We can thank Chaucer, apparently, for the convention of the feast day of St. Valentine being a day for lovers.
The name Valentine belongs to several early Christian martyrs, including one who was apprehended for performing marriages.
But the first reference to the feast day of one of these saints being a day for match-making comes from Chaucer, who wrote the following in his poem The Parlement of Foules (The Parliament of Fowls):
For this was on seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make,
Of every kynde that men thynke may,
And that so huge a noyse gan they make
That erthe, and eyr, and tre, and every lake
So ful was, that unethe there was space
For me to stonde, so was ful al the place.
Amid the huge “noyse” that Hallmark and others will make on St. Valentine’s Day, with restaurants so “ful” that you might need to “stonde” a while at the bar, may the day be felicitous one for you, and may you “chese a make” (and perhaps eek maken meloyde) with “ful devout corage.”
I’m finally reading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (the Gregory Hays translation). I was struck by this passage:
Not to be sidetracked by my interest in rhetoric. Not to write treatises on abstract questions, or deliver moralizing little sermons, or compose imaginary descriptions of The Simple Life or The Man Who Lives Only for Others. (p. 6)
Some themes were cliches two thousand years ago, and a wise man knew not to indulge in them.
The English language died today after a free-lancer described creating a bookmark in an eBook as “personalizing your navigation experience.” The language, which had been ailing for a long time, was in particularly weakened state, owning to a heavy diet of snarling bloviations from the GOP primary.
Upon succumbing to this attack, English was seen staggering from a midtown address, clutching its heart. It collapsed on the sidewalk minutes later, while concerned passersby texted, “Shoulda skipped the fries LOL” and “Faceplant FTW!”
The language will be replaced by a pastiche of jingoism, platitudes, and slang, which to most readers will be indistinguishable from English in its recent years.
Laura Miller has written an insightful post about the problem of appreciating books that have been written by cads, scoundrels, or worse. Literary history has given us plenty of opportunities to come to grips with this problem. Miller mentions Dickens, Naipaul, Eliot, and Pound, but the list, God knows, is much longer than that.
Miller’s post reminded me of something the critic Neil Cross had written years ago, and after a little searching I found it buried in a footnote to Chapter 1 of The Turgikov Correspondence, the potboiler Cross wrote under great duress in the fall of 1992 in order to maintain his tenuous teaching post at Swivens College. His defense of Heidegger was typical of those times. His defense of de Man was as fervent here as it was in his other writings, and it strikes me now as a little shrill. One could accuse him of reductio ad absurdum. And his argument rests upon evaluating theorems, rather than subject matter as inherently ambiguous as fiction. Nonetheless, the chopping action of his logic might serve to clear away a few weeds . . . .
Here’s the bulk of the footnote.
Paul de Man, who eluded received ideas as nimbly as he eluded received offspring, knew all too well how tenuous the connections are between writing and life. For those who cared to read his work, he put the point bluntly: “Considerations of the actual and historical existence of writers are a waste of time from a critical viewpoint. These regressive stage can only reveal an emptiness of which the writer himself is well aware when he begins to write” (Blindness and Insight, p. 35).
And yet it is rare to read an analysis of a text, particularly a so-called literary text, that does not present some statement concerning the author’s life and suggest that it applies to the text. These analyses make the meaning (or, rather, the possible meanings) of the text contingent upon biographical details. But should we judge the truth of a text according to the biography of the author? Does any action on the part of a math professor render his theorems more or less true? His propositions are autonomous; at least, in relation to his life. Their value and validity should be determined in their context: mathematics. Similarly, the propositions of critics (such as de Man) and philosophers (such as Heidegger) should be judged in their proper contexts. Farias’ error begins where his analysis begins: “In studying the genesis of any philosopher’s thought, we can hardly doubt that the setting of his birth and early life will provide an important element” (p. 11). Any philosophy worthy of its name derives from reflection, not reduction. (Of course, as Derrida reminds us in Of Grammatology, we have only texts; the question of examining a “life” per se, rather than simply another text, is specious.)
