Backward glances

Backward-Glance

(My local backward glance)

Not far into Edith Wharton’s The Spark, one of the novellas in her 1924 volume, Old New York, I came across the young narrator’s query to Jack Alstrop about what Harvey Delane, a figure of great interest to him, has done in his life: ‘Alstrop was forty, or thereabouts, and by a good many years better able than I to cast a backward glance over the problem.’[1]

I was reading Old New York just then because of a hint from Guy Davenport (this story, ‘about a man who had known Whitman in the war’), and my attention had snagged on that phrase ‘backward glance’.[2]

In 1962, Allen Tate published an article responding to a new book of poems, The Long Street, by his friend of long standing, Donald Davidson. Its title was ‘The Gaze Past, The Glance Present: Forty Years After The Fugitive’. This last was the influential journal, published in the early twenties, which centred on poets and scholars at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Several of those writers associated with it (Davidson, Tate, Robert Penn Warren) were later part of the group called the Agrarians.

Ford-Gordon-Biala-Tate
(Caroline Gordon; Janice Biala; Ford Madox Ford; Allen Tate: Summer 1937, via Cornell University Library: https://digital.library.cornell.edu/catalog/ss:550910 )

Tate’s title indicated what he regarded as the disproportionate extent of Davidson’s steady backward gazing, his ‘opposition of an heroic myth to the secularization of man in our age’ – though Tate himself tended to see the fall of the South very much in mythic terms.[3]

Nearly twenty years earlier, another piece by Tate, ‘The New Provincialism’, had asserted that, ‘With the war of 1914-1918, the South re-entered the world—but gave a backward glance as it stepped over the border: that backward glance gave us the Southern renascence, a literature conscious of the past in the present.’[4]

That phrase in turn perhaps looked back a decade to Edith Wharton’s 1934 autobiography, A Backward Glance, which itself looked back to Walt Whitman. ‘A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads’ appeared in 1888 as a preface to November Boughs and was incorporated into the collected volume, Leaves of Grass, in the following year.

Wharton-Backward-Glance

Remembering an occasion on which someone had spoken of Whitman in the company of Henry James and herself, Wharton recounts how it was ‘a joy to discover that James thought him, as I did, the greatest of American poets. “Leaves of Grass” was put into his hands, and all that evening we sat rapt while he wandered from “The Song of Myself” to “When lilacs last in the door-yard bloomed” (when he read “lovely and soothing Death” his voice filled the hushed room like an organ adagio), and thence let himself be lured on to the mysterious music of “Out of the Cradle”, reading, or rather crooning it in a mood of subdued ecstasy till the fivefold invocation to Death rolled out like the knocks in the opening bars of the Fifth Symphony.’[5]

Wharton-via-BBC

(Edith Wharton via the BBC)

Whitman would die four years after his 1888 essay. ‘So here I sit gossiping in the early candlelight of old age—I and my book—casting backward glances over our travel’d roads.’ The roads are those to and through and from his great book, the difficulties of publication, the financial failure of his work, the critical attacks that have been made upon it. Yet the glance is just that: as so often, Whitman’s gaze is, in fact, to the future. ‘I look upon Leaves of Grass, now finish’d to the end of its opportunities and powers, as my definitive carte visite to the coming generations of the New World, if I may assume to say so.’[6]

Walt-Whitman

In ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ (1856), Whitman writes:

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d. [7]

As the White Queen remarks in Through the Looking-Glass, ‘“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards”.’[8]

Alice_and_white_queen

(Alice and the White Queen by John Tenniel)

People have occasionally remarked in my hearing that there’s ‘no use in looking back’, that they ‘live in the moment, always in the present tense’. Well, that’s just dandy, they might see a tail or a trunk but they won’t be seeing the whole elephant any time soon. The backward glance is indispensable, I think, as resource, as collaborator, as partner; though best not, perhaps, as master. It’s all in the proportions. Francis Bacon observed that ‘There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in its proportion.’[9] There are, though, strangenesses that appear to have little or no acquaintanceship with beauty.

It has been, in any case, a remarkable few years for backward glances and gazes, and for fixed, demented backward—and forward—stares too. ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,’ George Santayana wrote, this famous aphorism inscribed on a plaque at Auschwitz.[10] In that context, of course, it’s very clear what past is being alluded to and the way in which it is and should be viewed. Elsewhere, though, pasts have a great many questions to answer and are subject to warring interpretations. Some of these are unambiguously wrong but others will continue to brawl like rats in a sack. We can only wait with keen interest, if not a great deal of optimism, to see what is glimpsed and held from now in some future backward glance.

