A Sitting Target of Evil

May 28, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

The first day is really fun. The ten, sitting in a circle, take their turns telling a story. The stories build upon each other, suggested by the theme or characters or setting of the previous. At the conclusion of the first day Filomena, named queen of the second day, declares a theme for the stories of the next day so they can each prepare a tale, so the very pleasant looseness of this first day might not be repeated. (However, I love that Dioneo, who told the dirtiest story of the first day, receives an exception from the theme should he choose to use it, and also volunteers to tell the last story of each day.)

Many of the stories deal with corrupt clergy in one way or another — Boccaccio’s humanism showing — and the most memorable line of the first day is probably this, from Filostrato’s introduction to his story, the seventh: “It is not unduly difficult, for anyone so inclined, to discuss, criticize and admonish the clergy for their foul and corrupt way of life, which in many ways resembles a sitting target of evil.” Catholic clergy remain easy targets: I’m reminded of that scene with the priests and nun in the restaurant in The Departed, which is utterly crass and cliche. (But then, like so much in that movie, it’s also strangely perfect in its telegraphing of the antiquated themes of societal corruption.)

Boccaccio has no qualms whatsoever about hitting that target, it’s already clear, but it’s also clear that he’s got bigger fish to fry. After the stories are done, the day ends with a good old-fashioned bathtime orgy, then song and dance after dinner. Emilia sings a bizarre song: it begins, “In mine own beauty take I such delight/ That to no other love could I/ My fond affections plight.” It gets much more narcissistic from there, and Boccaccio does tell us that “this little song caused not a few to ponder its meaning,” but “they all joined cheerfully in the choruses.” The lyrics are quite beautiful, and mysterious, and really do create this incredible image of a beautiful woman singing them in firelight; and this combination of joy and happiness with darkness and uneasiness is quite a master note, at the end of the first day.

For the Ladies

May 26, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

Boccaccio’s preface seems remarkable. The main thing most people (self included) know about the Decameron is that it’s bawdy; but the preface is a remarkably subtle, perhaps ironic, discussion of love lost, won, represented.

I’m reading the 1972 translation by G.H. McWilliam; his introduction focuses on how badly the work has been translated in the past. This does little to soothe the great torture of reading translated literature, the monolingual reader’s insecurity about the quality of the translation: how much do I trust word choice? To what degree do I infer meaning based on sentence structure, tone, or vocabulary? To what degree is the meaning of the words I read match the original author’s intention? Nevertheless, I must say that the language so far seems remarkably fluid, beautiful, and interesting.

The very first sentence of the preface surprised me, and overturned my expectations: “To take pity on people in distress is a human quality which every man and woman should possess, but it is especially requisite in those who have once needed comfort, and found it in others.” Boccaccio goes on to explain that he received comfort from many others as he had experienced a love “far loftier and nobler than might perhaps be thought proper.” The love was, apparently, only from afar or perhaps just never declared (although the passage seems intentionally cryptic, in a lovely way); Boccaccio has passed through the painful stages of longing for it to the time when he can think back on his passion with nostalgia, “the delectable feeling which Love habitually reserves for those who refrain from venturing too far upon its deepest waters.”

Boccaccio goes on to explain that, in gratitude for the support he received, he intends his work to provide support in kind for those who most need (and will most appreciate) it. Therefore, he dedicates his work to “the charming ladies.” But not all ladies: only “those who are in love.” He says he wants ladies to read his book for advice as well as entertainment. By “in love” he clearly refers to the kind of passion he, himself, partook in and overcame: a physical, unrealistic love, I suppose. He refers to it as an “affliction” which can be overcome by reading the following stories, to discover what should be avoided in love, and what appreciated. Just as remarkable as the first sentence of the preface is the last: “If this [ladies being freed from the affliction of their love] should happen (and may God grant that it should), let them give thanks to Love, which, in freeing me from its bonds, has granted me the power of making provision for their pleasures.”