But, for the sake of argument, let us suppose that in evaluating a text, we do consider the events—that is, the morally charged events—of a writer’s life. And let us suppose that we discover, to our alarm, that the author of a text we admire had, during the same hours he had written this text, beaten his wife. Everyone would condemn one of these acts (the beating), but many would also come to condemn the other (the writing), because they would consider it tainted. (Here, a text is identified as act, that is, with its having been written, just as a blow is identified with its having been delivered.) They would denigrate the book because it was written by a wife-beater, just as many today condemn Blindness and Insight because of Le Soir. (Incidentally, do any of de Man’s detractors still enjoy reading Pound?)
And yet if all actions tainted each other so directly, our culture could not have a concept of hypocrisy, for hypocrisy is the committing of one act independently of the committing of another. And the worse the act that is committed, we say, the greater the hypocrite—that is, the more ironic and pronounced is the independence of the two actions. (The patron of the children’s hospital who returns home from a fund-raising gala and beats his child is a greater hypocrite, according to common judgment, than a similar patron who returns home and is merely indifferent to his child.)
Now let us suppose that one action really could taint another. Then, to evaluate a book, we must consider all the morally charged actions (that is, the actions that may be considered good or bad) of the author’s life. If an author’s life is unknownas is the case with anonymous texts—or little known—as is the case with authors such as Sophocles and Shakespeare—the reader must withhold all judgment. So right away this logic requires that a significant portion, perhaps the majority, of texts never be judged.
Even if an author’s life is known, it is cannot be known well enough for this kind of study. No biographer could honestly claim to have surveyed all the morally charged actions of another person’s life. Even if one could amass this knowledge, it would surely take a monumental effort to sift through it and reach a conclusion every time one read a text, even a text as short as a sonnet, a couplet, or a maxim. In practical terms, this requirement is absurd.
(And, faced with a multiplication of biographical middenheaps, it would be impossible to read anything written by a committee—but that is perhaps already the case.)
Finally, if an otherwise blameless text can be condemned on the basis of its origin, then any otherwise blameless result can be condemned on the same basis. No virtuous act can be praised, because a vicious act may have tainted it.
This logic quickly reaches an aporia and begins to back up like a clogged drain. It requires that a love poem written by a philanderer be condemned because of the philandering–but then it cannot condemn the philandering, because it must suspend all judgment. But if all judgment is suspended, what is wrong with the philandering? And we cannot condemn the philandering, how can we condemn the poem because of the philandering?
But why should we assume that immoral acts irrevocably taint moral ones? Why can’t the love poem taint (imbue) the philandering with its goodness? What drive to censure underlies this insistence that an immoral blot cannot be cleansed? Suppose this progress of contamination and decay paused, changed, and reversed direction?
This confusion vanishes if one simply separates the life of the text from (the text of) the life of the author. Recognizing that actions can be judged separately allows one to praise fund-raising for hospitals, condemn wife-beating, and enjoy War and Peace without worrying about Tolstoy raping his serfs.
Note bene: To recognize the autonomy of a text is not to posit its immunity. Any philosophical text that promotes evil and oppression should be thoroughly condemned. But the text itself must be found to bear this taint. It is illogical, inconsistent, and immoral to suggest that text of a philosopher is baleful simply because its author taught at a German university under the Nazis, while the texts of math professors and physicists, who taught at the same place under the same conditions, remain aseptically valid.
Another kind of biographical confusion frequently appears in discussions of novels. This is the confusion of cause and effect, the search for a biographical cause for an artistic effect. A simple example should suffice; later, this book will provide one.
Clearly a text from the time of the culture wars. You can fairly hear the shouting in the trenches of the untenured. Or am I succumbing to the biographical impulse?
Ultimately, I agree with Miller: authors, like all people, are a mix of good and bad, and so are their books. Cherish the good things, shun the bad, learn from it all, and avoid idolatry.
(But I can imagine Neil Cross quibbling with each of these terms.)
It is a fine thing, after the rains have stopped, to let the dog run loose in the fields, and to wander along the woods and hear the birds calling back and forth, and to find, despite the downpour, the crab apple trees still towering white with blooms, and to feel the temperate sun, veiled in a gray sky, not harshly bright, just warm.