 
Notes

[1] Edith Wharton, The Spark, in Novellas and Other Writings, edited by Cynthia Griffin Wolff (New York: Library of America, 1990),451.

[2] Guy Davenport, ‘Walt Whitman and Ronald Johnson’, The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 250.

[3] Allen Tate, Memories and Essays Old and New 1926-1974 (Manchester: Carcanet, 1976), 36.

[4] Allen Tate, The Man of Letters in the Modern World (London: Thames and Hudson, 1957), 330-331.

[5] Wharton, A Backward Glance in Novellas and Other Writings, 923.

[6] Whitman: Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, edited by Justin Kaplan (New York: Library of America, 1982), 656.

[7] Whitman: Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, 308-309.

[8] Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, edited by Martin Gardner (London: Allen Lane, 2000), 206.

[9] Bacon, ‘Of Beauty’, Essays, edited by Ernest Rhys (London: Dent, 1932), 129.

[10] Santayana, The Life of Reason. I: Reason in Common Sense (New York: Scribner’s, 1905), 284.

 

Ditching

Richards, Albert, 1919-1945; Anti-Tank Ditch

(Albert Richards, Anti-Tank Ditch (1939): © Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum)

In the last few years of my walking to work every day, it became almost as dangerous as crossing the roads. This was only partly to do with the chronic neglect of paths, pavements and walkways by the local council, financially starved as it was by central government; as much, or more, to do with the traffic on the pavement. Almost hit by heedless kids on scooters one morning, I was then almost hit by their mother, who was cycling briskly along the middle of the pavement. Then I had to avoid a small boy fiddling with some game and blind to the world. I remember thinking that it was hardly surprising if heedless kids raised by heedless adults turn into heedless adults themselves. But why, I wondered, sidestepping another heedless fool fiddling with his music selection, do more of these people not simply tumble into ditches? The answer, of course, is was that we have too few ditches. There is so much . . . material, of various kinds, that could be, that should be, tumbled into ditches. I thought then that one of my first reforms, when the time comes, will be to introduce far more ditches.

Old English, of Germanic origin, I gather, related to dyke and, more broadly, both to the trench and the mound of earth produced by the digging.

It was apparently Lord Curzon, ex-Viceroy of India, ‘surely one of the most brilliantly pompous men in England’, who said: ‘We will die in the last ditch before we give in’, when confronting the Parliament Bill which would lessen the power of the House of Lords. This was in May 1911, at the luncheon table of the splendidly-named Lord Willoughby de Broke, who, George Dangerfield commented in his classic The Strange Death of Liberal England, ‘had quite a gift for writing, thought clearly, and was not more than two hundred years behind his time.’[1] The Conservative party would soon divide into Ditchers and Hedgers, the hardliners who refused any compromise and the realists who believed that accepting some reform might avert or at least delay defeat.

A few years later, the narrator of Violet Hunt’s 1918 novel (with many details of interest for those readers closely acquainted with her lover, Ford Madox Ford) remarks: ‘For I suppose we aristocrats are, literally, in the Last Ditch!’[2]

Immodest-Violet

Ditches were on many people’s minds just then, not least those of the survivors of the Western Front. Eric Leed pointed out in his celebrated study No Man’s Land that the soldier was treated ‘as his society customarily treats a corpse – buried, forced to lie immobile in a pit or ditch.’ He is ‘identified with the earth, with pollution and corruption.’ He added that ‘The most unsettling feature of the landscape of war, for many combatants, lay in the constant transgression of those distinctions that preserve both order and cleanliness.’[3]

A hundred years on from the Great War, anyway, ditches are suddenly topical again. Our current Prime Minister, declining to return to Brussels to request an extension beyond 31 October of the United Kingdom’s exiting the European Union, said that he’d ‘rather be dead in a ditch.’ So, somewhere, a ditch is surely being prepared, or furnished or perhaps, as we say far too often these days, curated in readiness for that performance.

 
Notes

[1] George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (London: Constable, 1936), 43, 42. The title of his third chapter is ‘Their Lordships Die in the Dark’.

[2] Violet Hunt, The Last Ditch (London: Stanley Paul, 1918), 14.

[3] Eric J. Leed, No Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 17, 18.

