Monday, March 30, 2009

Idealism and Realism: Clarified by Vasily Grossman

I recently upset a friend by writing that idealists have been responsible for many of history’s greatest disasters. “Thank God for idealists,” she replied. My words brought to her mind a choice between hidebound conservatives and optimistic, compassionate progressives; defenders of the status quo and reformers guided by a shining ideal. Maybe Natan Sharansky captured the difference when he noted that it would be unfair to criticize the inventor of the wheel for not having invented the pneumatic tire.

The idealist judges the existing order from the ideal rather than by its past progress or its ability to improve or the flexibility of its institutions. Idealists have often created havoc and suffering in proportion to the urgency and passion with which they insist the world measure up.

I do not contend that there is no safe dose of idealism, but history warns us that the world has been denied a lot of measurable and possible progress because politicians and political movements have chosen to pursue unachievable and often unworkable ideals. Few people have written so well about the dangers of idealism as Vasily Grossman. Here are passages from his huge novel about WWII,Life and Fate.

Whenever we see the dawn of an eternal good that will never be overcome by evil. . . . whenever we see this dawn, the blood of old people and children is always being shed.

I have seen people being annihilated in the name of an idea as good and fine and humane as the ideal of Christianity. I saw whole villages dying of hunger; I saw peasant children dying in the snows of Siberia; I saw trains bound for Siberia with hundreds and thousands of men and women from Moscow, Leningrad and every city in Russia -- men and women who had been declared enemies of a great and bright idea of social good. The idea was something fine and noble -- yet it killed without mercy, crippled the lives of others, and separated wives from husbands, and children from fathers.
. . .
and yet ordinary people bear love in their hearts, are naturally full of love and pity for any living thing. At the end of the day's work they prefer the warmth of the hearth to a bonfire in the public square.

From Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert Chandler. Vasily Grossman was born in Ukraine in 1905 and served as a war correspondent in the fiercest fighting between Soviet and German troops. The KGB confiscated what they thought were all copies of his novel.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Elmer Kelton Is More Than The Faulkner of Texas

Hate to say it but I wish novelist Elmer Kelton had not won the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America six times. Very few people know him except the readers of “westerns.” As Dee Brown, the author of best seller Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, said, “Elmer Kelton does not write Westerns. He writes fine novels set in the West.” I would add he deserves the same kind of wide recognition as Faulkner. (Another day I’ll muse on why being a Southern writer is a badge of honor while being a Western writer is a literary pigeon hole.)

Kelton’s genius is the same as Faulkner’s—the ability to see the big picture through a small frame, to see the full scope of human possibility in people few of us ever see. The difference between Faulkner and Kelton is that you don’t need an English professor to give you the illusion that you understand what he writes.

Like Faulkner at his clearest, a Kelton dialogue about some particular gritty routine can open bring into clear and personal focus an understanding of a big issue like the nature of freedom or the role of government or the duties of love without ever stepping out off a fast moving story.

Perhaps Kelton is widely read but seldom taught for two reasons. He doesn’t have a lot of the mumbo jumbo that professors like to play with, and he is not politically correct. A student recently sent me the reading list for an American studies course. It had filled its politically correct diversity quota by having a gay and lesbian writer, a couple of black and Latino writers, and a feminist. All minor writers and message writers rather than good story tellers. With such quotas to fill and given the mentality behind the quota many courses in American literature cannot find a place for anything that seems devoted to the old American icon, the Cowboy.

Suffice to say that Kelton’s Mexicans, women, and Indians struggle with and sometimes enjoy real lives rather than feeling sorry for themselves. They reveal the complexity of race and gender issues in a way only the characters necessary to a believable story can do. Enough said. Kelton speaks for himself and I recommend starting with The Time It Never Rained or The Good Old Boys.

“The way Hewey saw it, the Lord had purposely made every person different. He could not understand why so many people were determined to thwart the Lord’s work by making everyone the same.” The Good Old Boys , p. 52.

