Saturday, May 14, 2011

The LTA Suite i

There are so many faces in streets and bars and buses and stores that remind one of Original Sin, so few that carry permanently the sign of Original Innocence .. 

Most of us only see resemblances, every situation has been met before, but [some see] only differences, like a wine-taster who can detect the most elusive flavour.

On a short holiday this weekend, I borrow from my library Graham Greene's delicious honeymoon romp, Loser Takes All, and find recurring references he never did attach before, to my notice - on wine, its relevances and the foibles of its followers. Here I admire how he shifts the ground of almost pathological discern-ment (the antitheses he poses, being so extreme) to the sympathetic standard of the senses and the sensual, with a lingering note of oppression. He was very, very good at this; belovedly dangerous, always.

Graham Greene
Loser Takes All
William Heinemann Ltd, 1955©
Penguin Books, 1971©

A. Brunier
S. Salomon

Saturday commute xxvi: the cuff

Not intended as a residence, the eating club nevertheless had some rooms where an undergraduate might reside, as well as its section of guest rooms for ladies, before the era of co-education. (Is that still going on?) A was a Canadian student of theatre, and much admired. He resided at the club in order to position his wardrobe at one of the alternating centers of his experience (we never knew what the other one was). It was here, he explained, that he could don his reading trousers, and not distract any of us in his walking trousers. Yet his creative work did fall between these stools, with merry detachment from their scruples.

I think we all sensed that A would not be tak-ing his degree with us; his thesis on 'response and anti-response in Shakespeare' was pretty advanced for our place back then. But we will never forget hearing him propound it to us by the fire in the club library, in his dressing gown. 

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Not so wild a dream iii

Readers of this page may be assured that several of its more disagreable entries have yet to appear. There is time, even now, to go out for popcorn; today's tale is quite mundane. A Mongolian lady engineer wrote in to the Times - part, evidently, of a continuing series - on how she resolved the dilemma of whether to matriculate at Dartmouth College or Princeton. Some 250 years after Mr Madison arrived at the latter college with his slave, Jennings, it was remarkable to hear that the social conditions of the place seemed to give the lady pause. Some reputations are harder to transform than Richard Nixon's, it seems; sad news for us all.

In the end, she finds she is willing to risk herself on Princeton, she tells us, to get her degree fast, hot, and tasty. So had Madison, for that matter, skipping a year but then lingering another, under the mentorship of Dr Witherspoon. Who knows what course her venture may take? An impressive command of purpose infuses her calculations at this time, but so had they for Madison, whose absence from Montpelier was not helpful to its flourishing. But that she takes it as a given, that there may be two Princetons in that other, tiresome and legendary sense, is fascinating to discover in an engineering student, whose regimen is the most neo-monastic in its concentration and isolation, of any at the college. For this, career-driven mission, she sounds fully ready; yet she has her mind on the wrong duality.

She has been misguidance-counseled to adopt the idea of using the place, as opposed to using the time. To the first temptation, any of the colleges on her list would be only too lavishly responsive. But to exploit the time, all of the better ones are diffident, because their ultimate resource is their people, with whom it is within her power to form the most constructive relationships she has ever known - or not. These manifest purposes of the college experience are not, like degrees, products to be vended off the shelf, and they do not yield to demand. If she has to go to Princeton to discover this, one only hopes she does.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Not so wild a dream ii

confirm the Omen, Heav'n,
And long preserve the blessings
thou hast giv'n

Henry Purcell
Welcome, glorious morn
  Ode for the birthday of Queen Mary
Rogers Covey-Crump, tenor
Robert King, director and harpsichord
The King's Consort
Hyperion, 1991©

Not so wild a dream

Broadcasting from France was finished for me .. I could join the caravan of neutrals already making for the Spanish border and Lisbon and listen to their endless postmortems ..; or I could go to England. We knew, somehow, without inquiring, that England would continue to fight. 

I thought I had reasoned myself away from all youthful feelings of kinship with England, but now England seemed intimate, understandable, and terribly important.

Eric Sevareid
Not So Wild a Dream
Knopf, 1946©

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

This white city

 San Francisco Blues
Written in a rocking chair
 In the Cameo Hotel
  San Francisco Skid row
  Nineteen Fifty Four.

This pretty white city
On the other side of the country
 Will no longer be
 Available to me
 I saw heaven move
  Said "This is the End"
  Because I was tired
  of all that portend.

  And any time you need

    I'll be at the other
      at the final hall

Jack Kerouac
Book of Blues
  San Francisco Blues
  80th Chorus
Penguin, 1995©

When in doubt, discuss fashion

The other day, an estimable author invited suggestions of topics for a blogoscript whose unfurling opulence had seemed to hit a snag. I write to praise the consensus for fashion's genius for making experts of us all, in terms of such passing transience that no one will be held to account tomorrow, for what he'd say today. Never mind, how fashion allows things to be said for which there is no warrant in truth or discretion; or, rather, do mind that fashion lets us start a war, for example, by stylings on a subject lending favour to aggression surreptitiously, and by appeal to sensibilities too often undefended. We hear, there are two new "memoirs" from U.S. Navy SEALs.

When Virginia Woolf speaks

Pick a face to lie to. I offer you this one, sight heretofore unseen, because it would defeat my intention. Pick one, if you like, which might advance your own. Now, lie to him. Embellish your blandishments with oaths upon the souls of your grand-children, if you're a Corleone, or with casuistries spun from Salic Law, if you're a priest in Henry V. Dangle justice if a Don, Burgundy if a monk, and let the blood of thousands rinse equivocation from resolve with novel, grave commitments to the fallen. You have just set all the youth of England ablaze, and driven the United States into perdition. But what's a bit of heat, for pleasure's sake?