 

A bit of Turner

Spall-Turner-Guardian

(Timothy Spall as Turner in Mike Leigh’s 2014 Mr. Turner, via The Guardian)

Reading Greg Gerke’s new collection of essays, I came across the opening lines of ‘Mr. Turner, Boyhood, and Criticism’:

‘Let us begin with difficulties. Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, a film as rich as an afternoon in the Louvre, presents an austere and bilious portrait of the great English artist and a ridiculous one of a young John Ruskin, a critic who explicated Turner in many works over the course of different works—a critic who drew and painted, lecturing on both activities with a great avidity.’

He adds that, in Leigh’s film, ‘the drama is the classic case of critic as obnoxious foil to the artist’s majesty and magic’, before bringing in Guy Davenport, a great admirer of Leigh—but also of Ruskin, not only as a titanic figure in his own right but a major influence upon much of the modern movement.[1]

Gerke’s essay, as the title suggests, is concerned with setting his ‘adulation’ for Leigh’s film beside his ‘cool reception’ to Richard Linklater’s widely acclaimed Boyhood (preferring several of Linklater’s other films), but also considering the nature and difficulties of criticism. Still, for the moment, I was thinking about Turner and Ruskin.

Back in April this year, after the Don McCullin exhibition and the Van Gogh in Britain show—and the Ruskin Exhibition at 2 Temple Place the day before—we had a couple of hours to spare before our train. We revisited old friends in the Tate Britain galleries, the Librarian often to be found in front of Vanessa Bell, Carrington, Sargent, Gwen John, me turning aside to Nevinson, Bomberg, Spencer, Gaudier-Brzeska, pausing by Holman Hunt’s Our English Coasts (first called ‘Lost Sheep’ and then ‘Strayed Sheep’), with its too obvious applications to the country’s current travails.

Charles-West-Cope-JMWT-NPG

(Charles West Cope, J. M. W. Turner: National Portrait Gallery)

‘Do you fancy some Turner?’
‘I’m always up for a bit of Turner.’

We walked to the Clore Gallery. The Librarian mentioned wanting to see again the 2014 Mike Leigh film, with its gorgeous opening sequence and its tremendous central performance by Timothy Spall, its only false note for me precisely that grotesque depiction of John Ruskin, Turner’s most famous champion, whose first major work was initially conceived with exactly the intention of praising and promoting the painter.[2]

Our visit was just a few days short of the painter’s birthday, I realise now. Joseph William Mallord Turner was born in Covent Garden, 23 April 1775. I’d read a short biography of him by Peter Ackroyd which quoted Samuel Palmer, recalling his first sight of a Turner painting, ‘Entrance of the Meuse: Orange-Merchant on the Bar, going to Pieces’, in 1819 when Palmer was just fourteen: ‘being by nature a lover of smudginess, I have reveled in him from that day to this’. Ackroyd also notes Ruskin’s emergence as ‘Turner’s most eloquent and knowledgeable supporter’, ‘the principal advocate’ of his art, adding: ‘it can be said with some certainty that no artist has ever had a more profound and articulate explicator.’[3]

Entrance of the Meuse: Orange-Merchant on the Bar, Going to Pieces; Brill Church bearing S. E. by S., Masensluys E. by S. exhibited 1819 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

(J. M. W. Turner, Entrance of the Meuse: Orange-Merchant on the Bar, going to Pieces: Tate)

John Ruskin was just seventeen when a hostile notice of three paintings by Turner in Blackwood’s Magazine prompted him to draft a reply. Looking back some fifty years later, Ruskin wrote: ‘The review raised me to the height of “black anger” in which I have remained pretty nearly ever since’. In fact, Ruskin’s father deciding that Turner himself should be approached first, the painter wrote back thanking Ruskin but adding: ‘I never move in these matters, they are of no import save mischief’.[4] Ruskin’s reply to the Blackwood’s review was finally printed as an appendix to Modern Painters in the great Cook and Wedderburn library edition—‘Turner may be mad: I daresay he is, inasmuch as highest genius is allied to madness; but not so stark mad as to profess to paint nature. He paints from nature, and pretty far from it, too; and he would be sadly disappointed who looked in his pictures for a possible scene.’[5]

Fifteen years further on, Ruskin famously defended works by the Pre-Raphaelite painters in reaction to the dismissive comments published in notices in The Times.