Give thanks to Love for torturing Boccaccio, so they can be freed from Love? For making him pass through a purgation of his lust to reach the point when he can pleasantly look back on his infatuation? It’s tempting to see this as an ironic, jesting statement, and, in retrospect, to see the entire preface as ironic (how, indeed, was he “helped” to overcome his unrequited love?): is Boccaccio saying that, no matter what he may write in his dedication to throw the Church’s censors off his scent, the book to follow will celebrate carnal love?

In the introduction we are introduced to the background of plague-ridden Florence in 1348, and the theme of pity and compassion for the dead and dying resurfaces, Boccaccio lamenting the lack of it among the citizenry inured to the sights of corpses, even of their own relatives. And then we are introduced to the group of ten — seven women, three men, all respectable and wealthy, all having lost many relatives to the plague. They decide to flee the city. Boccaccio had earlier said that many “callously maintained that there was no better or more efficacious remedy against a plague than to run away from it.” What are we to think of these young merry-makers? What are we to make of their palace on a hill, two miles outside of Florence, and their plans to shut out the world entirely, leaving their troubles and the world’s behind for a utopian society in which each of them will lead the group for one day?

Odin’s Revenge

May 24, 2008 § 1 Comment

Just finished: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

One last brief note on Gibbon’s book. I was happy to find a glancing reference to one of my favorite passages in the whole work in the final chapter. Early in the work (chapter ten), Gibbon speculates on the origins of the Goths, and of the Nordic religion. He proposes that “we can easily distinguish [in the Edda] two persons confounded under the name of Odin — the god of war, and the great legislator of Scandinavia.” Things get really fun after that: Gibbon speculates that, if a real, human Odin had existed, he may have been the chief of a tribe dwelling near the Black Sea, until Roman troops approached. I have to quote directly from him after that:

It is supposed… that Odin, yielding with indignant fury to a power which he was unable to resist, conducted his tribe from the frontiers of the Asiatic Sarmatia into Sweden, with the great design of forming, in that inaccessible retreat of freedom, a religion and a people which, in some remote age, might be subservient to his immortal revenge; when his invincible Goths, armed with martial fanaticism, should issue in swarms from the neighbourhood of the Polar circle, to chastise the oppressors of mankind.

A real-life Odin creating the dark, bloody Nordic religion and ethos as a way to, eventually, avenge his expulsion from his native lands by the Romans! A flight this fanciful is fairly uncharacteristic of Gibbon, and it carried him away, I think, just as it did me; he clarifies in a long footnote that the story “might supply the noble groundwork for an Epic Poem, [but] cannot safely be received as authentic history.”

His book took up so much of his life — twenty years — that Gibbon had plenty of time to reconsider his earlier writing. Anyone who loves this book loves Gibbon’s last chapter, probably the best known part of the whole work, in which he discusses the causes for the ruins of Rome’s ancient buildings. He takes the opportunity to downplay the damage done to Rome by the Goths and Vandals, and in a very loosely connected footnote his embarrassment at his earlier theory is palpable: “I take this opportunity of declaring that in the course of twelve years I have forgotten, or renounced, the flight of Odin from Azoph to Sweden, which I never very seriously believed. The Goths are apparently Germans…”

Nevertheless, it’s one hell of a theory, and it would, indeed, make a great epic poem, were people still writing such things.

Gibbon’s Golden Key

May 18, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon.

I have been reading this a couple of pages at a time, before bed and sometimes with breakfast, for five years or so. Finally I’m nearing the end, and sprinting to the finish.

Gibbon is a fascinating, brilliant, infuriating, meticulous companion. He is unapologetically dismissive, even contemptuous, of Catholicism, and by and large of religion in general. He pines for the time of the Roman senators, imagining it the last period of great cultural sophistication and republican purity and meritocratic governance combined with military rigor. He combines objective standards of good government and conduct (often defending and even extolling Muslim leaders and culture) with wildly subjective, speculative claims about motivations and chains of events that “must have” led to documented occurrences.

