Friday, April 10, 2015


Stupidity, I am sorry to say, is no joke, as it is portrayed on stage, screen and TV. It is the second worst crime against humanity and a very close runner-up to evil. It is neither necessarily heedless (it can be the very best and most considered that some persons can manage) nor headless (as it lodges snugly under many a cranium). It can crop up even in the oldest and wisest, perhaps most strikingly there.

It has many forms. It boasts in equal profusion crimes of omission and of commission. It can pop up in the most unexpected places, such as the philosopher who on an icy day steps out without his overcoat, or the accomplished cook who gets burned more than once. It can make heroism look stupid—rightly so—in those brave in a bad cause or heroic in a foolish war. How right Brecht, who was often wrong, was when he wrote, “Happy is the nation that has no need for a hero.”

Take the populations of the mightiest nations and ask yourself how many of those billions are immune from stupidity within or without. In the absence of statistics, I would venture an educated guess: close to zero per cent if you include minor or infrequent stupidities. As I suggested, it is protean in form, and ubiquitous in habitat. It includes even seemingly dutiful attempts at avoidance, as in those who year in, year out seek out psychotherapy that does them no good. As Karl Kraus remarked: “Psychiatry is the disease of which it pretends to be the cure.” Nevertheless, one must admit that, used in moderation, it can be beneficial.           

What makes stupidity especially sinister is that, like certain forms of cancer and other illnesses, it is impossible to diagnose before it is too late. With the passage of time, one may even look back benignly on earlier years’ stupidities. Yet how effective is recognition when it comes to reparation? It neither redeems past stupidity, nor resists the future kind.

In any case, does being wise about some things protect from being stupid about others? When it was finally realized that the earth is not flat and that the sun does not revolve around it, did mankind in other matters become smarter or better? Of course people are no longer burned at the stake as in Galileo’s time, but where is the improvement in so many other respects?

Granted, some stupidities are harmless or even useful. It is good that Erasmus was able to come out with his satire “In Praise of Folly.” But then look at the cost of not one but two atom bombs to end the war against Japan. They did, however, generate one harmless dumbness. The charming British actress, Sara Miles, had such loathing of anything Japanese that only the most desperate effort could prevail upon her to play a scene with a Japanese actor in a movie. “O.K.,” she finally relented, “I will do one scene with you. But I’ll never forgive what you people did to us at Hiroshima.”

It is especially easy to be stupid, or at any rate ignorant, about many things in our era of science and technology. I myself couldn’t explain even why, when I press on a switch and, lo, there is light. My only consolation is that , reciprocally, most scientists or technocrats have not read Proust. And even if they have, what could  they glean from it?

Stupidity, by the way, doesn’t have to be gigantic in order to matter. To be sure it can be enormous, as when Lloyd George and Haig and the rest of them caused innumerable inexcusable casualties in World War One. This was caused by that very arrogance, that stubbornness that causes our much humbler stupidities. Great ones depend on great power. But the principle is essentially the same. Which of us hasn’t through stupidity lost a friend, a lover, a spouse?

You cannot tell me that Andreas Lubitz, the wretch who intentionally ran that German plane into a French Alp, killing also 149 innocent others, wasn’t, beyond depressive and whatnot else, also stupid. Why couldn’t he sensibly kill only himself by some private means? Did the mass murder give him a sense of power? That he was going to make history and reap immortal fame? Or did he stupidly think that dying in such extensive company makes it go down more easily? Or that jumping out of a window was somehow more difficult? And what about the stupidity of the people who thought him fit for piloting?

But for large-scale stupidity is there anything worse than war? Well, yes, a religion that, discounting your stupidity, allows or indeed encourages you to wage it. Aren’t almost all wars, to say nothing of jihads, caused by religion? The excuse that suicide bombers or ISIS misread the teachings of Islam won’t wash: any religion that lends itself to such misreading is clearly to blame. And fanaticism is surely one of the monumental forms of stupidity,

I am writing this as Easter is approaching, and wonder how many of us qualify as dumb bunnies, who not so much hide as lay an egg. And, speaking of eggs, how many greedy fools among us wouldn’t kill the goose that lays golden eggs if such a fowl existed?

There is an old joke about two loonies painting an asylum wall. The one holding the ladder says to the one on top of it, “I am about to move the ladder. Hold on to your brush.” That, only slightly exaggerated, is the archetype of stupidity. The only difference is that from this stupidity only the top loony will be hurt. From other, typical stupidities it is usually more than one person who suffers.

Now there are stupid men who want their women to be submissive, stupid. As Baudelaire said to a woman in a poem, “What matters it to me that you be wise? Be beautiful and be sad.”  That is the view of a sexist or sadist. Stupidity in anyone very much does matter to both possessor and victim. Yet what about the men who lust after the beautiful bimbos on TV talk shows? They look absolutely smashing until they open their mouths. After that if you still wish you could have one of them, it is you who are stupid.