The times, they are a changin’. Ebooks technology doesn’t just replace paper with pixels; it creates new opportunities for publishing books that would be cost-prohibitive if published traditionally. The capital and labor costs for publishing ebooks range from small to miniscule, and distribution channels, such as Amazon.com, BN.com, and sites like Smashwords.com, are readily available. It’s no surprise, then, that specialty publishers are springing up to take advantage of this new economic model.
Case in point: C.M. Mayo, a writer and editor with several traditionally published books to her credit, has launched a new business called Dancing Chiva Literary Arts. This new business promises “Limited editions, ebooks, writing workshops, and more.”
I asked C.M. Mayo about Dancing Chiva and her future projects in all types of publishing.
JRB: What led you to start this new venture?
C.M. Mayo: I love making books. I love writing them more than I like making them, which is why, though it occurred to me many times, I did not start my own publishing firm. (About a decade ago, I did found a literary journal, Tameme, and from that, took some tough lessons in how much work it really is to edit, produce, distribute, and market a publication.) So why now? Because with the digital revolution, transaction costs have so fallen that everything changes.
I own the ebook rights to not all but several of my own books, and I don’t see that publishers are doing enough for me to make it worth my while to turn them over in exchange for some puny percentage. But more interestingly, in doing the research for Miraculous Air, my travel memoir of Baja California, and later, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, a novel about Mexico’s Second Empire, I came across several books and other shorter works that deserve to be published/republished and yet do not, under the old publishing modelpaper printing, distributor, bricks-and-mortar bookstoreshave the potential to cover their costs. Some of these are so old that copyright has expired, so for me, the cost of publishing is little more than formatting and uploading. Of course, I’ll add an introduction, images, and some other goodies. They will be scrumptious little books.
In sum, though traditional bookstores and publishers are certainly not dead, they are not playing the overshadowing role that they did. For the kind of publishing I want to doebooks and very small runs of signed editions (marbled paper, etc)I don’t need to pay for freight and a warehouse. I don’t need Ingram or Baker & Taylor. I don’t need bookstores. What I needand indeed haveis a website and a permission mailing lista base of customers who have provided their e-mail because they want to receive my newsletters with their announcements, special offers, and more. People can sign up here.
JRB: Ebook sales are rising dramatically in the U.S. Are ebooks becoming more popular in Mexico, too?
C.M. Mayo: No, but they will. I’ve been living in Mexico City for more than 20 years and what I’ve seen is that with so many things, from women in the workplace to using Facebook and Twitter, urban Mexico follows the U.S. but with a lag of a few years. That’s speeding up now: for example, already you can find many leading Mexican writers on Facebook and Twitter. Once ebooks get a good toe hold in the major citiesMexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey, Puebla, Querétaro, Merida, etc.I think things in the book business will change faster than you can whack a piñata. Further, already many English language readers living in Mexico are wedded to their Kindles.
JRB: I see that you support Kindle. Are you planning on supporting other ebook formats as well, such as EPUB, which can be read on NOOK and Adobe Readers?
C.M. Mayo: Dancing Chiva will offer ebooks in all major formats.
JRB: Do you plan to continue publishing English books in paper through traditional publishers?
C.M. Mayo: Yes, because with their expertise and scale, they can do things I do not aim to do with Dancing Chiva. As I said, much as I love making books, I prefer writing them; for this reason, Dancing Chiva is intentionally small scale at the level of administration and marketing. And I have to say, I have been very happy with my publishers, Whereabouts Press, Unbridled Books and, in Mexico, Grijalbo Random House Mondadori, especially. They certainly know how to get the books in the bookstores.
JRB: One of the forthcoming ebooks mentioned on your site is “My Memories of Maximilian.” Who was Marie de la Fère, and what is her memoir about?