Since I’m obviously enamored of the footnote, let me say that Gibbon is one of the foremost cultivators of the form. The footnotes are copious, diverse, and (sometimes) entertaining. He uses them to document his sources (Gibbon seems to have read, heard of, or dismissed nearly everything on his subjects), but also, sometimes, to comment on his text and insert his most acerbic, cynical, or controversial claims. A lot of his sneers at Christianity and the corruption of Catholic clergy appears in the footnotes. Sometimes he just uses them to point out interesting sidelights like the use of a historical incident in Shakespeare; sometimes he just wants to digress but not sidetrack his main text. (Of course, if you’re obsessive about reading or at least skimming everything on the page like I am, you can’t help but glance to the footnote and thereby get sidetracked anyway, if it’s more than simple documentation, which it almost always is.)

Gibbon’s style carries over to the footnotes; he has the same erudite, mannered, windy, elliptical style in them as in his main text, which is one reason they take up so much damn space. The man is the king of the semicolon, a derided punctuation I happen to love and partake in freely. Nearly any contemporary author would break his semicoloned sentence-paragraphs into three, four, five, however many separate sentences, but Gibbon partook of the idea that a sentence is the unit for completing a thought, a paragraph is the unit for discussing an idea, a chapter is the unit for covering a topic. Gibbon’s thoughts and ideas are nothing if not complex and detailed. Hence a sentence is hardly ever less than fifty words, a paragraph is typically a page or two. His chapters will speed ahead for hundreds of years only to loop back in the next, simply because he’s laying out an argument, showing the relevance of history to his current situation, delineating the paths history took in one area or another, Enlightening.

I love his style, basically. His semicolons create these gorgeous little visual breaths in a ways that those ugly periods cannot, never will: periods are always the end of something (even ellipses can’t quite accomplish the same thing as semicolons, which create a particular rhythm and space for thought that other punctuation cannot duplicate). Yes, many of his sentences are run-ons, but they’re run-ons to a purpose, run-ons in the way our thoughts run on.

And perhaps nothing speaks for Gibbon’s style like Gibbon himself, in his discussion of the survival of the ancient Greek language at Constantinople and its revival in Renaissance Italy:

In their lowest servitude and depression, the subjects of the Byzantine throne were still possessed of a golden key that could unlock the treasures of antiquity; of a musical and prolific language, that gives a soul to the objects of sense and a body to the abstractions of philosophy….

In the sack of Constantinople, the French, and even the Venetians, had despised and destroyed the works of Lysippus and Homer; the monuments of art may be annihilated by a single blow; but the immortal mind is renewed and multiplied by the copies of the pen; and such copies it was the ambition of Petrarch and his friends to possess and understand. The arms of the Turks undoubtedly pressed the flight of the Muses: yet we may tremble at the thought that Greece might have been overwhelmed, with her schools and libraries, before Europe had emerged from the deluge of barbarism; that the seeds of science might have been scattered by the winds, before the Italian soil was prepared for their cultivation.

The man is terribly saddened, even enraged, by the irrevocable loss of works of art and science due to greedy wars, religious “fanaticism,” incompetent leadership. His work is so massive, detailed, digressive, encyclopedic, and meticulous because he wants nothing lost; he wants the valuable studied and cherished, the charlatans exposed and dismissed, the improvement of this world valued above preparation for a potential next world. He saw his work as another notch on that golden key.

The Dream of Total Recall

May 12, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Art of Memory and The State of Constraint: New Work by Oulipo (part of McSweeney’s Issue 22).

Reading next: Boccaccio’s Decameron.

Even an intellectual historian like Yates, writing in the 1960s, had computers on the brain. A couple of times she mentions these “electric brains” as examples of the contemporary relevance of her research. And I was reminded of this in her final chapters, as she discusses the ways in which memory systems diverged into esoteric arts, in which “memory” became a kind of synonym for “imagination” and “knowledge of divinity,” and new sciences, like Leibniz’s invention of calculus.