Sunday, March 15, 2015


Pity the poor necktie, hanging on for dear life. Consider that male attire, unlike female, is, unless completely wacko, basically standardized. The lapel may get narrower or wider, the indentation may be higher or lower. But the essential structure remains the same.

Which is where ties come in. It was the one area where a man could exercise his fantasy and good taste, if he had any. There were shapes, patterns and colors to play with, on a spot that attracted immediate attention. The necktie separated the boor from the connoisseur, the gentleman from the barbarian. And now that touchstone is pretty much gone.

Like so much in the field of fashion, it seems to have originated in Paris. Young, upper-class Frenchmen all of a sudden unbuttoned their shirt collars, and made it acceptable for all occasions. It was as startling as when they started refrigerating red wine, an innovation that happily did not catch on.

True, in the summer, a touch of bare neckline means less sweat. But what is a little bit of extra comfort compared to a great loss in elegance? It became hard to tell what kind of a man his clothes were making him. Remarkably, though, neckties are still being fabricated and displayed in large quantities, although leaving one wondering who is buying them.

I myself own hundreds—alas, yes, hundreds—of ties I bought mostly while I was a bachelor making a good living and squandering wage. My fellow critic and tie gatherer, Harold Clurman, commented on however many ties one owned, it was only a few of them one kept wearing. Nowadays, though, nothing makes me sadder than that, on top of the many ties prominently and expectantly parading in my closet, there are at least as many, equally desirable, squashed and entombed in plastic bags, transparent in painful reproof.

Fashions in general are a funny business, as they have evolved over the centuries, or merely seesawed over the years. I wonder, for instance, when and how the so-called play clothes made their debut. They surely weren’t with us all along—or can you imagine Francis Bacon or Walter Raleigh in play clothes? Even incarcerated in the Tower, they don’t seem to fit into T-shirts and dungarees.

To be sure, change seems to be a powerful human need. Just see in the Times pictures of what rages on the runways. It looks positively Martian even on young, beautiful women—not that some models couldn’t double as scarecrows. On older women it looks like a beret on a donkey.

Personally, I recall accompanying a very rich and very chic lady to a number of Paris haute couture salons, where with a little effort she could have picked up some fairly bizarre outfits, but she stuck with the more reasonable, or even sedate. Assuredly, I have never seen anyone, anywhere wearing some of those outré duds, though it may be that I am not getting invited to the right parties.

Now, why exactly this need for change? Because boredom sets in far too easily, far too soon. It is one of humankind’s chief problems—just think what it does to marriages. I have even heard of a marriage where the wife wore a different wig to bed every night, and it worked wonders. But what happens to a wigless marriage? It would seem resignation or divorce.

In the play “The Audience,” Queen Elizabeth II says that she never allowed her televised Christmas greeting to run longer than eight minutes, which she  considered the limit of the human attention span. Granted, eight minutes may be excessive caution, rather like wearing both belt and suspenders, but the principle is sound; as she goes on to say in the play, never outstay your welcome.

Well then, let us admit that other than in marriage, there is no compelling reason to resist change. So in fashion, always presupposing that money is abundant, there is no reason for constraint; you are free to wear something different on the outside as often as you change underwear. In fashion, at any rate, you can play chameleon with impunity.

So, in women’s fashions at any rate, every change from hair ribbons to heels, is readily and regularly available. What really matters is personal style. That, however, is anything but facile. As the French sage Buffon remarked, “Le style c’est l’homme meme,” i.e., style is the man himself, and, a fortiori, the woman herself. But it is not as easy to come by as you might wish. Clothes will contribute to tour style, but are they the last impression, which may more likely be your conversation and your behavior? But they are very probably the first impression of style, and we know how important first impressions are.

Which brings me back to neckties. Suppose I were to advertise selling ties I bought for very considerable sums now for a mere ridiculous fraction of their price. Suppose further that buyers showed up. Wouldn’t you feel a huge pang anytime one of them was purchased? Wouldn’t they, a la Buffon, be part of your humanity, so that it would be like the buyer cutting off one of your fingers or toes?

To make a long story short—sort of like turning a four-in-hand into a bow tie (none of which I ever wore)—is there anything we can do to prevent the extinction of the necktie? The seemingly obvious answer is to keep wearing one. Yet what does that really do except make you look absurdly overdressed? Say, a stuffed shirt? Expose you to being laughed at? That, in what is far from a life-and-death cause, takes a lot of courage. Much easier to undo that top button and go tieless.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Illusion, For or Against

One of our greatest quandaries concerns illusion. Is it treacherous, undesirable, even harmful; or optimistic, consolatory, even life-sustaining? Is it near-synonymous with hope, and thus a good thing, or mendacious, self-deceptive, and thus a bad one? To take one example: is it better to know one has only six months more to live and so take the necessary provisions, or better to remain blissfully ignorant up to the end?