(The notices together with Ruskin’s letters are gathered together in the superb Rossetti Archive:
http://www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/n.gb1.1851.may.rad.html )

In the famous Thames flood of 6 – 7 January 1926, the waters filled the lower floor of the Tate where Jim Ede (biographer of Henri Gaudier Brzeska and founder of Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge) was keeping 19000 Turner drawings and watercolours, as well as some watercolours by Ede’s friend, the poet and artist David Jones, who had recently completed engravings for a Golden Cockerel Press edition of The Chester Play of the Deluge. The Tate treasures were ‘submerged but kept dry by ark-tight carpentry of a set of cabinets.’

In the following year, Jones spent four weeks, mid-August to September, at Portslade, painting mostly ‘the open sea under an empty sky.’ He was remembering Ruskin writing on Turner, that ‘the sea, however calm, is redolent of storm’. Jones thought this was ‘more than half’ the secret ‘of good painting, of good art . . . it is both peace and war.’[6] Patrick White used to go and look at Turner’s ‘Interior at Petworth’ often when he lived in London, adding to Mary Benson that, ‘besides being a subtle painting, I feel it taught me a lot about writing.’ Late Turners, he told Penny Coleing, made him ‘grow breathless with delight every time I see them’.[7]

War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet exhibited 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

(J. M. W. Turner, War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet: Tate)

Some of Turner’s pictures are so familiar now that some decrease might seem inevitable in that breathlessness if not the delight. But I don’t know: when I come in sight of Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway or The Slave Ship (originally, Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhon coming on), The Fighting Temeraire, War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet or Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, I still catch my breath a little, or articulate that highly technical art-critical term, wow.

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth exhibited 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

(J. M. W. Turner, Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth: Tate)

‘To understand how the artist felt, however, is not criticism; criticism is an investigation into what the work is good for’, the philosopher George Santayana wrote, a sentence which, Greg Gerke notes, Guy Davenport quotes twice (Gerke also notes how ‘“good for” smacks of the paterfamilias making a pronouncement from 1905’—Reason in Art’s year of publication).[8] An introductory note to one of Davenport’s collections of essays ends: ‘The way I write about texts and works of art has been shaped by forty years of explaining them to students in a classroom. I am not writing for scholars or fellow critics, but for people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things.’[9]

Yes.

Near the end of ‘Mr. Turner, Boyhood, and Criticism’, Greg Gerke writes: ‘We all die, so live all you can—if art is good at anything, it’s reminding us of this.’[10]

Yes again.

 
Notes

[1] Greg Gerke, See What I See (Birmingham: Splice, 2019), 315. For Davenport on Ruskin, see particularly ‘The House That Jack Built’ in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997) and ‘Ruskin According to Proust’ in The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996); but there are references to Ruskin throughout Davenport’s oeuvre.

[2] And see Philip Hoare on both Mike Leigh’s film and Effie Gray, written by Emma Thompson and directed by Richard Laxton: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/oct/07/john-ruskin-emma-thompson-mike-leigh-film-art

[3] Peter Ackroyd, Turner (London: Vintage Books, 2006), 94, 132, 133.

[4] John Ruskin, Praeterita (London: Everyman, 2005), 192.

[5] John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Volume 1, edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1903), 637.

[6] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 98, 107. In ‘Art in Relation to War’, Jones phrases it thus: ‘Ruskin, writing of Turner’s treatment of the sea, says that however calm the sea he painted he always remembered the same sea heavy and full of discontent under storm. That is half the secret, more than half, of good painting, of good art.’ See The Dying Gaul and Other Writings (London: Faber 1978), 140.

[7] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 203fn.

[8] Gerke, See What I See, 317; Guy Davenport, Every Force Evolves a Form (Berkeley: North Point Press, 1987), 68, 71.

[9] Guy Davenport, The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), ix.

[10] Gerke, See What I See, 320: he nods here to Lambert Strether in Henry James’s The Ambassadors (‘Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to’). His essay on James’s The Portrait of a Lady, ‘Stylized Despair’, is included here (51-56).

Coups, cakes, canvases

executioner-with-axe

Boris Johnson’s crude assault on parliamentary democracy has, unsurprisingly, provoked hours of interviews, comment and analysis unspooling across various screens, plus the reliably depressing vox populi, shifty Tory ministers hastily backtracking on their previous opinions and a few suited spear-carriers bleating that it was really just business as usual. Among the worst moments was a rather revolting interview, through which the Prime Minister girned and smirked and waffled his way, making it painfully obvious that he thought this whole government thing a bit of a lark. It was, I suppose, the old Bullingdon Club habit: you have a rip-roaring time and smash the place up and somebody else comes along the next day and pays for the damage. Of course, we’ll be the poor sods picking up the bill on this occasion, for decades to come.

