers. It was founded in 1921 by Mrs. Dawson-Scott (whoever she was), with its first president John Galsworthy, author of “The Forsyte Saga” of (gulp) television fame. Its importance may by now be somewhat diminished, but its activities on behalf of writers silenced or jailed remain paramount.

I always used to assume that the name PEN referred to that by now obsolescent tool with which so many works used to be written in bygone days. But not so: PEN is an acronym for poets, playwrights, essayists, editors (actually mostly rewriters) and novelists. You may miss from the roster historians, autobiographers, memorialists and biographers, omitted partly because they could not be acronymized (HAMB just wouldn’t do), but more significantly (I would guess) because they could be considered essayists of an extended sort. And if the essay could subsume so many different disciplines in the eyes of the experts, and deal with them freely, that surely makes it as noteworthy as a genre can be.

Take the word “essay.” It means, of course, attempt, most obviously so in the French “essai.” An attempt at what? It should be noted that to most people “attempt” means ultimate failure, as it did to Dr. Johnson, though the word does not mandate it. It is usually a relatively short piece of prose—although Alexander Pope did it in verse—even if Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” is book-length. It can be on any subject whatsoever.

The literary origins of the essay are rather more elusive than the sources of the Nile, for it existed much before it assumed that name. J. A, Cuddon,  in his invaluable “Literary Terms and Literary Theory.” cites the “Characters” of Theophrastus (3rd Century B.C.), Seneca’s “Epistle to Lucilius” (1st Century A.D.) and the “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius (2nd Century A.D.). But without the name, attribution is a trifle inconclusive.

For the more modern, personal essay, so named, we get Francis Bacon’s “Essays, or Counsels, Civill and Morall,” the first of whose three volumes appeared in 1597, preceded by Montaigne’s “Essais” of 1580. Bacon’s essays were not without their stiff, ex cathedra formality; Montaigne’s floated freely over a variety of topics.  These two are the real progenitors of the essay, though Bacon was right to observe, “The word is late, but the thing is auncient [sic].” With only slight exaggeration, we can call Bacon the father, and Montaigne the mother, of the genre.

I cannot begin to cite the numerous writers who have availed themselves of this rare free form in all of literature, with no structural restriction about ramblings over one or several subjects. When the poet Stephane Mallarme famously declared “Everything in the world exists to end up as a book,” that book would most likely qualify as some sort of essay. After all, some famous essays are in dialogue, hence dramatic form—most famously in English Oscar Wilde’s “Intentions”—and many are in the language and imaginativeness of poetry, such is the inclusiveness of the essay. Few, to be sure, have dared to put this somewhat academic or esoteric word into the title of their collections—most notably, again in English, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Matthew Arnold.

Let me give you my idea of the essay, on the assumption that the essayist is talking  both to himself or herself and to the world. It means seeing and analyzing everyday things, bringing what is inside you, thoughts and feelings, into the open, to the clear cognizance of people including you yourself. Quite rightly when asked what she thought of a certain movie, Pauline Kael answered she didn’t know until she had written the review.

So much for insight. But then style. Take Pope’s, “True art is nature to advantage dressed,/ What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d.” (Actually, it could also be never thought before.) Which presupposes careful choice of words, angle of vision, imagery, cadence, and, if at all appropriate and possible, wit. Thus the essay is to be viewed as an expanded poem or a condensed book.

The title should not be constricting, but neither should it be like that perpetrated by the German writer Urs Widmer (born 1938), “The Books of Yesteryear, or Proof That the Head Cold Is the Father of All Literature, An Essay,” which, upon perusal, has nothing to do with any of the above. Avoid such deviousness, unless you want to be a surrealist, which at this late date I wouldn’t advise.

I conclude with a couple of excerpts from two of my favorite essayists: the poet Philip Larkin and the critic Dwight Macdonald .

[Larkin in “Books” in the collection “Required Writing”] I have always been a compulsive reader . . . and this has meant that books have crept in somehow. Only the other day I found myself eyeing a patch of wall in my flat and thinking I could get some more shelves in there. I keep novels and detective stories in my bedroom, so that visitors shan’t be tempted  to borrow them; the sitting-room houses the higher forms of literature . . . while the hall I reserve for thoroughly worthy items, calculated to speed the departing guest. None of them can be called remarkable. At best they are items bought on publication which now qualify as “modern first editions.” At worst they are picked from a bad bunch on a station bookstall. . . .