There is thus no one easy answer to the fundamental question about our mortality; or, rather, there are two: for the rationalist intellectual, disbelief in an afterlife is empowering; for the common man, but also some intellectuals, belief in it is the panacea. It is, of course, a dilemma that runs through many lives, and is addressed in the arts of film, theater, and fiction, and philosophy.

In fiction, the prime example is Cervantes’s masterpiece, Don Quixote. of which, to my shame, I have only second-hand knowledge. That is because I am a slow reader and have seldom attacked a long book, unless in a financially propitious reviewing assignment. One must, I gather, choose between the romantic fantasies of the Don, and the lower-class hedonism of his squire, Sancho Panza.

Of course, there is folly in combating windmills, but is there no value in perceiving a hefty peasant girl as the noble Dulcinea? Does not the idealizing illusion of a lover or spouse as a Michelangelo David or a Botticelli Venus make life pleasanter?

I suppose the assumption is that whatever suits the individual most is the best attitude toward illusion. Yet one may choose to pursue this troubling question by seeking answers from admired artists. But where to begin?

Let us consider the great author of Les Illusions perdues, who both was and was not a defender of illusion. Balzac was both a Realist and a Romantic, which is to say both a pursuer of hopes that qualify as illusions and a hard-nosed accepter of things as they are.

Take two of his most quoted utterances. On the one hand: “The woman one buys—and that is the less expensive—wants a lot of money; the one that gives herself takes up all of our time.” That is not very pro-illusion. But how about this: “In matters of love there is nothing more persuasive than a courageous stupidity”? There speaks a womanizer who must have entertained some whopping illusions.

Proust--in love at any rate—was an anti-illusionist: “The bonds that unite another person to oneself exist only in our mind. . . . Notwithstanding the illusion by which we like to be cheated, we exist alone.” It is indeed in love that illusion thrives. Thus Nietzsche observed: “Love is the state in which a man sees things most widely different from what they are. The force of illusion reaches its zenith here, as likewise its sweetening and transfiguring power.” That sounds equivocal, as does so much about illusion.

Now let’s skip back to Patrick Henry: “It is natural for man to indulge in the illusions of hope.” That sounds pro-illusion. But here comes the anti: “For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth. To know the worst, and to provide for it.”

There are two great plays for which the matter of illusion is central: Henrik Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” and Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.” About the former, I wrote elsewhere (and reprinted it in my book, “Singularities”): “Hjalmar [Ekdal] is wounded by his weakness, his megalomania; Hedwig [his daughter] by her dimming eyesight, the drabness of her present and future, the very fragility of puberty. Yet the illusion of forest, sky, sea—of greatness, freedom, beauty—keeps them going.” And further: “[M]an cannot slay the illusion, the life-lie he lives by: if he tries to, he kills himself.”

In “The Iceman Cometh,” now in a fine revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the drunkards in Harry Hope’s saloon delude themselves with a pipe dream of being able to stop drinking and resume active life. When the charismatic salesman Theodore “Hickey” Hickman persuades them to give up their pipe dreams and go forth to face reality, it ends up in failure and reversion to those drunken pipe dreams.

So, whether called life-lie or pipe dream, illusion is what keeps these failures from crumbling—pathetic if you will, but not reprehensible. Wising up, and assuming responsibility, means suicide for one of them and murder for another; waiting for death for yet another and alcoholic purblindness for the rest. Even the prostitutes manage to insist that they are not whores, merely tarts.

But careful, friends, with your condescension, let alone contempt; on some level we are all illusionists. In the most secret chamber of our mind, the one closest to unconsciousness, we are, I repeat, all illusionists. There, however well we know that all men are mortal--and, a trifle surprisingly perhaps, all women too—we don’t think that we as well will die. Reading the obituaries in the paper merely confirms us in a sense of fake superiority to those stiffs: What? We too? Impossible!

We can imagine ourselves rich, famous, champions of this or that, lovers of some stunning woman or gorgeous man, but cadavers, worm food, never! The only thing that fully relieves us from fearing and denying death is death itself. Why, even the popularity of movies about ghosts and vampires merely confirms us in our delusion (i.e., an advanced form of illusion) that there is some kind of life after death, be it only as a disembodied scarecrow or a starved bloodsucker. We may not choose the bottle or pills to make us forget; a talent for oblivion sustains all of us in our illusions.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Pet Heaven

The question of whether pets go to heaven seems these days to be getting ever greater attention, almost as much as in long ago days the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin. Just now (January 17, 2115) the New York Times has dedicated a column by Mark Oppenheimer to it, under the headline “From Seminary to Cemetery, Fascination Persists Over Pets and the Afterlife.”

It is at least as troubling to pet owners as the matter of who designed the Emperor’s new clothes is to the rest of us. My guess is Ralph Lauren, specialist in lost causes, who once informed New York magazine that he could produce several hundred signatures to a demand for my dismissal as drama critic.

