Slouching towards Bedlam

JOAN DIDION

Joan Didion via The Paris Review. The Review‘s 1978 interview with Didion is available here: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3439/joan-didion-the-art-of-fiction-no-71-joan-didion

I was struck by an exchange in the recently printed Guardian interview with the BBC journalist and news presenter Clive Myrie:

You’ve worked all over the world. Which posting do you have the fondest memories of?
Being based in Los Angeles during the Clinton years. The USA, pre-9/11, was a much more carefree place and the Clinton White House was incredible to cover. Because I was based in Los Angeles, I wasn’t just covering hard news; I covered Central America, hurricanes in Honduras, the Oscars, three times, so there was a breadth of story-telling. Strangely enough, I would say America is the most alien place I have ever reported from. I think we have far more in common with northern Europeans than we will ever have with Americans.
https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/dec/03/clive-myrie-bbc-should-be-treasured-interview-bbc-yemen

Yes, that, ‘strangely enough’ and ‘the most alien place’. Recently, in the wake of President Trump’s offensive response to Theresa May’s characteristically restrained criticism of his irresponsible re-tweeting of extremist videos, a number of British politicians and commentators are finally interrogating the lazy platitudes surrounding ‘the special relationship’. It has dawned on some people that the relationship was always rather more ‘special’ in one direction than in the other.

In the United Kingdom, we watch a great deal of American film and television; some of us read a lot of American literature; and the language we speak is, in some regards, broadly similar. And yes, apart from my US cultural consumption, I have American friends and acquaintances. I even follow, with increasingly appalled fascination, American politics. But I also never quite lose that sense of distance, of strangeness, of great stretches of material never touched on, better left aside and not embarked upon. Two continents separated by divergent categories of insupportable weirdness, perhaps.

I recall Guy Davenport recounting a visit to Ezra Pound, when the latter was confined in St Elizabeths Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Washington. Pound had given Davenport a book by Leo Frobenius and asked how he was travelling. Learning that he was returning home by train, Pound reversed the dust jacket so that the title would be invisible to those likely to be ‘driven to fury that learning was being freely transported about the Republic.’ Having himself been born in Anderson, South Carolina, Davenport merely commented that ‘Southerners take a certain amount of unhinged reality for granted’.[1] And ‘unhinged’, yes, seems to be le mot juste, a fracturing of defences, a throwing open of doors to disorder and worse—much worse, as we see now.

(Leo Frobenius; Ezra Pound)

I’ve unsettled myself in an American context several times this year—I mean, apart from reading or watching the news in stark disbelief that such behaviour and such pronouncements can be tolerated in a Western democracy. What else has unsettled me? The Raoul Peck documentary, centring on James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, for one, mostly in the yawning space of time between now and then set against the—in many ways—pitiful progress made since the events that the film deals with. Then the ten-part documentary series on The Vietnam War, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: the political duplicity and deceitfulness, the casualness of the decision-making that doomed hundreds of thousands to unnecessary deaths, decisions in which the Vietnamese civilians weighed nothing at all, a blueprint for much that followed.

Tallent

On the printed page, in various ways and to varying degrees: rereading Flannery O’Connor, though I note her comment that, ‘of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.’[2] Catching up on other titles, I finally read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which I was already embarked upon when O’Brien cropped up in the Burns/Novick series; and A. M. Homes’ Music for Torching. Of newer books, Mary Gaitskill’s book of stories, Don’t Cry, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and, perhaps in particular, Gabriel Tallent’s risky, brave and disturbing novel, My Absolute Darling.

And then, noting that today is Joan Didion’s eighty-third birthday, I should mention South and West: From a Notebook, dating to the summer of 1970 and largely comprising material for a piece on the South that was never written. I’ve just read this book, and also watched the documentary, The Center Cannot Hold, directed by Didion’s nephew, Griffin Dunne, currently available on Netflix, a film which will, of course, send me back to reread Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album.

Didion has long been admired for her prose style and her ability to write the history of her time through the medium of the essay, as David Hare remarks in Dunne’s documentary. I know people who have always resisted her work, largely on political grounds—a child of conservative Republicans parents, she apparently voted for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election but would subsequently describe, in Political Fictions, ‘the abduction of American democracy’.[3] The political pieces that she gravitated towards, with the encouragement of Robert Silvers at The New York Review of Books, including Salvador, ‘Sentimental Journeys’, about the notorious trial and conviction of the five black boys accused of the rape of a white woman jogging through Central Park, and ‘Cheney: The Fatal Touch’, complicate that picture.