It may be that a writer’s attitude to books is always ambivalent, for one of the reasons one writes is that all existing books are somehow unsatisfactory, but it’s certainly difficult to think of a better symbol of civilization. Of course the symbol changes; the fine book, its materials, its craftsmanship, its design, was eloquent of a civilization founded on means, leisure and taste; today the symbol is the paperback, hurled in hundreds of thousands against the undeveloped areas (Asia, Africa, the young), spreading what we think is best in our thought and imagination. If our values are to maintain a place in the world, these are the troops that will win it for them, but victory is not a foregone conclusion.

[Dwight Macdonald “On Selling Out” in the collection “Discriminations”]  It is not easy to sell out if you have anything to sell. Cf. Henry James’ “The Next Time.”  A story about a distinguished nonselling novelist who tries to escape penury by writing a potboiler—and produces one more unpopular masterpiece. Or cf. the late Delmore  Schwartz’s attempts to raise some cash by writing one of those short short stories (1,000 words, $1,000) a national magazine used to feature; he tried twice; no go either time, he just couldn’t get down to the level convincingly. (It takes a whole heart to sell out.) Or cf. the late Edgar Allan Poe, a calculating, unprincipled money-writer, always hard up, always with an eye to the main chance, always laboring to come up with something that would “go” and make him rich or at least solvent. That he always failed is another matter, having to do with his own neuroses; his will to sell out was intact to the end. He turned his hand to all the popular genres of the day: the Gothic tale of horror, after Hoffmann and Blackwood’s, the sentimental ladies’-book poem (“Helen, thy beauty is to me . . .”), the romantic threnody on the death of a female Loved One (“Once upon a midnight dreary . . .”). And, in desperation, he invented some new genres that became popular: the detective story and science fiction. But he was helpless in the grip of his genius: despite the worst intentions, Poe transmuted these clichés into his on idiom so that they became literature and not commodities. Poor fellow, the classic failure of classic American letters, his life a cautionary tale—Poe couldn’t even sell out.

It would seem that the first condition for selling out is that one has nothing to sell out in the first place. . . . For ambitious youth my advice is: sell out if you can, since if you can you don’t have anything of value and you might as well cash in on it.

These are samples of my preferred tone for the essay: winged, witty, ironic. But you are free to pick another.




Tuesday, April 19, 2016

FRANCE




I have always been a Francophile, hugely fond of France. There has been only one thing that I didn’t like about it: the French. To be exact, not all the French, only the petit bourgeois variety, as petty as bourgeois can get: miserly, xenophobic, small-minded.

The more educated classes, including the snooty quasi-aristocrats, are something else again, although during my year as a Fulbright fellow I didn’t get to know many of those. Though I was supposed to be working on my doctorate in Comparative Literature, I did not frequent the libraries, and only met my very congenial adviser late in the game for a very amiable session. I did however avail myself of the cultural and aesthetic bounties the capital could bestow, which proved altogether sufficient. As Rabelais said, the city of Paris was a better teacher than the Sorbonne University.

I have written about the time I did miss big when I did not attend a Sorbonne lecture by Thomas Mann, guest speaker, who committed a hilarious error. I have also written about the time I earned Mann’s gratitude when during his tiring book signing session, I did not, unlike most others, ask for a wordy dedication, merely his signature.

Typical of middle-class stinginess were my landlady and her retired engineer husband, from whom I rented a room. She would drop in on me periodically and compliment me on the French books I had bought, not a few of them the expensive, prestigious Pleiade complete-works editions, but never went so far as to invite me for a cup of coffee or glass of wine in her part of the apartment.

Even more damning was her boasting of having been classmates with Edwige Feuillere, a great stage actress we both admired. But, I was told, not to expect an introduction to the great lady. I assured her I wasn’t thinking of anything like that.

