Saturday, April 12, 2014

From this week's correspondence:

One friend sent me a note about the first day of spring in central Maine:
I had an ice cream cone in Newport before coming home.
Everyone was out. The weary old interstate stop felt like a festival.
The young guys with loud mufflers and sunglasses smoking cigarettes
with their arms hanging out the windows. The dirty snow, the pot holes,
all of it beautiful in the light of spring.
We survived . . . again.
Another friend sent me this quotation in response to Fulke Greville's poem about Sir Philip Sidney, which I posted earlier this week. (Zutphen is the battle where Sidney was killed.)
You might say that Greville was a Sidneuis Dimidiatus, or half-Sydney. That half, living on through the long years after Zutphen by itself, would easily become the Greville of the Treaties, the man who said, "I know the world and believe in God." But the commonplace words are in his mouth terrible: for they primarily mean the perpetual consciousness of an absolute gulf between the two, the incurable "oddes between the earth and skie."

        --C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century
A third friend sent me this note about my poem "Last Game" (in How the Crimes Happened).
I think I'm going to read it to my class to show them what parenting can feel like. They're 14, so they won't get it, but we're in the middle of reading Frankenstein, and the creature is just at the point where he's asking Victor to act even the slightest bit like a father (let alone like a god, whom he perhaps resembles a bit more closely . . . but that's my cynical side speaking). And 14 though they are, I'm sure that they won't be able to escape noticing the gap between the Harmony parents' instinct to "circle the wagons" and Victor's urge to flee. Thanks for that poem, and for your news from the north posts, and all that.
"The young guys with loud mufflers and sunglasses smoking cigarettes / with their arms hanging out the windows." "The incurable 'oddes between the earth and skie.'" The creature and Victor. "They're 14, so they won't get it." Such a glorious elegy in this richness--so many characters, readers, celebrants, and mourners: and all from two short emails and a quick Facebook message.

Yesterday evening, after dinner, I sat on the couch with the New York Review of Books and read Leo Carey's review of The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal, the grandmother of Edmund de Waal, who wrote The Hare with Amber Eyes, "a best-selling history of his Jewish banking family, and of the art they collected and lost to the Nazis." Like her grandson, Elisabeth was also a writer, a novelist with two books that were never published during her lifetime. One of them, The Exiles Return, has now been released; and while Carey writes sensitively about it, he concludes, regretfully, that it is severely flawed, not merely through "technical incompetence" but because of "a deeper confusion": for instance, among other struggles, she "cannot decide which viewpoint to inhabit."

I have not read the actual novel, only its review, so I have no way of knowing whether or not Carey's conclusions are accurate. But he does quote de Waal's own heartrending words about her failure as a writer:
I have always written, all my life, and have always striven to do so, and have always faltered on the way and hardly ever succeeded in getting published. . . . But I think I write in a rarefied atmosphere. I lack the common touch, it is all too finely distilled. I deal in essences the taste of which is too subtle to register on the tongue. It is the quintessence of experiences, not the experiences themselves.
I cannot decide whether her words are arrogant or blind or clear-eyed or humble. But no matter how I read the statement, they are extraordinarily sad. 


Christopher said...

Not all sad, no, I don't agree with that at all, Dawn.

What truly matters in any life is the living of it and not what's left behind -- which does us no good whatsoever, after all, particularly if we’ve been miserable being successful. For the vast majority of us there will be no trace left after our deaths but what we’ve added just by living. Indeed, I’d say that the more our ancestors have struggled to embrace “the quintessence of experience,” as Elizabeth de Waal calls it, the deeper the pool we later ones inherit. And surely that’s more like “bitter-sweet,” isn’t it, because only a fool believes only unmixed joy is of permanent value. In my own experience, and I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate, the joy of life has only deepened my capacity for regret, loneliness, and despair.

Writers who for one reason or another are unsuited to be heard in their own times deepen the pool even if we’ve never heard of them, as we almost didn’t hear of John Clare, Emily Dickinson, or your own wonderful Milly Jourdain.

Today we have almost no feeling for that “quintessence.” We’re conditioned to seize things and turn them into art that sells, indeed we even pay to be taught to write in order to get published. And what do we write just for ourselves, I want to know, or just to mail to each other?

“No ideas but in things” is most certainly not the whole story, I’m afraid, and fortunately we’ve been blessed with poets who have written “in a rarefied atmosphere” who have survived from the Pearl Poet to William Blake and on to an aesthete like Wallace Stevens.


Christopher Woodman said...

Forgive me for coming back in again like this, but so much of what I'm trying to say these days is incomprehensible even to myself. Had I had an edit button I would have come back in and either deleted what I said or, if I felt I could have, made it clearer.

The fact is that human beings have always wrestled with Elizabeth de Waal's dilemma, and the more fortunate they have been in life the more time they would have had to devote to a quest like hers. Most of the great empirical as well as philosophical work has been done in “rarefied” places like monasteries, fine houses and even palaces by well-educated monks, nuns, alchemists, courtiers, dilettantes and noble hermits, and the greatest risk to their success as well as to their personal well-being has always been despair: dissatisfaction, sloth, melancholy, what we call “depression” today, God forbid, but which until only very recently was recognized as the most formidable of all Guardians of the Threshold, acedia.

To suggest that Elizabeth de Waal could have gotten through this had she been a better writer is misleading – all of us who seek “the quintessence of experience” suffer this without exception, successful or not. Otherwise we’re children, or on drugs. And I know you know what I mean in your own fierce struggle, Dawn, which is why I dare to say it here.

It’s the human condition that’s “extraordinarily sad,” and for a writer this has very little to do with figuring out how to write well enough to get published. The really great human beings are those who stay awake and hopeful even in the face of silence.