Vuillard, Jean Edouard, 1868-1940; Deux ouvrieres dans l'atelier de couture (Two Seamstresses in the Workroom)

(Vuillard, Two Seamstresses in the Workroom, 133mm x 194mm
National Galleries of Scotland, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art)

We escaped for a while to more civilized things, catching a train to Bath to buy a few books, have coffee and cake, and look at some pictures, the small and appropriately intimate exhibition of around thirty paintings and lithographs from the earlier part of Édouard Vuillard’s career—had I forgotten or did I never know that Vuillard’s Two Seamstresses in the Workroom is tiny? Walks, blackberrying and wine can also help to stave off reminders of the state we’re in. What else is there to do? Sign the petitions, join the protests if you can, cultivate or maintain a sceptical mind. ‘The uncritical mind is a prey to credulity’, Guy Davenport once observed, ‘and without skepticism there can be no democracy.’

I notice that today is the birthday of Raymond Williams, novelist, literary critic and cultural studies scholar. I always think of Williams as a representative figure in a tradition of historical and cultural analysis of which I was almost entirely ignorant until I began a university course as a mature student, never having been exposed to it at school, nor anywhere else. Had that tradition—radical, questioning, clear-sighted—been more widely taught and more centrally positioned, we might all be in a more secure place now, with an electorate rather better-informed about some of the matters that so closely affect them.

The Bank Holiday last week reminded me of the May Bank Holiday on which we went to Clodock, the parish church of St Clydawg, some of it dating back to the 12th century, though the present tower dates from the 15th century and the interior underwent a lot of restoration in the 17th century. On one wall is a decalogue – the ten commandments –which was repainted most recently in the late 1980s, dedicated to Williams (who died in January 1988) by his wife Joyce. They’re now buried together in the new churchyard there.

Decalogue

In a recent column, Nesrine Malik wrote that, over the past few years, there had been many, many opportunities for Trump supporters to see exactly who and what they’d voted for: ‘There really are no more excuses. A Trump voter in 2020 is a voter who can no longer plausibly pretend, to themselves or others, that their reasons are down to economic anxiety or some “left behind” resentment.’
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/26/trump-2020-democrats-identity-politics

And in this country? Are we there yet? Three years ago, many people could reasonably claim that they were frankly lied to and more generally misled (true), that they knew next to nothing about the European Union or what ‘leaving’ would actually entail (also true). But now they do know. Yet the Conservative Party is ahead in the polls and, as John Harris comments today, ‘too much of the country remains uninterested, and plenty of other people have concluded that Johnson has done the right thing.’
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/30/parliament-johnson-prorogue-democracy

Thank all the gods there are, then, for Marina Hyde:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/30/sajid-javid-dominic-cummings-prorogation-government

 

 

Belief: a world of a word

Knox, Archibald, 1864-1933; 'In preachings of apostles faiths of confessors'

(Archibald Knox, ‘“In preachings of apostles faiths of confessors” (from Knox’s illuminated manuscript “The Deer’s Cry” or “Saint Patrick’s Hymn”’: Manx Museum, Douglas, Isle of Man)

Sitting before the evening news, the Librarian remarks that, if we’d been told ten or fifteen years ago that the world would be like this—the Artic and the Amazon forest on fire, the extreme Right resurgent in Europe again, the widespread mainstream dissemination of racist and supremacist views, this country’s prolonged and painful foundering, the President of the United States in a snit because he couldn’t buy another country and suggesting nuclear strikes to combat hurricanes—we wouldn’t have believed it.

Believe. What a world of a word. ‘I do not believe in Belief’, E. M. Forster wrote in his 1939 essay, ‘What I Believe’. And, ‘Faith, to my mind, is a stiffening process, a sort of mental starch, which ought to be applied as sparingly as possible. I dislike the stuff’.[1] I also own a curious volume called What I Believe, edited by Mark Booth, ‘curious’ not in its contributors (W. H. Auden, Albert Einstein, Jacques Maritain, Rebecca West, Bertrand Russell and, yes, Martin Sheen among them) but in its publishing history, issued in Britain by Firethorn Press, ‘an imprint of Waterstone and Company Limited’, of 193 Kensington High Street, London W8. A Waterstones branch is still at that address, thirty-five years on.