On the other hand, consider the genuine friendship that evolved with Simone Danloux, the charming proprietress of the delightful bookstore Librairie du Pont Neuf on that lovely Seine bridge. True, I was a faithful client, who spoke commendable French and spent much of my Fulbright Fellowship money there, but it went beyond that, as we always chatted like best of friends.

And something else. In France at that time quite a few genteel young women earned  a living by artful bookbinding. French books overwhelmingly come in paper covers, and the purchaser has them bound at his expense in buckram or leather, often in very imaginative bindings—I still have a few of them.

Well now, at Simone’s store I met and ordered some bindings from her favored relieuse, Arlette Duparquier. I met her only a couple of times but was bawled over by her stunning looks, unassuming intelligence, and enchanting personality. To this day I recall her name and person, and wish to hell I had invited her out for a meal or what the French call un verre, a glass. She lived in a distant town but came in often enough to accept an invitation from me. Why in hell didn’t I do it? I can attribute it only to shyness, to having felt too unimportant, too unworthy, to do so.

I did have an affair with an American girl, Marty, an American ballet dancer, June, and later with a French girl, Jacqueline.  Departing France, I left Jacqueline the legacy of my favorite French poet, of whom she had never heard, Stephane Mallarme. In the only letter I ever got from her, she informed me that his stuff left her cold until she came upon his one love poem, the one to Mery Laurent. I think Jacqueline entertained the notion that I’d be back for her, which never happened.

But to get back to the French. What other nation has produced a marvel like the croissant? The crescent-shaped breakkfast pastry, but the one that is feather light and flaky, not what passes elsewhere for a croissant, the firm and heavier thing that is really the Austrian kipfel, merely a breakfast roll in crescent shape. There are also French and other bakers who produce the correct thing, but in a straight, non-crescent shape, with the excuse that it is easier to spread butter and jam on it without staining one’s fingers and tablecloth. Somehow, though, that doesn’t feel right.

Historically , Dan Bilofsky writes in the Times, the shape was suggested by “the Ottoman emblem, to celebrate the defeat of the Turkish forces that ended the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683.” But he continues “some food historians say the kipfel appeared in Vienna as early as the 13th century.” What pastry, I wonder, will the defeat of the ISIS forces yield?

Charm, like the croissant’s, is something very French, which is exuded par excellence by French women. Take for instance my one meeting with that greatly gifted and enormously charming French film actress Anouk Aimee, whom you may  remember from “A Man and a Woman,” “La dolce vita,” and “8 ½.” Or else from any other of her 70 plus films under some of cinema’s greatest directors.

I was walking in Times Square one late afternoon when whom should I bump into but Anouk Aimee and her then husband, Pierre Barouh. I can’t recall who first addressed whom, but we stopped briefly and she asked, concerning a matinee they had just come from, “Quest-ce que c’est que ‘fiddler’?” I replied, “Violoniste,” and her face lit up like a klieg light as he laughed and said, in the most musical French, “Ah, didn’t I think so?”  The French, and not only the women, can say the simplest things unforgettably.

This is true not only of pretty actresses. Thus my friend Bill Hedges was
 a fellow Fulbright somewhere in the South, the Midi, as the French call it. I used to call him on the phone to chitchat, often and quite lengthily. His landlady, whom he described as a jolly, corpulent, outspoken, middle-aged woman, would usually first pick up the phone and came to refer to me as “le roi du telephone,” which I rather liked, and which, email notwithstanding, I may still be.

Then again, there was that reception at New York’s French Consulate at which I noticed a very attractive young woman looking somehow lost. I accosted her and she turned out to be a beginning film actress with a rosy future named Audrey Tautou. I sat next to her at the dinner (there were such things in those days), and we enjoyably exchanged views about movies, sometimes agreeing, sometimes not. She gave me her address to which I later wrote a jovial letter, identifying myself—even then—as the vieux monsieur she had chatted with, but never got an answer. By then, she had become a star.