That same footloose cowboy tells his established farmer brother, “I can do anything I put my mind to.”
“And your back. . . You’ve never been lazy, Hewey. You could do anything be anything you wanted.”
“I am what I want to be.” , The Good Old Boys, p. 123

Today's link is to a seasonal poem by novelist Amy Belding Brown (Mr. Emerson's Wife):

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Eleventh Commandment: Listen

No one reads the "old school" poets much except as assignments or unless the poets are old enough to have the prestige of time and survival. Yet poetry accounts for the only commencement address I remember in its entirety, even though I was not at Harvard that year or ever, and still had a year to go before my own high school graduation. I offer this background to build on the previous blog about why no one remembers poetry. For me, my history with this poem suggests, real poetry is real memory.

The address was the Phi Beta Kappa poem written and read at Harvard's 1956 commencement by poet John Holmes. In the fall of my senior year in high school I clipped it from Harper's Magazine and still have it, probably because I still need the advice.

The Eleventh Commandment

When Moses came down from the mountain and the cloud,
He came alone down the rocks, and there alone a while,
The air above him empty and all still, he stood.
There had been trumpets in the fire, but he was whole.
He was Moses, older than old, remembering what he saw,
Saying to himself, a white light in his face,
What he must say to the people, remembering the law.

A man can live to an age that is outside age,
Where forgetting is forgotten, and remembering
Is the hand's motion turning an earlier page.
Nothing is unimportant there, and everything
Is written on one page or another of the book.
Whatever the old men need to know, they know
They have but to turn the pages, turn, and look.

Moses would say everything God had said to him
To the people waiting in the valley below to hear,
The cubits of the tabernacle he would build for them,
The cornering, the colors. But there was one more
Commandment more than ten. Only an auditor
Very old, an old man with Moses' many years,
Could know after the ten commandments one more.

He had been up there a long time hearing what he heard.
He had carried up there all he had ever known.
Now he must utter before and after God's word
What both knew. And shining, Moses went down.
He read from the tablet the last word: Listen.
Those who were to be the new world heard the law,
And Moses began again, with the first word: Listen.

Time passed (you can hear time passing) and men begat,
But not daughters with hearing, nor sons with ears.
Oh, a few musicians, and poets. But most forgot,
And the generations became lookers-at, and seers.
Lost, lost, all the shouts and the lovely saying.
Sound of the wind in olives. Birds, and children.
The shepherd's whistle, the priests at noon praying.

And we cannot hear now the ancient rivers in spring,
Because no one who listened wrote of the sound,
Nor of trumpets, nor the wordless songs girls sing
In their mothers' houses, nor wheels on the ground.
But there are trumpets in trees, and river-song.
Listen. The shiver of wind. The shoes of children.
Trees never stopped. Listen. Nor girls, for long.

A world-gale blows. He who has ears, let him hear.
Under the roof of the day our history moves,
Moving away in the corridors, or trampling near.
Memory murmurs in all the rooms. The sound lives.
Sound is a living thing. Life speaks to be heard.
At the windows it comes in, we are the openings
To the wind on us, over and over us poured.

Do not shut it out. You cannot shut it out.
Listen to the length of all life in one voice.
(But it is loud. But it is meaningless, ugly. But.)
Only the noisy make noise. The noisy like noise.
Noise is the most unremembered of all sound.
It forgets itself and is gone as soon as come.
You listen to the stillest voices of the mind.

You listen for the sounds that tell you time,
The lick and lock of a swung clock-pendulum,
The turning over in bed before dawn, the room
Breathing with the house, the electric hum
Coming on or clicking off, gurgling of water,
The traffic decrescendo, the shutting of doors,
The always sounds that only tell you it is later.