C.M. Mayo: The historian Robert Ryal Miller mentioned this rare manuscript, a circa 1910 English language handwritten eyewitness memoir of Maximilian, in a letter to me some years ago. He had found it at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, and was preparing an edited and annotated version for publication. Alas, Miller died in 2004 without, as far as I know, having published it. I have not seen what Miller wrote, I am sad to say, for I understand he had identified the author who was using, as I too, immediately suspected, a nom de plume. When I visited the Bancroft as part of my own research for my novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, I dutifully looked up this manuscript. I was glad I did, for, among so many other things, it gave me insight into the strong feelings of the monarchists and Maximilian’s character. After Miller’s death, as I felt this memoir deserved more readers than we intrepid few who have eyes for microfiches, I wrote to the Bancroft for permission to reprint it. The Dancing Chiva ebook, which will include an introduction and more, will be available later this year.
JRB: You describe your workshops as focusing on “nuts and bolts.” As a writer, do you find that most obstacles can be overcome through a practical approacha matter of applying the right technique? I wonder if you see young writers getting lost in more abstract ideas about inspiration and capital w Writing?
C.M. Mayo: Most writers and would-be writers are plagued by anxiety, which makes perfect sense, for writing is a public act; it invites praise but also attack. (I don’t worry about attack; but that’s another subject.) Learning the techniques of fiction– a never-ending process– has two benefits. First, it improves the quality, vividness, and general readability of your writing; second, it armors your confidence and so allays anxiety. As for abstract ideas, that is the purview of the so-called English Department with which, as a working artist, I have little truck. Bless them, may they all get tenure! And one day include my works on their syllabi!
JRB: What’s behind the name Dancing Chiva?
C.M. Mayo: In the hallway into my office, I have an antique painting of a gypsy dancing with a little white goat. I was wondering what to call my company when I happened to glance at the little goatchiva (female goat in Spanish). It’s a play on Dancing Shiva, the representation of the cosmic dance of the Hindu god (no disrespect intended), and very apt, for, to me, making books is a kind of happy little dance.
C.M. Mayo is a long-time resident of Mexico City and the author of several widely-lauded works on Mexico, including the novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire (Unbridled Books), which was selected as a Library Journal Best Book of 2009. An avid translator, she has also edited the bilingual literary journal Tameme and Tameme chapbook series, as well as a collection of 24 contemporary Mexican literary works, Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (Whereabouts Press). Read more about C.M. Mayo’s travel writing, fiction, literary translation, and many awards at www.cmmayo.com.
From a work in progress. Professor Neil Cross of Swivens College, Heideggerian and deconstructionist, was exiled in 1992 to a writers’ colony in remote Alaska, where he was ordered by his department chairman to produce a novel. Sitting in a cold, cramped cabin, he contemplated his surroundings and wrote the following:
The chair I am sitting in is a wooden folding contraption without arms. It seems sturdy enough to support me, but it wobbles and creaks the instant I shift my weight.
How different from the reading chair back in my office at Swivens! Designed by a small artisans’ collective on the Left Bank who took their inspiration from the ball turrets in World War II bombers, that chair lets me swivel, pitch, and roll in any direction. Its frame, with its gently swooping arms and wire mesh backing, is made of brushed alloy of stainless steel prized for both obdurateness and flexibility, while its compact metal basewhich appears at a glance to be an conventional assembly of connecting rods and gears with braces extending out to the wheelsconceals a complex system of balances, gyroscopes, and swinging counterweights that enable this improbably small structure to support great displacements of weight. For I can lean back in that chair until my head is grazing the floor; I can tilt sideways, reading a book and sipping coffee, with my torso parallel to the ground, startling colleagues and eliciting the occasional shriek; I can pitch in any direction at all with the complete reassurance that my bottom will never leave the chair’s comfortably padded seat. (When the chair was new, I made use of a thin black harness, which I fastened discreetly about my waist, but after a few days of practice, I came to dispense with this precaution entirely.)