A tribute is due, too, to a French diacritical mark: the circumflex. The aigu (acute) and grave are common enough in other languages as well, but the circonflexe (as Keith Houston in the Times of February 20 entertainingly informs me) figures, besides French, only in Romanian, Portuguese, Turkish, Slovak and Vietnamese-- languages rather beyond my purview. In French, though, it is a jauntily pointed cap sitting pretty on top of various vowels, lengthening or darkening their pronunciation. It was near-extinct before the Academie Francaise resuscitated it, and serves mostly as replacement for a discarded S in such words as bête, cout, and huitre, but thriving in English as beast, cost and oyster. It serves other purposes as well, like differentiating between du (due) with, and du (of) without circumflex. In French, it derives from circumflexus, the Latin rendering of the Greek perispomenos (bent around). And sometimes it is just there for no good reason, as in paraitre.

In popular English parlance, French stands for elegance, as in dry cleaning, cuisine, couture, pastry, cuffs, heels, windows, doors; and somewhat more equivocally in dressing, toast, fries, bread, and French kiss. But because of British jealousy of France, there is also the negative French leave (although based on an old French custom) and the now obsolete French letter (condom) and French pox (syphilis).

Most interesting of all is the euphemism “Pardon my French,” an apology for potty mouth, which surely derives from Americans’ equating French with erotic, as also in French kiss. If so, all I can say is “Vive la France!”




Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Rhyme


What does the expression “without rhyme or reason” tell us about rhyme? It seems to me to mean that, along with reason, it is one of two valid alternative modes of expression, at least in poetry.

Let us consult the excellent J. A. Cuddon’s “Literary Terms and Literary Theory,” which tells us that it is “the formalized consonance of syllables . . . which probably originated in prehistoric ritual, but only in the last millennium has it come to dominate verse architecture.” Cuddon died in 1996, but the fourth, and to my knowledge last, edition, revised by C. E. Preston, came out in 1998, and the following year as a Penguin paperback. Though admirable, his discussion of rhyme may not be totally up-to-date.

Poetry went its merry unrhymed way until circa AD 200, in North African Church Latin. rhyme appeared and was duly popularized by the wandering scholars, drinkers and womanizers, the so-called “vagantes,” in the Middle Ages, with their rhymed Latin verse. This we now know best from the “Carmina Burana,” a selection set to music by Carl Orff. The word rhyme itself comes from the Provencal “rim,” whence the still extant version “rime,” mostly superseded by the rh spelling, derived by faulty analogy from the Greek “rhythmos.”

Before that, much splendid lyric poetry, say, by Sappho in Greek and Catullus in Latin, and not forgetting the epic of Homer and Virgil, depended solely on meter or rhythm. To my mind, or ear, rhyme is much missed, as in modern times it has been much abandoned for blank verse  (iambic pentameter—five accented syllables to five or more unaccented ones to a verse i.e., line) and free verse, about which more anon.

Full rhyme means identical consonants after a repeated vowel, e.g., book/nook or glide/deride. Which when the rhyming sound is monosyllabic is called masculine, when bisyllabic, e.g. barber/harbor, feminine. Clearly monosyllabic sounds harder than bi- or disyllabic. There is also triple rhyme, as in gratitude/platitude, but that is somewhat ponderous and relatively rare. There is also rhyme where the consonant before the rhyming vowel is  identical, as in bled/fled, known as “rime riche,” the French term, because it is considered okay in French versification but, for some reason, frowned upon in English.

There is also something known as half-, slant-, or near-rhyme, as in gender/hinder or helping/scalping or Cerberus/barbarous, which, however, should be used in moderation, except, say, in Hungarian, where pure rhyme is hard to come by.

There exist also cousins of rhyme, first of all assonance, where a vowel is repeated e.g., sodden condom or thrilling visits. Next, alliteration, where a consonant is repeated, as in rightly remembered rituals or warmly welcomed wanderers.

Rhyme can be especially seductive within a single verse between middle and end, e.g., “I often heard a saucy word/ From cheeky tots who dreamt up plots,” known as leonine rhyme, named after twelfth-century Canon Leo of St. Victor’ Church in  Paris, who practiced it in Latin. But this can become tiresome in overuse.