For their own sake, you hear the sound of tools.
A hammer on a nail is-a hammer on a nail.
Saws sound like saws. The rigor of steel rules
And levels is a grammar of meaning without fail.
Drills. Chisels. An axe-blade swung true
To the wood-grain, and the split stick dropped.
Tools doing what they tell you they can do.

The monuments of music, music's fountain
That falls lifting, the terraces toward sky
Lit or shadowed as clouds pass above a mountain,
We look long at. The ear becomes the eye,
Hearing the blue cliffs, and eye climbs
Those towers to their tops, comes to silence down,
And again ascends, and a hundred hundred times.

But strings, brass, drums are not music, nor a page.
The piano lives when hands strike music forth,
But is not music, nor theater voices on a stage,
Nor a command an action, nor a compass north.
There is no word unless a listener to the word
Hears it, and with all his branching blood hears,
And makes happen in space the thing he heard.

Who is the hero, then, the speaker-hero?
The maker of music, the stick that beats the drum?
No, the listener: the figure that makes a zero
The number ten, the one that dares be dumb.
A huge courage is needed for the college years,
Some in the professor, living by the mouth,
Infinitely more in a student, living by his ears.

Let us devise honors for this good listener,
Who, while the world and time were running away,
Stayed, in dependence, and without demur,
And lived, and is living to listen another day.
Praise the good listener, yet envy him.
He is that man who is all that he has heard.
One hopes no more than to be his homonym.

So he goes out to begin at being old,
At being another Moses, with time his aid,
He who will do the telling, not he who is told.
But even Moses the lawgiver listened to God.
Achieving wisdom, at whatever score and ten,
He talks less, and his face is a kind of shining,
And he listens to all that is said by all men.

He listens with Indian patience, wary, serene,
Amused, giving everything new its old name.
History is a picture changing from familiar scene
To scene, to one who listens beyond the frame.
He hears what the archeologists listen for,
That part of the story after the story's end,
The more that children ask when they ask for more.

The good listener is strong, the talker weak.
The talker talking drains away his strength.
It fills the listener to hear a speaker speak.
He is a calm always of the greater length,
Receiving the turbulence into his own peace
Where it sinks like a slow stone, and rests,
And the rings round where it plunged widen and cease.

The rings smile in silence, or seem to smile.
The listener waits for another stone to fall.
It falls, face-to-face, with or without style,
Or, high above him, flung at a great wall,
Our pulpit-toning, Parliament-thundering, long
Doubled and balanced dependent clauses hinged,
Verbed, Saxon-and-Roman-Englished on the tongue.

Or the ordinary, dear, silly, coded talk
Of a family, that though seven generations
Of bloods mingle, if a least child speak,
His cousins understand by his intonations.
Or as in married life: what is not said
Is what is said, and years ago, and guessed,
And ritualized, and heard inside the head.

Or the remarkable gabble of the vocaphile,
The trickle, spatter, rally, and rainy rush
When two meet after an absence for a little while
Who do not wish to be heard, but abhor a hush.
Yet never in rage think you to puncture the ear.
Though the crimes in the name of language done
Be dire, it is happier to hear than not hear.

It is not enough that one's own inner voice
Make of one's life a lifelong monotone.
I, me, mine, to-for-because-of me, rejoice
A man but little, then less, less, and none.
What does he hear for news who has only heard
From his own island? It is a treasure of dust
On the wind when he unlocks his word-hoard.

Moses' commandment opens the world's mouth
To utter the memory of life. One listener
Is man multiplied, man taking in time's breath
To be in one body ancestor and heir.
He owes one duty thus: attention. Man
If he means to live shall hold his whole mind
At ready awake. With this the law began.

So Moses brought the eleventh commandment down,
Knowing his will stir, his blood hasten
That the word be said aloud, the word be known,
That on it all men might take hold and fasten
On it, and hear it in all tongues: Listen.