To be sure, since there is no heaven even for humans (who admittedly are less deserving of one than, say, Lassie or Mehitabel, if there were such a place), the question is a fairly academical one. There is not even a word for going to it in English—as in the German Himmelfahrt—other than “ascension,” which, to me, rather suggests elevators, and seems un worthy of a pious quadruped. So why not grant afterlife to a deserving pooch or tabby in, say, a comfy black hole, the kind that, according to Professor Stanley Brandes of Berkeley is memorialized on actual tombstones with such epitaphs as “Until We Meet in Heaven” or, for a boxer aptly named Champ, “We Pray That We Will Meet Again.”

Since pet owners are given to conversing with their dogs and cats, how easy it would be for them to say, “I’m reserving a spot for you in Heaven,” to the great relief of either the speaker or hearer, the two- or four-foot animal. This would guarantee  for Spot an endlessly chewable bone, and for Kitty, an inexhaustible saucer of milk.

Quite rightly Oppenheimer observes that “our sense of spiritual kinship is already latent in the bootees and little sweaters we buy our pets”—the cats, bless them, will have none of such paraphernalia—so why should tiny passports to Paradise give pause to booteed paws? I recall Alexander Pope’s couplet for the collar of the Prince of Wales’s pet, ‘I am His Highness’s dog at Kew,/ Pray tell me, Sir, whose dog are you?” If so literate, why couldn’t loyal Fido share the Marine Corps’s motto, Semper Fidelis?

And now good news: the present inclusionist pope has said, “Paradise is open to all God’s creatures.” If so, does that include mosquitoes, cockroaches, tarantulas? Also bedbugs, with which our apartment has been recently infected and took the devil of a time to be gotten rid of. The way those pests performed their molestations; I am sure the male ones earned their 72 virgin females in bedbug heaven.

The Times article further informed us, “’Today there are nearly 600 functioning pet cemeteries in the United States,’” as Amy Defibaugh, a Temple University graduate student, read out from her paper at the recent American Academy of Religion conference in San Diego. Entitled as the paper was—“Toward the Weeping Willow: An Examination of the Dying and Death of Companion Animals”-- it sounds to me like a Ph.D. thesis in the University’s putative Animal Studies Department, although I cannot quite understand the bit about the Weeping Willow: does it mourn the decrease of dogs to bestow their fertilizing urine on its trunk?

So too it was comforting to gather that religion, so useful for the spiritual peace of humans, extends its beneficence to pets. We read in the Times that a cat named Corky lies beneath a gravestone with a Star of David, while  “a dog named Sushi has two Stars of David symmetrically placed at the top of his gravestone, on which there is also Hebrew lettering that reads Shalom.” On the headstone of a cat named Sheebah one reads that she “went to Heaven on Yom Kippur Day.” I am not sure whether these Jewish epitaphs are cited as a mark of philo- or anti-Semitism, but I certainly hope that other religions will duly follow suit.

It strikes me as unfair for a dog no to get his 72 virgin bitches in Paradise, or that the chaster tomcats are not granted 72 virgin pussies.  Most laudable is Nancy Tillman’s book, “The Heaven of Animals,” in which she assured grieving pet owners that “when dogs go to heaven, they’re welcomed by name (surely Rover and Bowser are as good as Gabriel and Raphael), and angels know every dog’s favorite games.” I can just hear an encouraging “How about some fetch, Fido?” in a melodious, angelic voice, which should make any dog feel right at home. Wings, by the way, if issued to dogs, should make fetching ever so much easier.

Ms. Tillman, a nondenominational Christian in Portland, Oregon, comments about her dog’s and cat’s rapt, faraway gazes, “What a lovely thought if they see heaven,” rather than, I suppose, the next helping of Purina. Even more encouraging is Cynthia Rylant, author of the egalitarian “Dog Heaven” and “Cat Heaven” lest she be accused of partiality. In the former, she avers that “God has a sense of humor, so He makes His biscuits in funny shapes for his dogs. There are kitty-cat biscuits and squirrel biscuits.” Gratifyingly, they must feel that they are symbolically consuming their traditional victims, cats and squirrels.

The best news that the quizzically named grad student, Ms. Defibaugh, conveys to us in her paper, that “many funeral homes have extended their services to companion animals for memorials and religious services” and that “Some human cemeteries are now allowing companion animal burial.”  I like her term “companion animal” for pets; it somehow makes it sound as if those canines and felines had freely adopted their bipeds as partners. And perhaps in a way they have. But what about those Weeping Willows?


Thursday, January 1, 2015


To the question “What is poetry?” there is, let’s face it, no definitive answer. A bad novel is still a novel, a poor story still a story. But an unworthy poem is doggerel or, at best, verse, but not to be dignified as a poem. I suppose that makes poetry a higher form of art, although a great novel or story can equally qualify as art with unflinching pride.

Certainly the Romantics proclaimed poetry the supreme literary genre, which was not always so. One major 18th-century Frenchman (was it Buffon?) declared of a poem that it was almost as well written as prose. According to Rilke’s poet protagonist Malte Laurids Brigge, it takes a whole lifetime of living and polishing to create a few lines of poetry. In any case, poetry has often been termed as a prime example of something defying definition.