Finally, there is such a thing as eye rhyme, existing only for the eye and not the ear, as in wind (the noun) and blind or rather/blather. As a joke, there is also the holorhyme, with entire verses rhyming, as in (sorry I can’t think of an English one) “Par les bois du djinn ou s’entasse de l’effroi/ Parle et bois du gin ou cent tasses de laid froid’ or (one I have previously quoted) “Gall, amant de la reine, alla, tour magnanime,/ Gallament de l’Arene a la Tour Magne a Nimes.” (Please excuse my  lack the requisite accent marks.)

It is time now to ask the basic question: of what use or appeal is rhyme?

There is obviously the harmonious musical effect: the symmetry as of two ears or eyebrows, or of two windows and doors to a room, the fit as of a lid on a box—the sense of brief, momentary
closure, but closure nevertheless. This regardless of whether the rhyme scheme of a quatrain (four-verse stanza) is, in order of frequency, abab, abba, or aabb. Take, for instance, this quatrain by Swinburne:

                        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.

Surely this is superior to, say, “Your forgetting my kisses is no worse than my forgetting your name, both equally good and bad.”

Or take the opening quatrains of “A Little Music,” by the now undeservedly forgotten Humbert Wolfe:

                        Since it is evening
                              let us invent
                        love’s undiscovered
                               continent.

                        What shall we steer by
                               having no chart
                        but the deliberate
                               fraud of the heart?

Could that be equaled by any version, similarly in two stanzas, but without the rhyme? You try to do it.

Now let us return to Cuddon: “Particular degrees, types, or positions of rhyme have reasonably particular consequences (though poets are of course always as likely to try to work against the grain). Full rhyme will tend to harmonize with or confirm the sense, while half-rhyme will tend to dissonance or interrogation of the sense . . . . The greater the proximity of rhymes, the greater the acceleration they induce . . . . Such things, of course, bring word effects closer to music.”

But they also have other uses, prominent among them being memorization. It is much easier to remember a rhyming text than an unrhymed one. If you can recall a verse of a rhyming poem, it will most likely conjure up the rhyming next verse. Any public recitalist, or, for that matter, almost any actor, will confirm this mnemonic aid.

Consider, next, the usefulness of rhyme to the traditional poet. He or she, having written one compelling single verse may well wonder where to go next. As words rhyming with the extant verse defile through the memory, you are quite likely to hit on one that elicits some kind of response, some kind of continuation. Thus “heart” may call forth something ending in “part”; “love” may lead to an eye rhyme like “move,” or to a half-rhyme like “of,” if not to a pure rhyme like “above.” The outcome may be in debt to the poet’s unconscious, but then that is where so much poetry originates anyway.

Consider now Robert Frost’s famous dictum that poetry without rhyme is like tennis without a net. There is at least some truth in that, although even Frost has written poems that don’t rhyme, though they do the next-best thing: use blank verse. We need only Shakespeare to remind us how potent blank verse can be, even if rather more so in drama than in poetry. But much modern poetry goes well beyond blank verse, to free verse. Cuddon dates somewhat when he asserts that “prescribed rhyme schemes have often been disavowed, but rhyme has remained a feature of much elite poetry, and continues to dominate popular verse.”

That no longer obtains. I don’t know what he means by “popular verse,” about which he may be right, but not so about most “elite poetry.” The prescribed rhyme schemes of course refer to such forms as ballade, triolet, sestina , villanelle, pantun, and what have you, and those have indeed lost their popularity. With one exception, however, the sonnet, whether in Petrarch’s or Shakespeare’s version. What accounts for its stubborn survival? I would guess that it has historically proved a favorite form of love poetry, love in all its aspects, including failure. If easy sex were to completely oust love, the sonnet would follow it into the grave, like Good Deeds to Everyman. But why the indisputable predominance of free verse?

Free verse is definable as lines of any length whatever, freely varied, and differing from prose mostly through line breaks that occur wherever it pleases the poet. We owe this, to my mind, less than felicitous development largely but not exclusively to Walt Whitman, a rather poor poet in my estimation. But we owe it also to freedom of so many kinds, some of them welcome, and a general rejection of so many kinds of restriction, some regrettable. Even the habiliments of poets have changed: compare a picture of Rupert Brooke with one of  (gulp) John Ashbery.     