Reading in this chair, one learns to float as comfortably as a truant schoolboy swinging in a tree; one feels the giddy glee of a skull rushing through the empyrean, awash in a mad swirl of colors and sensations: blue sky, green grass, this text, that reference, sudden abyss. Lost in the vertigo of reading, one intuits a secret communion with junior astronauts encountering weightlessness for the first time in jets that rise and plunge above the clouds. To release one’s hands from the wall’s metal braces requires both courage and carelessness; the instructions one has read over and over become a sting of meaningless symbols, themselves hovering, and then one realizes that one is hovering like themfrom this lapse of pedestrian cognition, a letting go, and a few seconds of weightlessness. Within days, one is floating freely about the cabin like a sated amphibian, pushing off from one wall and propelling oneself to the other, spinning, somersaulting, joking with one’s friends and slapping their backs as they passmerry tumblers in a void. Such is the feeling of freedom and weightlessness I get from my reading chair. I can pass the entire day in it, poring over texts and penning new criticism without ever occupying the same position twice.
How earthbound, how single-track, this fiction-writing chair seems by comparison! It is fit only for country schoolteachers and librarians. Simple and plain, it will do for the instruction of grammar, for the locating of Grant’s Tomb on a colorful map, for a pious recitation of the Gettysburg Address, and then, in the calm of the evening hours, for the crafting a simple memoir replete with “true feelings.” Its one trick is to fold up and disappear.
And this is my chair for now, my position in the world!
Today we celebrate the feast of St. Patrick, the 5th century missionary who cleared the Emerald Isle of snakes and kept it clear until the hedge fund managers arrived in the 90’s.
On this day, children across America are taught about shamrocks, leprechauns, rainbows, and the color green. In other words, they’re taught about nothing of any importance when it comes to Ireland, Irish culture, or the contributions of Irish-Americans. Which is a shame.
I don’t so much mind all the attention that’s paid to leprechauns, so long as when it comes to discussing German culture, the teacher spends most of her time talking about poltergeists.
But enough about figments. It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and it’s a fine occasion to savor deeper things. Guinness is fine, as is cranking “The Pogues” or “Flogging Molly” on your stereo, or getting together with your sensitive guitar-playing friend to croon Yeats’ “Sallie Gardens,” but if you’re interested in exploring other areas of Irish culture, here are a few suggestions.
I’m a big fan of Irish fiddle music. A couple of my favorite fiddlers are Tommy Peoples (try his album, Waiting for a Call) and Martin Hayes (try Martin Hayes/Dennis Cahill Live in Seattle). If you’d like to explore the history of Irish fiddle music further, track down a two-CD set called Michael Gorman: The Sligo Champion. Gorman was an important fiddler and composer, and you can hear some traditional fiddling and singing from the first half of the 20th century before non-traditional techniques like vibrato became so prevalent.
Annie Dunne by Sebastian Barry is a haunting and lyrical book about an old woman living with her cousin in a cottage in the Irish countryside. Her children come to visit her. Has their father committed an unspeakable crime? Barry tells us, but he’s sly, and you might miss the clue if you don’t read carefully.
Another family, another shameful secret from the past, and another very good book. Anne Enright won the Man Booker Prize for The Gathering, her story of a woman who uncovers the hidden story of her family. Her brother Liam has drowned himself, her mother is fading into dementia. The writing is vivid without being purple:
I walk to the far counter and pick up the kettle, but when I go to fill it, the cuff of my coat catches on the running tap and the sleeve fills with water. I shake out my hand, and then my arm, and when the kittle is filled and plugged in I take off my coat, pulling the wet sleeve inside out and slapping it in the air. My mother looks at this strange scene, as if it reminds her of something. Then she starts forward to where her tablets are pooled in a saucer, on the near counter. She takes them, one after the other, with the flaccid absent-mindedness of the tongue. She lifts her chin and swallows them dry while I rub my wet arm with my hand, and then run my damp hand through my hair.
What an admixture of senses: the daughter’s damp hand, the mother’s dry throat, the pills pooled in a saucer. Notice how Enright uses commas more to pace the action than to convey logical connections. She’s a musical writer. It’s a moving, beautifully written book.
I heard Eamon Grennan read his poems at a local boarding school several years ago, and I’ve been a fan of his writing ever since. I particularly like his book, The Quick of It, which contains poems that catch the essence of what they’re describing in only 10 lines. Here’s a sample:
While you’re gazing in the mirror all the names change.