It seems kind of hackneyed, by now, to talk about how technology has become embued with religious meaning. Doesn’t make it any less true. And the ways in which the art of memory blended art and science certainly do seem similar. Memory remains what’s behind it all, right? And we expect our newest mnemonic systems to help us cultivate both the art of memory and the science of memory. To an extent Yates probably didn’t expect, we anticipate an organizing and retrieving system for all knowledge, all information. Our collective conceptions of our new art and science of memory certainly partake of some characteristics of a Hermetic art, expected to help us unleash our hidden potential for divinity (or at least ability to connect to divinity), while also functioning as a coolly Aristotelian system of objective data retrieval. Like everything, those statements have elements of truth, elements of fiction.

To approach this from another angle: Oulipo is all about connecting science and art (mathematics and literature, to be specific), and Anne F. Garreta’s essay “On Bookselves” provides some thoroughly eccentric, non-traditional, illogical “principles” for organizing her personal library. My favorite is Principle #8, separating “homebound books” and “nomadic books,” then further dividing “books bought on one side or the other” of a given river, “books that have crossed an ocean at least once,” “books you missed, cruelly, one night at 3 a.m. because they had remained on the other side of the ocean,” etc. The quirkiness of these principles, she explains, is precisely the point:

-Could we order the outside world, the world of objectivity (real books) following patterns residing in our minds, the patterns according to which phantom books reside in our minds?

-You’d be out of your mind.

-Could we escape our misery by simply swallowing a computer and turning our minds into subsets of the Library of Congress Catalog?

-You’d be out of a mind.

Exactly: to leave all the systematizing work of memory to technology is to deprive ourselves of our selves.

The Theatre of the Closed Book

May 10, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Art of Memory.

Frances Yates had this theory, okay? And it seems to have been a bee in her bonnet. I can imagine her attempting to explain it, in the necessary deep detail, to acquaintances at cocktail parties, who’ve shown a polite interest in her esoteric project. It involves Shakespeare in a tangential way, so of course it’s interesting. But like so many other attempted reconstructions of his life and times, it is wildly circumstantial, a theory built on great stretches of the imagination and wild postulations of four-hundred-years dead peoples’ associations, readings, motivations. It’s cool, but kind of unbelievable.

As Yates herself says, to take this theory out of the context of her book on the development of the art of memory from classical rhetorical skill to occult Renaissance ritual for approaching divinity is to make it seem… kind of incomprehensible. But here are the basics. The English philosopher and mystic Robert Fludd developed a memory system, building on the systems of Giordano Bruno and Giulio Camillo. Actually, Fludd describes two arts of memory: the “round art,” similar to Bruno’s occult use of astrology and images symbolizing the zodiac, and the “square art,” more like the medieval system of using images of “corporeal things” like men and animals placed in memory rooms.

Like much of the discussion in this book on the Hermetic Renaissance philosophers, Yates’s discussion of Fludd is based somewhat on conjecture, because so much of what they wrote seems (to us, at least) willfully obscure, as if withholding a secret or writing only for the initiated, a secret cabal. But she seems right in saying that Fludd proposes to combine these two arts, and to do so in rooms which Fludd calls “theatres.” Engravings of such theatres are included in the second volume of his gigantic work Utriusque Cosmi Maioris Scilicet et Minoris… (1619). Fludd does seem to say, at one point, that he intends his art to be done using “real” places, not imaginary ones (like the grand imagined cathedrals of medieval memory I speculated on in an earlier post).

Therefore, Yates believes Fludd’s theatre engravings are based on actual theatres — or, to be more specific, the stages of actual theatres. Through a torturous series of associations, she convinces herself that Fludd has given us an image of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. I don’t really buy it, although it’s a really cool theory and you can tell how excited she was by the idea. At least the theatre-rooms Fludd included in his work do seem to give us some sense of how an Elizabethan and Jacobean stage might have looked (assuming the engraver, probably a German, was given adequate instructions).