And then there is also democracy, freedom of speech, and why not couch poetry in prose. It needs only to rely on more tropes or symbols, more rhythm, and perhaps a little cadence. There is even such a legitimate thing as the prose poem (about which, as it happens, I wrote my doctoral thesis). This fairly popular genre depends on some brevity and concision, requiring a certain shapeliness and point to be intensely made, and achieving justified closure before prolixity sets in.

Finally, though, what characterizes the free verse poet when successful is a strong, individual, perhaps even unbridled imagination. Unfortunately, that is also what makes so much contemporary poetry far-fetched, opaque, uncommunicative. Rhyme has a way of acting as a bridge to comprehension, a parapet rather than a precipice. Don’t let it, like the dodo, die out completely.













Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Mistakes, Minor and Major


Let me start with a postscript to a previous blog entry about obesity. There is a plea on ABC television for locating missing children, which provides a picture and description of them, and, perhaps inadvertently, induces some serious observations.

First off, these missing children are preponderantly girls. Why? While differing in other ways, some 95 or more percent have one thing in common: they are overweight, many of them grossly so. Well, what imposes itself as the likely connection between obesity and vagrancy?


My guess is unhappiness at the bosom of their families, assuming that their families even have a bosom. The attempted compensation is overeating, mostly of junk food, and if that doesn’t help, escape. Now, lack of bosom brings me to reconsideration of a mistake that has haunted me through the years. Forgive me if I have inflicted it on you before.

It is something recorded, among other places, in the book, “No Stone Unturned” by Diana Rigg, a collection of hostile criticisms disbursed and endured in the theater. There she cites my review in New York magazine of a play called “Abelard and Heloise,” in which she starred as, you guessed it, the latter. And not only starred, but also appeared in a brief, rather discreetly lit, nude scene. It elicited my comment, “Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses.” Or so she claims; actually what I wrote was “brick basilica.” This sally, I regret to say, quoted thus mistakenly, is the only quotation from me in a number of anthologies.

More importantly, alas, it prompted what she describes as follows: “I remember making my way to the theatre the following day, darting from doorway to doorway and praying I wouldn’t meet anyone I know.” Besides being needlessly injurious, my remark was also inaccurate. Neither a mausoleum nor a basilica, whether it refers to an ancient Roman public building or an early Christian church, had, or was expected to have, a flying buttress, something that came in with cathedrals.

Aside from being in questionable taste (but then witticisms--especially needed in reviews of poor plays—are seldom kind to their targets), there is also a historical question involved: Did Heloise have a flattish chest, and if so, would it have mattered to Abelard, her lover, about whose pectoral preferences. as about so many other things in the Dark Ages, we remain in the dark?

I doubt whether Miss Rigg, a lovely and gifted artist, has read my apology buried somewhere in my writings, but let me assure her herewith that had she ever deemed fit to appear in my bedchamber (to use an appropriately medieval term), the last thing I would have thought of is kicking her out of bed-- basilica, mausoleum, or any other metaphor be damned. Need I add that my joke was based on the popular expression “built like a brick shithouse,” another edifice forgoing flying buttresses.

But on to more impressive mistakes. I repeat here the remark of a female graduate student guide through Olana, the Hudson Valley home of the painter Frederick Church. Before a grand landscape, she declared that “this was the work with which Mr. Church plummeted to fame.” A rather unique mistake from charming lips, forgivable with friendly titters.

But so many other mistakes nowadays are more widespread and far less pardonable. Take what has been issuing with alarming frequency from competing Republican politicians these days on television. Hardly one that hasn’t been wallowing in such idiot idioms as “cannot help but” and “the reason is because.” Call it pleonasm, tautology or redundancy—by any name it smells just as unsweet.

Now it is true that grammar can be curiously idiosyncratic: why should it be “other than” and “different from”? Why is a demeanor masterful and an argument masterly? Why, in popular parlance, is “parameter” wrong for “perimeter”? (If you had some knowledge of Latin, perimeter would be obvious, but who nowadays has even that much Latin?) And in pronunciation, why DESpicable rather than DeSPICable? One could go on and on.