Dennis O’Driscoll’s excellent “Quote Poet Unquote,” to which I’ll make frequent reference, begins with an ominous motto: “BOSWELL: Sir, what is poetry? JOHNSON: Why, Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not.” And in his introduction, O’Driscoll goes on to quote the Doctor: “To circumscribe poetry by a definition will only shew the narrowness of the definer.“ He also refers to the most famous would-be definitions in English, Coleridge’s “the best words in the best order” and Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility” as inadequate.

Surely emotion can be recollected in tranquility in prose as well as in verse, as the great fiction writers have amply demonstrated. Coleridge’s definition sounds a bit more useful, but what are the best words and on whose say-so? The words “Swiss cheese” are as good as anything in writing about food, but how good are they really, and how does one determine the best order? From left to right, presumably, but not so in Hebrew.

O’Driscoll begins his introduction with what I began above, “A defining mark of poetry is that it defies definition. On this, if nothing else, poets and critics of all stripes, camps, and persuasions tend to agree.” But he also points out that this never could, and never should, stop us from trying, which, at a minimum, should result in such epigrams as Michael Longley’s, “If I knew where poems came from, I’d go there.”

Of course, it has long been argued that the finest poetry, at least in the allegedly very poetic pastoral style, came from Arcadia. But that region in the center of the Peloponnesus has not produced a single major poet, unless you press Theocritus into that role.

Well, O’Driscoll’s book comprises 303 pages, and not one that doesn’t yield at least something interesting on the subject. On the first page, we get this from David Gascoyne  (in “Strand,” Spring 1992): “Poetry is like a substance, the words stick together as though they were magnetized to each other.” Save that here “one another” would be preferable to “each other” (surely it takes more than two words to make a poem), this is thought provoking. But there is also the clumsy quote from Rita Dove: “Poetry is the purest of the language arts. It is the tightest cage, and if you can get it to sing in that cage it’s really, really wonderful.” (“Poetry Flash”, January 1993.) According to Dove, poetry is both the cage and that which may be made to sing inside it. I guess she means strict form (cage) and melodious sound (really, really wonderful), but exactly what is that? And does meaning count for nothing?

Probably too much has been made of sound at the expense of meaning.  So John Crowe Ransom pointed out that Tennyson’s “The murmur of innumerable bees,” thought to be wonderfully onomatopoetic, could be just as well “the murder of innumerable beeves,” which no one would find euphonious. Yet when sound or melodiousness is intense throughout a poem, credit should be given. But for this purpose, meter and rhyme are best suited, though both have been largely jettisoned by modern poetry.

When you look at the work of most modern poets, indeed those most respected and even venerated, what you tend to get is largely a thing that differs from prose only in line breaks, which, together with enjambment, make for something shorter but similar to the paragraphs in prose. 

The first section of “Quote Poet Unquote,” subtitled “Contemporary Quotations on Poets and Poetry,” is--under the heading “What Is It Anyway?” –- five and a half pages of fascinating quotations, more or less aphoristic, but hardly definitive.

From my book, “Dreamers of Dreams,” there is this: “Poetry is the meeting point of parallel lines—in infinity, but also in the here and now. It is where the patent and incontrovertible intersects with the ineffable and incommensurable.” What I was trying to say, using the mysterious mathematical formula about parallel lines (which I have never quite understood) in the sense of the arcane (ineffable and incommensurable) somehow fusing with personal conviction or faith in individual truth (patent and incontrovertible). A state where the private becomes universal, the mortal immortal, the “mine” somehow “everybody’s.” Or experience becomes history.

There is the famous comment of Mallarme to, I believe Degas, who had submitted to him some verse for evaluation. Noticing the poet’s disapproval, the painter defended the contained ideas. Mallarme answered, “It is not with ideas that a poem is made; it is with words,” meaning that form is content, that expression supersedes intention.

Take, for instance, Thomas Nashe’s famous lines: “Brightness falls from the air;/ Queens have died young and fair;/ Dust hath closed Helen’s eye./ I am sick, I must die.”  Some have argued for a typo, and that the line should read “Brightness falls from the hair.” That may be the idea, but “air” is unforgettable, “hair” is not.

Get hold of “Quote Poet Unquote” and read at least those first five-and-a-half pages, and you’ll find most quotations memorable. Thus Peter Porter’s “Poetry is either language lit up by life or life lit up by language,’ very good, but prose.. Alexander Pope, however, gets poetry out of meter and rhyme, as in “Drink deep or not at all from the Pierian spring,/ A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

Now I know that French poetry—to say nothing of the Japanese haiku—is syllabic, as in the twelve-syllable Alexandrine, but it is the caesura and rhyme that make the verse poetry. Free verse  can be beautiful, even perdurable, but I do not consider it poetry (forget about Whitman). “Give me liberty or give me death” is effective rhetoric, but not poetry. But make it read, “I’ll say with both my first and final breath/ Give me liberty or give me death,” and it becomes, even with that catalectic second line, poetry.