But the really fascinating part of Yates’s argument is what she extrapolates from the physical layout of Fludd’s book. On two facing pages there are engravings of the zodiac symbols and spheres of the planets (a round image), and Fludd’s main theatre-room (thought by Yates to be an image of the Globe). (See both images here, figs. 25 and 26, a little over halfway down the page. Sorry, I struck out looking for a better image of the full pages.) If you know your Elizabethan stage history, you know that the ceiling covering the rear part of the stage is thought to have been painted with an image of the night sky, or other representations of the stars, and was called “the heavens.” Drawing on this tradition, Yates speculates that the position of the two engravings is meaningful: when the book is closed, the round image of the heavens will cover or be on top of the square image of the stage, just as the heavens of the stage cover the lower realm where most of the action took place. The round and square arts of memory are thereby combined, just as the position at which some scenes took place in Shakespeare’s plays can be meaningful and symbolic — think of Prospero in the Tempest, appearing ‘above’ in one scene: the magus, his superior knowledge keeping him above the fray of human foibles.

I can’t remember seeing the position of text and image in a work used in this way before. That the position of the text when unread could be important! Great idea, and I love the symbolism, and it is certainly tempting to think about the influences the Hermetic ideas going around in England at the time might have had on Shakespeare and the Kings’ Men and James I himself (to whom Fludd dedicated the first part of his book). Speculation, but fun speculation.

The Whale Collection

May 5, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Wet Collection.

Do yourself a favor and find this book. Many of us are brainwashed into thinking that small- or independent-press collections must be twee or regional or otherwise lesser, in one important way or another. ‘Tain’t always so, or even often so. This book is proof. It’s damn good.

Of course, this book happens to scratch one of my major itches. Tevis and I share a deep fondness for Melville. There’s only one overt reference to him here, but the book is (dare I say) Melvillean, in his Mardi and Moby-Dick style: digressive, allusive, concerned equally with the outer world of natural history, human history, religion, and the inner world of relationship, psychology, religion again, making the time to make important points you don’t quite notice until you’ve made a connection dozens of pages later. (Another alternate title for M-D: The Whale Collection.)

“Barefoot in a Borrowed Corset” is one of my favorites. It involves footnotes, in a good way. It pulls together stories about spelunking, Da Vinci, the Eucharist, the Old Testament leper Naaman, Crater Lake, and an underwater town in South Carolina. (The interplay of the very dry — the Last Supper fresco, leprous skin — and the very wet — bathing in deep lakes, watery towns — runs through the whole collection, and is used to great effect here.) But then there’s the footnotes, used here in an almost DFWian way, to create another layer of narrative, largely about the author, and about the construction of the story.

That story is largely one of armchair adventuring, the vicarious and allusive life most of us live. The first footnote, after the section-title “Spelunking”: “After reading, in a borrowed house, a stranger’s National Geographic.” And then the experience of spelunking is compared to insomnia, awake in a dark house, coming to grips with living with another person. Reference is later made to a “cave tour.” And later, there’s an extremely tangential reference to FDR, obviously one of the author’s personal heroes. His Civilian Conservation Corps recurs throughout this book: blazing trails, building cabins, creating parks and dams and roads. I suspect many nature books would heap scorn on this kind of work, cleaning and distancing and colonizing nature.  Tevis seems to consider it one of the great projects of the twentieth century, and genuinely appreciates the vantage points the work of those Depressed workers has given her on the land, the country, the world.

This would all make Mr. Melville smile, I think, the mixture here of lived experience and mediated experience and experience of others’ experience.  Oh, he sailed the seas, but then he cribbed so much of what inspired him from the books he voyaged in, as well, and from other adventurers’ stories. He took what he needed and was concerned with the deeper truth he saw in it, not primarily its supposed “authenticity.”

Anyway, this is a dangerous strategy: are you mythologizing or aggrandizing mundane life? Are you making specious, superficial, fragmented demands on decontextualized narratives? Are you, most important, boring me with your life? I think this story (and this book) avoids those pitfalls. So much here is about orientation: the self on the earth, the individual to the history, the human in nature. The wanderer to home. Way back when, we learned that the author wanted to “live a biblical life” (note that lower-case b) and a “prophetic life in conjunction with another.” Religion is very important throughout; the simmering Christianity of the South is all over this book, the relationship of earth to deity; but God does not seem nearly as important to Tevis as his cast of characters, and the lyrical words his prophets were inspired to write.