Yet there are cases where minimal thought could avoid illogical lapses. How could “the reason is” be anything other than the same as “because”? How can “cannot help” doing something not suffice without that “but,” and why “cannot but” do something subsist without “help”? Again, doesn’t it take two, and only two, people to love each other, whereas it takes more than two to love one another? There is such a thing as mutual respect, but a friend can only be shared, not mutual, i.e.,reciprocal. Again so on and on. And don’t get me started on the ubiquitous pleonasm “free gift”;, of course the world of advertising can no more be trusted than that of television, whose regulars usually “lay” where they should “lie,” never mind that other “lie,” a synonym for major fibbing.

To be sure, there is incorrect usage that has become so ingrained that there is scant hope for correction. There is no chance of good food being called “healthful” rather than “healthy,” as if good could otherwise be infested with germs. And will a crowd of spectators ever be consistently a “number of people” rather than an “amount,” as if it were a quantity of salt in your diet.

So, mostly out of mistaken political correctness (and when is P.C. not mistaken?) we get “everyone has their reason” or “everyone please sit in their seat” where the “one” part in “everyone:  begs for a singular. But “his” would be, it seems, an affront to feminism, and “his or her,” though correct, would be cumbersome. Thus does gross solecism become enshrined in polite discourse. How much real harm does “his” and, for that matter, “mankind,” do to rational women’s self-respect? Of course, for “mankind” there is “humanity,” but for “his,” despite the weirdest attempts, there is no bisexual version.

And why, out of sheer ignorance, come up with “thanks for inviting Bill and I to your party,” as if there were no such thing as the properly accusative (or objective) case to be made for “me.”” This is an errant gentilism, which assumes that “I” is always more refined than “me.” Not only is “me” mandatory there, it has also pretty much replaced “I” in phrases like “It is me.” With this, we cannot but acquiesce, even without reference to (preferable to “referencing”) Rimbaud’s renowned “Je est un autre.”  This usage is so ingrained that it bypasses the rule that any form of the verb “to be” governs the nominative, thus “It was they [not them] who got there first.” Complicating matters is that the correct phrase “Than whom no one is smarter” somehow may justify “He is smarter than her.”

These days “good” has, with like illogic, replaced “well” in an answer to “How are you?” The questioner is, however uninterestedly (not, please, disinterestedly, which bespeaks selflessness), politely inquiring about your health, not about your behavior, about which he couldn’t (not “could”) care less. “I am good,” besides being a mistake, is boastful; only other people can truly judge how moral you are. The problem is that adjectives, like good, are more popular than adverbs, like well. This, probably, because they are shorter, snappier, than adverbs: “I was doing nice (rather than nicely) before I met you.” Also, confusingly, adjectival forms often do nicely as verbal complements: “Go slow,” for “go slowly.”

Ah, grammar! It has more pitfalls than a minefield, and similar problems arise with spelling and pronunciation, the rather dim Spellcheck notwithstanding. And the same for phrases: how many people use “begs the question” correctly? It is not only a matter of British versus American English, although Bernard (not George Bernard) Shaw was right to characterize us brilliantly as two nations separated by the same language. There are obvious differences involved here (in England, Parliament is plural; in America, singular) and a difference in one does not affect the other. The problem is that English’ unlike French, does not have an Academy prescribing what is correct. And even the good old Academie Francaise is apt to change its mind, presumably to follow usage rather than to stipulate it. I was in Paris on a Fulbright when it was announced that the “s” in “pas” (not) may or may not be elided, which, as I recall, caused quite a fracas. What we do have are the Internet and the computer, bit I won’t go into the devastation they have wreaked.

A good many mistakes could be avoided if we did have some sort of established guardians of correctness, although even then we could ask with Juvenal, “But who will guard the guardians themselves?” And there I am concerned with bigger mistakes than the mere linguistic ones I have mostly dealt with herein.

How to avoid the wars that cover more of our globe than do the oceans? How avoid the folly of many of our elected—or worse yet, unelected—leaders? How to try more earnestly to eschew religion, or at least differences in religions, setting us at one another’s throats? How to get our teachers to really teach, and our students to really study? Surely we could do better than that fine writer George Meredith, who, because of his own marital troubles, arrogantly demanded for women “More brain, O Lord, more brain.” There is no such thing as more brain to be granted, or even a Lord who might do the granting.