On what is poetry (the word comes from the Greek “poiema,” meaning something made or created), I find that invaluable work, J. A. Cuddon’s “Literary Terms and Literary Theory” both concise and always helpful. We read: “In the final analysis what makes a poem different from any other kind of composition is a species of magic, the secret to which lies in the way the words lean upon each other, are linked and interlocked in sense and rhythm, and thus elicit from each other’s syllables  a kind of tune whose beat and melody varies subtly and which is different from that of prose—‘the other harmony.’” (Shades of Gascoyne’s “the words stick together”).

It is interesting to contemplate the German words “Dichter” and “Dichtung,” which are applied equally to authors and works of poetry and prose, to lyric, epic, novelistic or short-story works. German does not have a word such as the English novelist or the French “romancier.” “Schriftsteller,” which is the closest to it, means merely writer, and is never applied to a poet. There is, however, the German word “Poet,” albeit somewhat antiquated or “literary.”

Cuddon’s word, “magic,” though much abused, is not inappropriate , not here a hyperbole. There is something magical about a successful poem, even if written in simple and everyday diction, as for example by that great French poet, Jacques Prevert. This is why the quotations in O”Driscoll’s book, though illuminating and often witty, original and imaginative, do not constitute an ungainsayable definition.

Thus most of those quotations are metaphors and similes, not definitions. Take Billy Collins’s “Poetry is like standing on the edge of a lake on a moonlit night and the light of the moon is always pointing straight at you,” or R. S. Thomas’s “Poetry is that/ which arrives at the intellect/ by way of the heart.”
Very nice, but no definitions.. Such cleverness, however acute or even poignant, remains eminently debatable, whereas such things as “hatred” or “armchair” or “shadow” are indisputably defining.

Now, after all this,  are we any closer  to a definition of poetry? Not really. But what upon a sufficient number of years and by a sufficient number of people, preferably educated, is read, preferably aloud, and declared a poem, very likely is a poem. And what it is made of is poetry.

Sunday, November 30, 2014


A slow reader myself, I have always envied speedreaders. Come to think of it, are speedreaders and speedreading single words, or should they be two each? Note that a single word confers status; the dignity of enshrinement in the dictionary, institutionalizing what is a mere procedure. I am reasonably sure that speedreaders espouse the single word, readable a split second faster, and thus more of their speed.

But envy is a perverted form of admiration; I had to find a way of minimizing, perhaps even demonizing, speedreading. Especially so after I subscribed to a home course offered by a company, which, besides having paid for it, I found of no use whatever.

The chief method, I gathered, was to read down the center of a page, and absorbing, if at all, what’s near the margins by some sort of auxiliary vision. That, I decided, was like a tennis player going only after balls coming down the middle, and leaving shots into the corners to fend for themselves—the surest way of losing.

Yet wasn’t speedreading somehow useful? As I grew older, and my memory did not age gracefully, I had problems with reviewing longer books. By the time I reached their ends, I had difficulties remembering their beginnings. My opportunistic spouse suggested skimming such them. To me, that was like periodically nodding off while watching a play or movie—too great a loss.

Nevertheless, some envy persisted, although I defended my slow reading with an analogy from walking. How could fast walkers trough a landscape or cityscape fully enjoy the natural or architectural beauties? A goodly portion had to be wasted on them. Yes, but even so, speedreaders had the benefit of being able to tackle the great classics, however imperfectly. What, after all, is perfect in this vale of tears of ours? And the famous masterpieces tend to be long. Take Moby-Dick, Take War and Peace, take Proust. Each of those is a different case and needs to be examined separately.

Melville, except in one famous short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener,”strikes me as a poor writer, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. The two or three times I tried reading his alleged masterpiece, I always gave up alienated after a few pages. It struck me as the sort of thing that might prove helpful to people having to carve up beached whales for commercial purposes. (Too bad that English lacks a single, terse word for this as French has: depecer is more precise, more specific for this activity, and has indeed served the great Jacques Prevert as basis for one of his wonderful poems.)

But what about Tolstoy? Even in translation, he knew how to write. Still, after a couple of attempts at War and Peace, I gave up well before the end of Peace, to say nothing of War. Too many characters, too many names, too many details. By way of contrast, Ivan Ilich managed to die in a fraction of narrative time.

Now how about In Search of Lost Time—or, since I read it in French, A la Recherche du temps perdu? Well, in the first place, I was assistant to Harry Levin in his celebrated Harvard Proust, Mann and Joyce course, and so had to read it. And in the second place, Proust spoke to me the way Tolstoy didn’t. Even his long sentences, let alone his paragraphs, generated an intense curiosity about their outcome—sort of like reading a detective novel (I imagine, because I don’t read any), where you are ineluctably propelled to attain the revelatory ending.