It will be all right, you’ve said, when push comes to shove
And the snow’s sheer mortal diamond will have left us
Its legacy of watergallop and what-have-you: it will be, then,
A question of reflection, not this heartlessness of lightbreak,
Horrid jag-edge of show.
Take, for instance, this morning:
Beneath the ice-clamp of Casperkill Creek you saw clear water
Run into its own life against the odds, making (the way things
Will) a fresh startjust as a raucous, high-minded, truth-telling
Matter-of-fact congregation of crows comes tumbling.
Finally, a suggestion for quenching your thirst, because if you’re reading by a fire, or in an overheated bus, or under heavy bedcovers, or in a dusty room, or a drafty hallway, or on a weekday evening after a long day’s work, or on your day off, you might get thirsty. Tonight all sorts of people are sampling Guinness or Jameson’s or Bushmills, and that’s fine. But my suggestion? A light, grassy Irish single malt called Knappogue Castle. I learned of it several years ago from a review Eric Asimov wrote of Irish single malts for the New York Times. If you enjoy single malts, but want to stay away from anything heavy or peaty, Knappogue Castle is an excellent choice.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
One more suggestion. If you’re looking for a good survey of Irish literature, check out Ireland: A Traveler’s Literary Companion from Whereabouts Press. It features short stories from all over Ireland. There’s also an introduction by the editor, James McElroy of UC Davis.
He started showing up late for chapters. Scenes would lurch into action without any preamble. Gorgeous or bleak scenery out the window went unremarked. Situations, histories, rivalries, marriages went unexplained.
The characters, missing his cue, became reticent, unsure of when to begin or how, but eventually, out of necessity, they learned to start without him and then, once started, to carry on, completing things a different way. (A few hardy souls came to prefer this newfound freedom. They discovered the confused magic of improvisation.)
Other times he showed up right on time but he made little mistakes. He might repeat information, for example, gumming things up and slowing the pace. Or he changed the names of characters. The characters themselves didn’t seem to notice, greetings were exchanged as usual, plotlines flowed as expected, but now Lily was Lola, and two chapters later the Frenchman Pierre was an Englishman named Peter.
Very late in the book, the unreliable narrator disappeared altogether.
“It’s bad enough having no God,” purred one of the women, a jaded woman who had earned a Ph.D. studying literature and philosophy, “but no God-like point-of-view, even someone omniscient enough to know how all this ends? Who knows what to pay attention to?”
Where was this guy? Moonlighting? Working two books? Three? Seven? Hundreds?
To answer that question would require a narrator for the narrator. “It’s turtles all the way down,” one of the characters remarked.
The woman with the Ph.D. nodded and set down her drink. Damn, she wanted a smoke. She stared hard at Peter, or was it Pierre, and wondered if he had a cigarette.
And he met her gazehow?
We’ll never know. “I’ve been thinking about horses,” he said.
From time to time in this blog, I’ll comment on a line or two of prose I find particularly pleasing or intriguing.
In his novel Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann offers us the following portrait of a painter in Munich during World War I:
Over the years, the apartment grew more beautiful still, or at least more crowded and color, for Dr. Institoris was a friend of several of those Munich artists associated with the more sober Glass Palace school (his artistic taste being rather tame despite theoretical advocacy of glittering violence), in particular of a certain Nottebohm—a native of Hamburg, a married man, gaunt-cheeked, goateed, and droll, with an amusing talent for imitating actors, animals, musical instruments, and professors; a pillar of those carnival balls that now, to be sure, were on the wane; a man adept at the social technique of ensnaring his subjects and, I may say, an inferior, all-too-smooth painter. (p. 346, John E. Woods translation)
I particularly like the order in which Mann lists Nottebohm’s imitations. We seem to be working down a sliding scale of consciousness—actors, animals, musical instruments—and then—boom!—like a kettledrum going off we get the word “professors.” It makes Nottebohm’s impression of professors seem all the more mincing and ridiculous. The line is much funnier than if Mann had begun with professors, which might have been a more logical choice. But Mann is deft. He doesn’t overlook this opportunity for a bit a carnival humor and a way to enliven his description of this all-too-smooth painter.