Bedrock concerns, all. The balance in the prose and the narrative between the colloquial and the heightened (pseudo-biblical) seems right, here. I don’t know: it’s silly to parse these things, sometimes. We’re talking art here. It works or it doesn’t. Here it works.

Cornellian Fictions

May 3, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Wet Collection and Lunar Follies, by Gilbert Sorrentino.

Who doesn’t love Joseph Cornell? There’s something in his art that appeals to seemingly everyone. I suppose it’s partly that his work is just so ambiguously evocative that you can read just about anything into it; partly the toylike nature of his constructions, irresistible in their moving parts and mysterious rules; partly the deep veins of sadness and joy running through his work. Maybe there are Cornell haters out there; I haven’t met them.

TWC sports a picture of a Cornell box on its dust jacket. (Writers and Book Designers of the World, I can more or less guarantee that choosing such an image for your next project will guarantee you bookstore browsing time from yours truly.) Aside from just looking awful purdy, this choice dovetails very nicely with the construction of the collection as a whole: the title, the jacket, and the content (most of all) all lead you to see this book as a coherent construction made of disparate parts — a Cornellian box of specimens (natural historical, personal memory, social historical, etc.) There are all kinds of interesting ways the book works as this kind of construction; memoir here is much more than pretending you were once in a gang, and fiction is much more than ripping off some “true story.” But I digress.

“Ave Maria Grotto” was the first story that made me think of Cornell in its content, rather than in its form. It’s an imagining of the life of Joseph Zoettl, a real-life Benedictine monk in Alabama who created models of buildings (some religious, some not) out of found and donated “junk.” (More interesting echoes of The Art of Memory here, with its construction of memory palaces.) It’s a lovely story, and two passages stand out for me: “There could be no truly worthless thing; perhaps, he thought, it was a problem of transposing something into its next place of service.” And then, at the end, this interesting twist on Biblical exegesis:

Perhaps he thought, as he worked, of that old verse in Jeremiah: What has straw in common with wheat? Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks rock in pieces? Then it fit; he understood. Only what’s broken can fully be used. Nothing too humble; nothing too good.

The grace in everyday objects and quotidian memories, the importance of seeing the value in the used and broken as well as the rare and valuable, the hermetic (borderline creepy) devotion to work on a deeply personal, somewhat mystical art: these are Cornellian. Interestingly, the orientation Tevis displays toward her craft also seems to bear some resemblance to Cornell. He was always combining autobiography and fantasy, seeming to contain a bottomless well of nostalgia for things that he’d never known or knew only slightly. Dreams, daydreams, occurrences, relationships, world events: he used them all, he seemed to sense how they fit together.

So that’s one kind of Cornellian fiction. Another is displayed by Gilbert Sorrentino, in the book I’ve been reading before bed. This book, Lunar Follies, is wild, man. We’re talking short-short representations of art-gallery shows, performance art pieces, Joycean word associations, with each piece named after a feature of the moon. “Copernicus” is the Cornell piece, subtitled “A Collage.” It’s the longest in the book, eight pages. It’s a hell of a story, managing to combine Cornell’s obsessions with hotels, the stars, pop-culture stars, ballet, mythology, nobility, toys and games, and surrealism. He does so playfully, working the titles of and associations in Cornell’s art into a phantasmagoric surrealist story which highlights the overheated sexual longing running through so much of Cornell’s work. This is a dream-story: connections bounce off of one another, spinning a yarn that you can never quite unravel, once you’re done spinning it. There’s a great section on “Black Hunter, a version of the Korean board game of great antiquity, Box with Corks and Other Corks,” with mystical, obscure gameplay and rules: “It had reached that moment of transformation called Central Park carousel pavilion, a critical juncture that always nullified the effects of the aggressive gambit, American Gothic casement, even when that move was followed by the spectacular night sky and window facade.”

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