What-I-Believe

‘The brute necessity of believing something so long as life lasts does not justify any belief in particular’, George Santayana wrote.[2] And Shirley Jackson’s observation seems increasingly pertinent: ‘The question of belief is a curious one, partaking of the wonders of childhood and the blind hopefulness of the very old; in all the world there is not someone who does not believe something. It might be suggested, and not easily disproven that anything, no matter how exotic, can be believed by someone.’[3] These days, of course, that ‘anything’ is believed with greater volume and stridency.

T. S. Eliot famously declared of the essays in For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, that: ‘The general point of view may be described as classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.’[4] The previous year, he had published ‘A Note on Poetry and Belief’, responding to an essay by I. A. Richards: ‘But I cannot see that poetry can ever be separated from something which I should call belief, and to which I cannot see any reason for refusing the name of belief, unless we are to reshuffle names altogether.’[5] Responding to Eliot’s musing about what his friend ‘believed’, Ezra Pound recommended reading Confucius and Ovid, but advanced a few years later to a more precise statement: ‘I believe the Ta Hio.’[6] This—The Great Learning—became, some years later, Ta Hsio: The Great Digest, its most often quoted lines (certainly by me) perhaps: ‘Things have roots and branches; affairs have scopes and beginnings. To know what precedes and what follows, is nearly as good as having a head and feet.’[7]

Certain beliefs—and I pause on the ironic savour of the word ‘certain’ in this context—are, or have been, pretty well obligatory. Northrop Frye writes that: ‘The Christian mythology of the Middle Ages and later was a closed mythology, that is, a structure of belief, imposed by compulsion on everyone. As a structure of belief, the primary means of understanding it was rational and conceptual, and no poet, outside the Bible, was accorded the kind of authority that was given to the theologian. Romanticism, besides being a new mythology, also marks the beginning of an “open” attitude to mythology on the part of society, making mythology a structure of imagination, out of which beliefs come, rather than directly one of compulsory belief.’[8]

I recall, quite specifically, the moment in which I ceased to be a Christian believer, though I may not have then become a Romantic. It was a bright, dry Sunday morning in a village a few miles from Bath. I boarded at a nearby college, though continuing to attend school in the city and, every Sunday morning, the boarders were ferried by the college’s ramshackle coach to the village church. While I stood on the side of the hot road, that belief fell off me like a solid object, as though I’d dropped a stone or a coin, one I wouldn’t bend to pick up again.

‘Lord, I believe’, the father cries out in St Mark’s Gospel, ‘help thou mine unbelief’ (Mark 9: 24).

Palma il giovane, Jacopo, 1544/1548-1628; Saint Mark

(Jacopo Palma il giovane, Saint Mark: Hatton Gallery)

Anne Carson writes:

‘Where does unbelief begin?
When I was young

there were degrees of certainty.
I could say, Yes I know that I have two hands.
Then one day I awakened on a planet of people whose hands
occasionally disappear—’[9]

Religious belief clearly doesn’t require buildings and clerical collars. In Of Human Bondage, Somerset Maugham’s Norah tells Philip that she doesn’t believe in ‘churches and parsons and all that’ – but, she adds, ‘I believe in God, and I don’t believe He minds much about what you do as long as you keep your end up and help a lame dog over a stile when you can.’[10] There are, too, very individual manifestations of God. ‘Binding up these sheaves of oats’, Ronald Duncan wrote in his record of wartime smallholding, ‘I am certain I believe in oats. The stalks falling behind the cutter which we draw behind an old car, the monk binding methodically, the new members binding enthusiastically, women with coloured scarves round their heads are gleaning and one cannot glean ungracefully. If one cannot see God in an oatfield one will never see. For, here is the whole of it.’[11]

Palmer, Samuel, 1805-1881; The Gleaning Field

(Samuel Palmer, The Gleaning Field: Tate)

Kate Atkinson writes of Jackson Brodie in her recent novel: ‘He didn’t let the fact that he was brought up as a Catholic interfere with his beliefs.’[12] Beliefs or faith? In what I suspect has now become my favourite Penelope Fitzgerald novel, she writes of the feast of St Modestus, patron saint of printing, and the blessing of the ikons by the parish priest. ‘Because I don’t believe in this, Frank thought, that doesn’t mean it’s not true.’ Then: ‘Perhaps, Frank thought, I have faith, even if I have no beliefs.’[13]

As to the secular world, who can say? Faith in facts, in political systems, in international law, in human rights? Belief seems sometimes rampant, sometimes inert, stunned, left for dead. It’s a long time since Proust wrote: ‘Facts do not find their way into the world in which our beliefs reside; they did not produce our beliefs; they do not destroy them; they may inflict on them the most constant refutations without weakening them.’[14] Remembering the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, now more than forty years ago, Lavinia Greenlaw asserted that ‘England was no longer England, at least not the England it persisted in believing itself to be.’[15]

And now? Here we are. There they are. So I turn to the Librarian and say yes, I believe you’re right.
Notes

[1] E. M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy (London: Edward Arnold, 1951), 77.