(This and other of his poems are available at the Tufts Digital Library, )

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Old School, New School, No School

When I ask my son to be more orderly or methodical about his writing (or anything else), he often says, "Dad, you're old school." He goes to school, but when I see some of the work that not only passes but receives Bs and As, I wonder if it's really a school he attends or a pep rally. For several decades the same has seemed true of new poetry. It's not old school. It doesn't seem to have been to any school.

A good deal is incomprehensible. A lot of the comprehensible seems merely prose chopped up into lines. I often think I'm missing something, so to be fair, I try to read it as prose and see if any structure, anything that distinguishes prose from poetry or song stands out. So far nothing. Often the lines are little more than a notation to tell a reader where to pause briefly to emphasize a point. The most memorable of this stuff is memorable for the message or the humor, not for the craft. It's enjoys a limited popularity the way a comic professor gets student plaudits for entertaining rather than teaching.

German poetry has a tradition of short, pointed poetry. I offer a poem about poetry itself (among other things). It also helps explain why almost no one can quote a poem written in the lat 20 years from memory. (Can you?)


Somebody says: "of no school I am part,
Never to living master lost my heart;
Nor any more can I be said
To have learned anything from the dead."
That statement--subject to appeal--
Means: "I'm a self-made imbecile."

Goethe, translated by Michael Hamburger

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Will Wildness Preserve Civilization?

Henry David Thoreau proposed that wildness would save civilization, and millions of his followers today use that pronouncement to condemn civilization because they believe it destroys wildness and the wilderness in which it thrives. Thoreau had a great deal of scorn for the civilization of his day too, although much of it was tongue in cheek. Many of his serious followers today have a lot of trouble smiling and suffer from humor deficit. They are Thoreauvian fundamentalists.

Here is an answer to their misanthropism: "Man is always something worse or something better than an animal; and a mere argument from animal perfection never touches him at all. Thus, in sex no animal is either chivalrous or obscene. And thus no animal invented anything so bad as drunkeness - or so good as drink." - "Wine when it is red" All Things Considered by G.K. Chesterton

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Edna Kingsley Wallace

My high school class graduated in the days when a yearbook entry could say of a bright girl, "will sit on the boss's lap as a top notch secretary." Of some 55 girls in my class most declared their goal to be teaching, nursing, airline stewardess, secretary, or an "Mrs. degree." Only eight declared another goal, and two of those planned to be models, one an actress. Life's current ran swift and strong in the social channel for young women. Most went with the flow. In this context I offer the words of Edna Kingsley Wallace writing when even our parents were infants.

"A Woman, my good friend, is not only feminine, with the qualities proper to wifehood and motherhood and housekeeping, but since she has learned how to think she is also just as broadly human as men are after they have slammed the front door behind them." (15)

"I like the people I love to have some redeeming weaknesses. I couldn't possibly love in the grand manner at breakfast. Frankly, could you endure a woman who looked at you with heaven in her eyes over the muffins?"

"I think when man first added beauty to the things of use, he made the first prayer—he related himself to God." (26)

"Why is it, you man of the mist, who ought to know all about foggy things, that some women, so much more than others, have an inborn gift for externalizing their individualities in Things—of getting into their surroundings the especial flavour of their personalities. They emanate into Things. They shape and devise the material world to the needs of their won particular selves instead of putting up with ready-to-wear, -eat, and –use things." (95)

From Edna Kingsley Wallace, The Quest of the Dream, GP Putnams, NY 1913.
Lines from "De La Imortal Agonia", By Juan Rios, Lima 1940
(translation by Wallace Kaufman).

Poetry does not close it's eyes nor seek refuge in a dream
poetry wants to fly, though it dips its wings in the fire.

To illuminate, something must burn.
The poet descends to the inferno to save his soul
Poetry is a bird that sings among torments,
a rose that opens among battles.

I sing what exists and what does not exist
I announced the future, and my song will endure more than my anguish.

Who cannot sing what will be, should be quiet.
Who cannot sing his time better should not sing!