Still, when assigned it by the New York Times Book Review, I managed to read even one of Norman Mailer’s hugely hypertrophic novels—Harlot’s Ghost, 1310 pages—even if I had to read it on trains while traveling through Europe. It occurs to me that the trains must have been helpful: you couldn’t get up and do something else.

Probably, though, the best defense of slow reading (please note: always two words) is that one remembers much more that way. This may indeed hold true for younger people; in my case, and doubtless in that of other older folks, it no longer applies. (By the way, why are younger persons usually people, whereas older ones most often folks?) Rereading a text might be helpful; but who, having slowly and painstakingly read a lengthy text once, would have the disposition, energy, and patience to read it twice?

Here I take the opportunity to express my gratitude to the New York Times, which I have often slighted or censured. Truth is I spend considerable, perhaps even inordinate, time in the morning reading the daily Times, and even more on the Sunday edition. Granted, much of that stuff is of only passing interest, if that. But there is also enough there that is genuinely entertaining, and some indeed that is relevant and useful to know. It certainly enhances your cocktail-party conversation.

On the debit side, however, we also get content that is annoying, notably the drama and, to a somewhat lesser extent, film criticism. Especially irritating is the almost fanatically extensive and enthusiastic coverage of pop music; while dance and classical music, which require technical knowledge, are handled more cogently.  Well, there is no rose without thorns (actually there are some roses that don’t have them, but are too expensive for the ordinary man, if not so for his woman). And there is one corollary benefit from the Sunday Times: hefting it easily replaces dumbbells as exercise.

Finally, I feel more and more indebted to G. K. Chesterton, who observed what a fine  spectacle Times Square at night would be for anyone who could not read. And that, mind you, was then. Now, with the exponentially increased types and quantity of signage, even a speedreader could waste a couple of hours presuming to read them.

I wonder, though, whether the gaping, milling, and circulation-choking nocturnal throngs can qualifiy as readers of any kind. Judging by their behavior and overheard snippets of—dare one call it conversation?—they are merely mistaking littering for literacy and loitering for serious reconnoitering.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Benighted, etc.

First, some errata from the last time round. The film director who bought flowers for my date was Francesco, not Franco, Rosi. (There was another film director, Franco Rossi, causing confusion.) Liv Ullmann ends in two Ns. Bo Widerberg’s film is “Elvira Madigan,” not Madison.

A correspondent wanted me to extend my “Famous People” to three actresses: Isabelle Huppert, Anouk Aimee and another I forget. (Please remind me if you can.) I had Isabelle over for a very pleasant dinner. But on another occasion, interviewing Huppert, I asked her why she would act in a movie by the overpraised phony Michael Cimino, not realizing that she was having an affair with him.

With Anouk Aimee, I had no real nexus, except for once meeting her and her then partner one afternoon in Times Square. They had just seen “Fiddler on the Roof,” and, brandishing the program, Anouk asked me what the word “fiddler” meant. “Violoniste,” I replied, whereupon she triumphantly exclaimed, “I thought so!”

If the third actress was Genevieve Bujold, I have already written about her before. Let me here recollect a would-be actress, Beth Short, a pretty waitress at St. Clair’s in Cambridge, with whom I had friendly conversations. Fellow Harvardman Peter Berger and I phoned her to meet us on an appointed day at the Harvard Square subway station. I left this in a message, which she never answered. Nevertheless, we waited, but the lovely waitress, expectably, never showed up.

During my brief stint in the Air Force, I was sent by friends newspaper clippings:  the Black Dahlia, as she was then dubbed, had been murdered in the grisliest fashion in Hollywood, where she had become a member of the lesbian actress Ann Todd’s circle. Her body was discovered so brutally tortured that no account offered a description. The crime was never solved, though diverse theories about it kept appearing.

Some words now about two wonderful British actresses. Eileen Atkins is one of the most distinguished stage and screen stars, whom I admired ever since I saw her on Broadway in “The Killing of Sister George.” I got to know her at an award ceremony where she felt inexplicably ignored. I turned there into what she later referred to as her protector. We spent some nice time together, but subsequent meetings have been all too few. I have always found her, on and offstage, as intelligent as she is talented, a relatively rare phenomenon among actors.

On to Lindsay Duncan. On page 810 of “John Simon on Theater,” about a revival of “Private Lives” with Alan Rickman costarred, I have reprinted my glowing review of her. Yet the one time I met her, she reminded me of an earlier, unfavorable notice I had forgotten. I must have been signally mistaken. What I haven’t mentioned yet is that in that production there was a moment when, on the edge of the bed, she was putting on her stockings. That was one of the sexiest things I have ever seen on any stage. It made me catch the show a second time and did not disappoint.