[2] W. H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger, The Faber Book of Aphorisms: A Personal Selection (London: Faber and Faber, 1964), 334.

[3] Shirley Jackson, The Sundial (1958; London: Penguin, 2015), 33.

[4] T. S. Eliot, ‘Preface’, For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order (London: Faber and Gwyer, 1928), ix.

[5] T. S. Eliot, ‘A Note on Poetry and Belief’, The Enemy, 1 (January 1927) 15-17.

[6] Ezra Pound, ‘Credo’ (1930) in Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 53; ‘Date Line’ (1934) in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 86.

[7] Ezra Pound, Confucius. The Unwobbling Pivot; The Great Digest; The Analects (New York: New Directions, 1969), 29.

[8] Northrop Frye, A Study of English Romanticism (Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1983), 16

[9] Anne Carson, ‘The Glass Essay’ in Glass, Irony & God (New York: New Directions, 1995), 31.

[10] Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage (1915; Penguin Books, 1963), 318. Readers of Ford Madox Ford nod sagely at this point—‘I remember my grandfather laying down a rule of life for me. He said: “ Fordie, never refuse to help a lame dog over a stile.”’ See Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 197.

[11] Ronald Duncan, Journal of a Husbandman (London: Faber 1944), 52-53.

[12] Kate Atkinson, Big Sky (London: Transworld, 2019), 10.

[13] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Beginning of Spring (London: Everyman, 2003), 378.

[14] Marcel Proust, The Way by Swann’s, translated by Lydia Davis (London: Allen Lane, 2002), 149.

[15] Lavinia Greenlaw, The Importance of Music to Girls (London: Faber & Faber, 2017), 114.

Plus ça change: editing, comedy, politics

Harry-dozing 1

A flurry of activity, since we are—finally!—in the last throes of preparing for the printer the second issue of Last Post: A Literary Journal from the Ford Madox Ford Society. Before that – days of depressing weather and weathering depression as British politicians plot, plod, falsify, feint and fail, some of them apparently paralysed while others are clearly willing to jeopardise not only the wellbeing of the United Kingdom as a whole but the still fragile peace in Northern Ireland too.

Still, there was my elder daughter’s birthday, though on the actual day she was—not exactly abroad but offshore, that region so favoured by the rich—aboard a small train bound for Laxey in the Isle of Man, and then on another train up a mountain. On the other hand, her sister, who lives in Barcelona, arrived in Bristol to stay with the Librarian and I—and, crucially, Harry the house cat—for a few days before heading off to Scotland to unleash some stand-up comedy at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with a group of friends. (Such familial displays of extrovert behaviour might offset, to a degree, my increasingly wary view of the world out there and the people in it.)

The second issue of Last Post includes a reprinted article by Ford, dating from 1936, when he revisited London, a relatively rare event in the post-war years, since he lived first in Sussex, then Paris, then Toulon, with trips to New York and other parts of the United States – but not often to London.

Fordie-BBC

http://www.fordmadoxfordsociety.org/last-post-journal.html

In the world-before-the-war, he’d been based in London for a decade and his first commercially successful book (at least since his first, a fairy tale illustrated by his grandfather Ford Madox Brown) was devoted to the city: The Soul of London appeared in 1905. And, though Ford didn’t live there much after 1915, he continued to write about the city or to draw upon it in many of his later books. More than eighty years old, then, that article but I was struck by his characterisation of the politicians of the day:

‘It was impossible to imagine a more impressive collection of dumb-bells and left-overs than were provided by H. M. Government and H. M. Opposition between them. A photograph of the lot of them impressed you with the idea that you were looking at a group-picture of the better-behaved inmates of Bellevue—as who should say Bethlem Hospital. And their political records were none of them more cheerful.’

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as they say in some quarters, I believe.