We'll be back to this paradigm of governing because of its notable sang froid in the face of what we take to be a treasurable resource. It wasn't our idea, it was Virginia Woolf's, in her aphorism against summoning historians, to give our reading hour its due. She said it was the imagination's job to make itself timeless and plain, and we accept that sobering ukase as people used to listen to E.F. Hutton. But here is our capital, and so our task is two-fold: to see what price the market will give us for it these days, and to conserve it as well as we can. Appreciation and dividends will take care of themselves, beyond our dreams.

William Shakespeare
Henry V
  I, ii, 1-220
J.H. Walter, editor
The Arden Edition of the Works
  of William Shakespeare
Methuen & Co., 1954

Monday, May 9, 2011

Dressing to be alone

I'd venture to suppose that the occas-ion must be seen to be so rare, that any oversight of its character in the marketing of fashion must be a func-tion of that dreariest of presump-tions, that we are subject to a law of supply and demand. Otherwise, we should expect to be seeing panorama of surpassing wit in couture, for one of the more privileged states of existence - the luxuriant consciousness of being alone. The motorcyclist, the surfer, the cowboy, the scholar with his tomes and the keeper with his bees - fortunate tangents all, from our roiling sphere of social compulsion - are clothed well enough for their conduct but how derisorily, for their passion.

Yet even these few occupations, resonant of Virgil, Kerouac and Rechy alike, are distributed so broadly if discontinuously among us, that one would think the distinction would be famous, between the morning stretch by the pool in Los Angeles and the after-noon stroll down Melrose, in search of Kevin. Taking nothing away from that custom, much less from its fruition, we indulge a moment's speculation to recall the perfection of composure to be extracted from possession of one's life. It is then that the defaults of our couturiers hang heaviest about our form, in contradictory outcry of a preference we have flown. In so few further mo-ments, we'll be embroiled in the berserk again, and yield them back our body for their pains.

Meanwhile, the countryside's young scholar wants his reading coat in red, a bodice splashed in blue to celebrate the lowered head, and wear and tear of climbing trees to ventilate the knees, the wraithlike waist lent silver to withstand a sudden breeze. But how many of us can reasonably count on this solicitude to our specifications, from the urban haberdasheries to which most of us are relegated? Who will clothe us for our surfing flight from coastal congestion, not to be seen but to enrich achievement of solitude? When will couture accept that estate as one of arrival, rather than escape?

Yet we came to this inquiry not to debase the commerce chosen by our fellow man, but to inspire some spirited response to that possibly most elevated tier of couture's focus in the first place, our accession to the rank of being singular. Who would not trade a few snapshots of his last moments of peace before a ball, for a rising in couture to the occasion of shaving? Is there really any reason for that window of extravagance to have been locked so tight between the wrappings of a towel and the knotting of our tie, that no sympathetic attire could have been created for that interval of grace?

From the evidence adduced already, it seems the genius of couture is as compressed as all our other pursuits, by the propinquities of town life, and a little rustication would not be premature. As Addison remarks in his 19th Coverley Letter, My greatest difficulty in the Country is to find Sport, and in Town to choose it. Inertia of "the Chace" has captured couture, it seems, to a fare thee well, in the very vortex of solitude's highest valuation. Send us a mode for our best moments, we're tempted to bar-gain, and maybe you may watch.

Sir Joseph Addison
The Coverley Papers
  Letter XIX: A Summons to London
Addison and Sir Richard Steele,
The Spectator, 1711-1715
The Heritage Press, 1945©

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Fearlessly, or without batting an eye?

In revisiting Mrs Woolf on Joseph Addison, literally over the last few days, the persistent attractions of the very height of a Piedmont Spring struck one as the least awkward of all possible interventions. Whereas, Addison is a silver shooter of superlative finesse, it is grotesque to wring 10 pages of hers from their flux of subtlety with anything like the rake's progress. Interruption for contemplation is one of the few impositions her essays in The Common Reader (1925) share with her novels.

All one can reasonably do, to substantiate her judgments of Addison - armed as one may be, with Johnson's Life of him and most of what he wrote - she manages to do, herself. But that this should seem germane at all at a page such as this, substantiates merely a conception of hers, which all too often falls into the wrong hands. Lightly lamenting a recurrence of prejudices embedded in his time, she argues: it is always a misfortune to have to call in the services of any historian. A writer should give us direct certainty; explanations are so much water poured into the wine. 

A simple double-take reveals that Virginia Woolf is not denouncing historiography, but proposing possibly an oxymoron, the compleat essay on any matter of taste. Yet, far from throwing out a red herring, she offers this vision as a test imposed by a "condescending" reader. At some length, then, she anatomises Addison's gift for taste for the form, itself, in essays which she regards as "pure silver." In this judgment, with which I lack both the courage and any dearth of conviction to differ, she exemplifies the distinction between the idiom, without batting an eye, and fearlessly.

Addison exalts the unruffled elements of the idiom by embracing the unruffling aspects of discretion. She teases this pattern, so that the baggage of his time may fall out, to reach a conclusion fearlessly reviving the vitality of a genius entombed in the Abbey. It is a thrilling, unsettling experience, well fraught with disturbances of pure felicity, for any speaker of English to watch her coax perception from the seemingly impermeable grain of taste.

Virginia Woolf
  Times Literary Supplement
  June 19, 1919
The Common Reader
Harcourt, 1925©