Now onto my real topic: benightedness. I have always found “benighted” a very useful word. An adjective meaning “in a state of moral or intellectual ignorance,” it is a euphemism for “stupid.” Coming from a critic, “stupid” may in some cases sound arrogant or, at any rate, excessive. My frequent recourse to “benighted,” often about a group phenomenon,  makes me wonder what has become of our designation as homo sapiens? The sapiens tends to be missing, and the homo has taken on a different, offensive significance.

Consider something that so ubiquitously gets up my dander: the asinine mispronunciation of “groceries” as “grosheries.” This must have originated with some prominent ignoramus—or a number of them—derived by faulty analogy from words like “glacier” or “hosiery” and their likes, where the contiguous vowel I softens the sibilant. In “groceries,” there is no I after the C, hence it is pronounced as “grosseries.”

It takes a goodly bit of ignorance—or benightedness—to perpetrate this fatuity. It has now pretty much swept the country, especially on television, and often has the miscreant pronounce it with the patronizing smugness of someone displaying his (supposed) superiority to the unwashed.

What I find particularly galling is that when I mention this lapse to people with a good education, the unexpected response is “Really? I haven’t noticed.” Which goes to show that people tend not hear what they are actually hearing, but something  they assume they are hearing.

In his extremely valuable  “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” which I warmly recommend to anyone who opens his mouth in English, Bryan A. Garner offers a list of common mispronunciations. The most salient ones I keep hearing are “aflooent” and “inflooence” and “greevious’ and “mischievious,” followed closely by “prefurrable” and “asterix.” And, of course, the widespread “couldent” and “wooldent.” Where I go beyond Garner and most dictionaries, I don’t approve of “exquizzite,” with the accent on the middle syllable.

What I find perhaps even more distressingly surprising is how a wrong-word usage becomes just about omnipresent. I refer to the answer to “How are you” that nowadays is almost universally, “I am good.” Clearly the adverb “well” is called for, and used to be regularly proffered. To say you are “good,” strikes me as inappropriate and inept even if you are moral, decent, righteous—a distastefully self-promoting pronouncement to any and all comers. Goodness, in any case, is much more often paid lip service to than achieved.

Now about my own benightedness. When my wife and I moved to the suburbs, I had the movers box and transport hundreds of neckties I had collected. Incidentally, until a Hungarian maid exclaimed, “What a great collection,” I had never thought of them as anything but part of an ample wardrobe. I was simply fond of ties, especially if of fine materials and by couturiers I liked.

In fact, ties have to a large extent become outmoded. Blame it, like most fashions, on France, where even prominent men started appearing in public with open collars on their shirts. There were—are—some professions and situations that still call for ties, but they are rare enough for me to wonder how come that so many ties are still being manufactured and presumably sold. Aren’t they generally causing the wearer to be considered a benighted fuddy-duddy?

Let me proceed to other forms of benightedness, viz. the manifold adaptations, putative updatings, of Shakespeare plays. Such transmogrification into the “modern” or “contemporary” is usually performed by second-rate writers, if not by actual hacks. If deemed necessary, any other means are preferable. If possible, supertitles, or program notes. Or, for that matter, not bothering, but assuming that concerned persons will subsequently seek out annotated texts. It is not as if Shakespeare were in Middle or even Old English.

Transgressions often predicate the loftiest aspirations. Take poems in the subways, where, surrounded by advertisements of often greater interest, they nowadays proudly pop up. I don’t know who picks them, but they are usually at best mediocre, and frequently written by practitioners with not much more than membership in a P.C. -endorsed minority to their credit. I doubt whether any subway riders are thereby turned into poetry lovers; more likely into avoiders.

I also have my quarrel with e-books. Though any indulgence may be better than abstention, I think that electronics and literature are unhappy bedmates. In a real book, which remains rather than evanesces, you can annotate and underline, readily return to passages meant to be resavored and thus correctly remembered. To be sure, a recent issue of the French magazine Lire quotes Juan Gabriel Vasquez, “Memory is truly bizarre: it allows us to remember what one has not lived.” This may mitigate many a person’s hurts.

Any given week the booby prize for benightedness goes to different offenders. Here are the current ones. Anyone at all with it should know that Shaw himself rejected the George. All responsible editions and studies refer to him, according to his wishes, simply as Bernard Shaw, which in countries such as Germany he always was.

What about the benighted women who call themselves Rachael rather than Rachel? The latter comes from the Hebrew, meaning a ewe; the latter is a benighted false analogy to the Hebrew Michael (close to God), which does take the A. Granted that the stupidity was the parents’, the daughter can legally or just in practice make the correction.

Finally, head wagglers. By a cruel irony of fate, I am often seated in the theater behind a head waggler. For no good reason, i.e., no such obstacle in front of him or her, these persons keep throwing the head (granted lighter for being empty), or even the whole body, this way and that. If you reprimand them, some desist, others defiantly continue. The problem is that in issuing the reprimand during a performance, it is hard not to disturb several nearby others, making you the culprit. It certainly is a mark of substantial stupidity not to realize that you are not at home, watching television.

So much for now. Future installments regrettably not unlikely.