 

The sneezer as hero – is it ok?

Greek-chorus

(The Bacchai at the National Theatre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton via The Guardian)

The back page ‘N.B.’ column in last week’s Times Literary Supplement (2 August 2019) discussed, not without irony, the question of what is ‘ok’ to read in these days of widespread outrage, citing the recent report that a Professor of History and Philosophy of Biology at University College London had refused to teach in the lecture theatre named after Francis Galton, whose name is ‘linked with racist, misogynist and hierarchical ideologies’. Galton was indeed a pioneer in eugenics and psychometrics. He also developed a method of classifying fingerprints, initiated scientific meteorology, devised the first weather map and invented a means of testing differential hearing ability. He died in 1911. The First International Eugenics Congress, held in London the following year, was dedicated to Galton. Attendees included the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Chief Justice, the ambassadors of France, Greece and Norway, and Winston Churchill who, two years earlier, had written to the Prime Minister: ‘I am convinced that the multiplication of the Feeble-Minded, which is proceeding now at an artificial rate, unchecked by any of the old restraints of nature, and actually fostered by civilised conditions, is a very terrible danger to the race.’

Is it ok, J. C. goes on to ask, to read Vladimir Nabokov (Dan Franklin of Jonathan Cape has said that he wouldn’t publish Lolita now)? Or T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Philip Larkin, William Faulkner? Burroughs, Chester Himes, Mailer, Miller? Mention is made of a recent (very good) TLS piece by Claire Lowdon, which concluded that yes, it is okay to read Updike and, ‘in the course of the article, also cast forgiving glances in the direction of Bellow, Roth and other big male beasts.’ Then how about Maupassant, Flaubert, Kipling, Camus? Céline could certainly have been added, probably Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence and Wyndham Lewis too. ‘Perhaps it’s safer not to read at all’, J. C. concludes, ‘which is what lots of people are doing anyway.’

I know there are some complex questions about commemoration, statuary, flags, the names of buildings, the placement of pictures and poems. Our local example is the Colston Hall, named (but not for much longer) after the philanthropist and member of parliament – who was also a slave trader. But pulling down statues, changing names, I’ve always been uneasy with, preferring less ignorance to more. If it’s really news that human beings do both good and bad things and that people in earlier historical periods seem, from our perspective, to have done more bad things than good, then add plaques and placards, pile on the contextual information, enlighten, educate.

When it comes to policing reading – then no, I have a more definite line and it’s not a complex question. I’ve had my share of people rolling their eyes at my reading Ezra Pound. ‘How can you–?’ Well, I’d think, with a good deal of effort and concentration, reference works and, frankly, cribs of various kinds. But that may not be what they meant.

It’s okay for me to read absolutely anything and anyone I want to since, being an adult, I can make up my own mind about such matters. I don’t read modern literature for political pointers or an ethical framework or tips on manners. And, alas, perhaps a hangover from younger days, any suggestion that it might not be ‘ok’ to read certain authors sends me straight back to them, most recently Philip Roth, whom I’ve been rereading in the Library of America edition. Whenever I don’t read Roth for a while, I forget how funny he is. Today, I enjoyed again The Anatomy Lesson’s Dr Kotler, formerly of Newark, now living in retirement in New York, detailing his current activities to Nathan Zuckerman in the bank queue, beginning with his study of Rembrandt’s masterpieces, ‘a foot at a time’:

Anatomy-Lesson-DrNicolaesTulp

(Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp: Mauritshuis, The Hague)

‘Also studying Holy Scriptures. Delving into all the translations. Amazing what’s in there. Yet the writing I don’t like. The Jews in the Bible were always involved in highly dramatic moments, but they never learned to write good drama. Not like the Greeks, in my estimation. The Greeks heard a sneeze and they took off. The sneezer becomes the hero, the one who reported the sneeze becomes the messenger, the ones who overheard the sneeze, they became the chorus. Lots of pity, lots of terror, lots of cliff-hanging and suspense. You don’t get that with the Jews in the Bible. There it’s all round-the-clock negotiation with God.’

The ones who overheard the sneeze becoming the chorus. Yes, a pretty neat summary of Greek drama, I thought.

Perhaps one more: ‘Life and art are distinct, thought Zuckerman; what could be clearer? Yet the distinction is wholly elusive. That writing is an act of imagination seems to perplex and infuriate everyone.’

In a world of perplexed and infuriated people, imaginative writing may not be the only culprit, of course.