South-and-West

There are details and comments in South and West that seem to connect with the present time with startling directness, as if by underground cable. In Biloxi, Didion noted: ‘[t]he isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold. All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down.’ And, ‘[i]t occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken. Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?’[4]

In Alabama, she sees signs supporting George Wallace’s campaign: he would serve two consecutive terms as governor from 1971-1979. The thought occurs to Didion that ‘the reason Wallace has never troubled me is that he is a totally explicable phenomenon.’[5] That question of explicability came up several times in Naomi Klein’s recent book. Looking back at some of the destructive trends that she’d researched over many years, she observed that, as she began to research Donald Trump, ‘he started to seem like Frankenstein’s monster, sewn together out the body parts of all these and many other dangerous trends.’ She added that, though Trump ‘breaks the mold in some ways, his shock tactics follow a script, one familiar from other countries that have had rapid changes imposed under the cover of crisis.’[6]

Joan Didion was also struck by ‘[t]he time warp: the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.’[7] As Nathaniel Rich observes, ‘An unquestioned premise among those who live in American cities with international airports has been, for more than half a century now, that Enlightenment values would in time become conventional wisdom. Some fought for this future to come sooner. Others waited patiently. But nobody seemed to believe that it would never arrive.’ In such a view, he adds, ‘the past’ can in many ways be relegated to the ‘aesthetic realm’.[8] But, evidently, it is not safely dead: in fact, a great many people have never left it.

Not, of course, that such symptoms are confined to the United States. Alas.

References

[1] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 174-175.

[2] Flannery O’Connor, ‘The Grotesque in Southern Fiction’, in Collected Works, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Library of America, 1988), 815.

[3] John Leonard, ‘Introduction’ to Joan Didion, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (New York: Knopf, 2006), vx.

[4] Didion, South and West: From a Notebook, foreword by Nathaniel Rich (London: 4th Estate, 2017), 34, 55.

[5] South and West, 71.

[6] Naomi Klein, No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics (London: Allen Lane, 2017), 2.

[7] South and West, 104.

[8] Rich, ‘Foreword’, South and West, xviii.

 

 

 

 

August and blackberrying

Orpen, William, 1878-1931; Harvest

William Orpen, Harvest (1918), © Imperial War Museum.
The ambiguities of autumn enlarged: war and peace, life and death.

August. High summer, though you’d hardly know it as the rainclouds roll over the house and the showers come and go. The first day of August, in fact. Lammas, hlafmaesse, ‘loaf-mass’. First fruits, harvest. Hurry into your local church with the bread and the wheat.[1] ‘After Lammas corn ripens as much by night as by day.’[2]

The harvest (a word related in origin to ‘autumn’) has been, is still, quite literally a matter of life and death for a great many people. It’s been a rich source for the horror genre too, both on the screen and on the page (Stephen King, Thomas Tryon, The Harvest, Dark Harvest, Blood Harvest, and more, no doubt). And it has its visionary or mystical moments. Poet and playwright Ronald Duncan, a pacifist, ran a co-operative farm in Devon during the Second World War. He recalled of an August day in 1940 that, ‘Binding up these sheaves of oats, 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.’[3]

West-Mill-Welcombe-Devon

West Mill, Welcombe, Devon: http://www.literaryplaces.co.uk/?p=147

‘Standing there in the morning happiness,’ T. H. White recalled, ‘with a saffron sky in the east and the moon in the south-west still lemon yellow, beside a field where the harvest had already begun, one saw in the mind’s eye the imaginary lines all over England: the roads coming up macadamized to the invisible threads, and going on as stone, the ditches suddenly changing from cut to uncut, the parishes and territories and neighbours’ landmarks: all slept at peace now, all this beautiful achievement of cooperation and forethought among our fathers who were at peace also, in dust.’[4]

Light-in-August-US-1932

Over the years, William Faulkner’s 1932 novel, Light in August provoked a good deal of discussion over the meaning of its title. Lena Grove is heavily pregnant at the novel’s opening and Faulkner was once asked at the University of Virginia whether his title did indeed refer to a ‘colloquialism for the completion of a pregnancy’. He said no, it was to do with the peculiar quality of light in that month.[5] In his biography of Faulkner, Joseph Blotner tells of the novelist sitting with his wife Estelle in the late afternoon. ‘“Bill,” she said, “does it ever seem to you that the light in August is different from any other time of the year?”’ In this account, Faulkner goes directly to his worktable, crosses out his working title for the novel, ‘Dark House’ and replaces it with ‘Light in August’. It has to be said, though, that Faulkner was largely responsible for the later uncertainty over the ‘meaning’ of his title.[6]

This morning, I noticed a tiny stain on the shoulder of the shirt I wore yesterday: blackberry juice. We’d been wading in among the brambles and nettles for the second time in a few days. Blackberrying is ‘the one almost universal act of foraging to survive in our industrialised island’, Richard Mabey writes.[7] The country in the city, so to speak. We pick them on a path which certainly isn’t hidden. There’s a fair amount of traffic but only by foot and bicycle—there’s no motor traffic nearby which is the main consideration, since we object to being poisoned. Still, it’s odd that quite a few passers-by seem baffled by what we’re doing and hurry their children past. (‘What are they doing, mummy?’ ‘Picking delicious free food, dear, I’ve no idea why.’) Blackberry and apple crumble: even the words taste good.

Gash, Walter Bonner, 1869-1928; Two Girls Picking Blackberries*

Walter Bonner Gash, Two Girls Picking Blackberries
© Alfred East Art Gallery Permanent Collection

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking.

The speaker in Heaney’s poem recalls how quickly the blackberries would rot. ‘Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.’[8]

Blackberries

And we have thorn pricks, nettle stings, stained hands. Still—two and a half kilos of blackberries in the freezer. Kilos! What am I saying? That may be a little too foreign for these troubled time. Say five and a half pounds, avoirdupois—but there I go again. . .

I have, though, called to mind a story that Ford Madox Ford told, which seems to me to hint at why some people chose the option that they did in last year’s referendum (and perhaps in more than one election since). Ford was, for a brief time, working on a small farm on the outskirts of Philadelphia. His employer eventually hired another worker, which released Ford from his labours. He was stopping up a wasp’s nest one day, while the hired man was on the roof, fixing the shingles.

I heard him call:
“I’m coming down now.”
I said: “Wait while I fetch a ladder.” When I came back he was lying on the ground.
He said: “I’ve bruck me leg.”
I said: “What did you jump for?”
He answered: “Wal, I thought I’d see.”[9]

 

References

[1] Steve Roud, The English Year: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Nation’s Customs and Festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 260-261.

[2] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 315.

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

[4] T. H. White, The Goshawk (1951; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975), 39.

[5] Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 375.

[6] Joseph Blotner, William Faulkner : A Biography, two volumes (London: Chatto & Windus, 1974), I, 702 and ‘Notes’, 102.

[7] Richard Mabey, Flora Britannica (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996), 183.

[8] Seamus Heaney, ‘Blackberry-Picking’, Death of a Naturalist (1966; London: Faber and Faber, 2006), 8.

[9] Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 166-167.

Cultivating our garden

Pots

We are cultivating our garden—at least, my wife is. Watering, deadheading, repotting, composting. A small space, containing less than a dozen pots. Nevertheless, whether window-box or rolling acres, a garden is, both practically and symbolically, an almost inexhaustible resource.

Gardens

‘When Voltaire ends Candide with the famous declaration “Il faut cultiver notre jardin,” the garden in question must be viewed against the background of the wars, pestilence, and natural disasters evoked by the novel’, Robert Pogue Harrison writes. ‘The emphasis on cultivation is essential. It is because we are thrown into history that we must cultivate our garden.’[1]

Indeed. It’s striking that two of the most interesting museums in London, the Garden Museum and the Imperial War Museum, are physically so close, a very manageable walk apart.

Garden.Museum2

(Garden Museum, Lambeth, London)

Harrison’s book is an examination of the many ways gardens evoke the human condition, from the ancient world to the homeless people in contemporary New York. Throughout history, the garden has served as a check against the destruction and losses of history. In  the ancient world, gardens were associated with self-cultivation and self-improvement, both essential to serenity and enlightenment, and the association has endured.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.[2]

The garden can be read and understood as this tiny, immediate space—and also as the city, the nation, the planet we inhabit. From the tiny to the immense and back again. That Latin root, colere, means both to till (to tend, to care for) and to worship. ‘Cultivate’ and ‘culture’ are not merely neighbouring words in the dictionary: to civilise. Civis, citizen. Caring for the citizens—all of them, not just a carefully selected few.

Edward Fitzgerald, translator of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and champion letter writer, certainly saw gardens in terms of art, of the cultivated. ‘I am quite sure gardens should be formal and unlike general Nature’, he wrote to Frederick Tennyson (elder brother of Alfred). ‘I much prefer the old French and Dutch gardens to what are called the English.’[3]

Samuel Johnson used the sense in which the garden, as domestic setting, may be contrasted with the agricultural one, to comment on an incident in which Methodist students were expelled from Oxford for constantly praying in public: ‘Sir, I believe they might be good beings; but they were not fit to be in the University of Oxford. A cow is a very good animal in the field; but we turn her out of a garden.’[4]

IWN_film_poster copy

(Film poster for the new documentary on Ford, directed by Paul Lewis and Ryan Poe)

Ford Madox Ford, himself a smallholder and accomplished gardener, often used gardening metaphors. He alluded once to his concern, not for the commercial novelist but for ‘a queer, not easily defined fellow. To him writing has the aspects of an art. One’s art is a small enclosed garden within whose high walls one moves administering certain manures and certain treatments in order to get certain effects. One thinks that people ought to like these effects, say of saxifrages against granite.’ He never tired of experimenting with potatoes. ‘Of, say, fifty different plants by the end of 1922 I had succeeded in selecting nine that seemed to be reasonably new varieties and two that apparently resisted all the diseases they were likely to meet.’[5]

Curiously, by the end of 1922, Ford had published just over fifty books.

 

References

[1] Harrison, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), x.

[2] Andrew Marvell, ‘The Garden’, in The Complete Poems edited by Elizabeth Story Donno (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985), 101.

[3] The Letters of Edward Fitzgerald, edited by Alfred McKinley Terhune and Annabelle Burdick Terhune, four volumes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), II, 56.

[4] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 490.

[5] Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 108.