Thursday, October 15, 2009
Salinger & others... Welcome to the Second Elizabethan Era!
I've blogged elsewhere about not being an English major and being, of necessity, an auto-didact when it comes to reading and writing poetry. When I hit the age of thirty, however, I accidentally landed myself two mentors. One was George Starbuck, about whom I have written and given talks elsewhere; the other was the now-disgraced Derek Walcott. George was very tough and absolutely unfoolable; I suppose he'd seen it all. One can complain all day and night about Derek, but it was he who encouraged me to translate Spanish poetry and to admit, in my mind and my writing, that I was from Memphis, something I had suppressed and repressed for a dozen years till he forced me to deal with it. He also broke my heart by convincing me for too long a time to abandon my study of French poets like Ponge and Apollinaire, whom he thought were too easy to take up as influences. This caused a certain disintegration of a way I had of thinking about poems which I dearly regret now - but I've recovered, and it was salutary, at least, to have to question my ideals. He looked at what I was doing and compared it to dribbling a basketball: You're good at this, he said, but stop right now or you'll be doing it the rest of your life without thinking, and it's not a life's work. A life's work - how that phrase frightened me! I don't imagine any poet under the age of 50 conceives of such a thing anymore, and I no longer do myself (I'm lucky to have a life and some work, let alone something so dignified as that!) - but again, it was good to be under the spell for a while of someone who had real critical skills, and could teach me the responsibility to have my own. Anyway, here's something Derek has said:
"We may have arrived at a point where minimalism has become baroque, where despair and its metrically weighed vacuities are the style of our second Elizabethan era; one in which there is an exuberance of emptiness, an enthusiasm for vacuums; where gaps of silence are revered over the articulate. The trouble is hat this reduction has become as rhetorical as the bombast of the first Elizabethans.
It is the vanity of metropolitan cultures to believe that they alone have the right to pessimism, just as they alone once held the rights to their opposites: elation, delight, conviction and faith.
The idea of vacuity in modern [writing] is like the idea of the existential or the nihilistic: spiritual vanity. The depth of modern contemplation is of staring into the holes, the emptiest [lyric] 'O' of all. Such vanity lies in the faith that for the tragic poets, be they absurdists or minimalists, history happens only where it has meaning. And since for such writers history is now meaningless - at least as morality - where history does happen is the only place where modern tragedy can be played. Teach it enough silence, increase such silences, deepen their significance of emptiness, of wordlessness and language, then action will evaporate and stasis will admire stasis because we are observing modern history, and if history is meaningless then so is literature and the theatre.
Mallarme headed towards the silence of the white page; Beckett for the silence of the hole; the hole as the whole. Irony is the furthest point of tragedy in modern theatre. Not true irony, but sarcasm. This sarcasm mocks literature, scuttles the articulate, deepens chasms - on the pretext that human beings cannot or do not really communicate. Therefore poetry is the first victim of this cynicism."
Recently, a squib of mine here about criticism made reference to something J.C. Hallman wrote relating to his wonderful new anthology, The Story about the Story, which documents a kind of "creative criticism," in other words, not the kind that emanates from academia, but from writers who respond to literary stuff from a personal angle. The death of the reader would logically follow, or even result from, the famed death-of-the-author - but the essays in Hallman's collection bring both startlingly back to life; and if it's possible for me to have yet another favorite book, this is one.
Among its many pleasures for me was something completely unexpected, however. The book kicks off with an essay by Charles D'Ambrosio on "Salinger and Sobs," or more accurately, Salinger and suicide. Like boatloads of other people, I read The Catcher in the Rye once upon a time: as a kid, I carried it around faithfully while ventilating all kinds of yearning and estrangement, and then grew up. Frankly, I forgot all about the book, shrugging it off on whatever few occasions arose in which it was mentioned. I mean, it was the literary equivalent of growing a first beard, and I'd have denied any lasting effects that a shower and shave couldn't wash away. But D'Ambrosio is a very fucking good writer, which comes from his being "wary of prelapsarian schemes... and leery of conspiracy theories, both of which only seem to describe the limitations, like Hamlet's nutshell, of the holder's mind." In other words, he is cursed with lucidity - which must not be easy, having lost a brother to suicide and nearly losing another to the same. This means, too, that D'Ambrosio is not uncritical of Salinger, so his essay is no exercise in hero-worship.
He's very dissatisfied, for instance, with Seymour - an Introduction -- the story of a would-be writer, Buddy Glass, who has lost his brother Seymour to suicide - but from this scrutiny arises a constructive explanation and exploration of the shrinking silence Walcott so astringently derides. D'Ambrosio writes that the book
"... is like a story in hiding, its prose on the lam, its characters putting on disguises, its ideas concealed. The whole thing is preambular, it's all excursus, and it's a bad sign that for me the best or more accurate language for describing the story comes from classical rhetoric and oratory. The sentences spin eloquently over an absence - it's as if progress has stopped, and the last few words are draining out. Earlier I said that Holden [in Catcher] is making a loud shouted appeal directly to the audience, over the heads of those who don't understand. The whole story is directed at you, the reader. In Seymour Buddy Glass speaks directly to the reader too, but now he resorts to the aside, the isolated whispered phrase, safely enclosed in parentheses, addressing the audience in a low voice supposedly inaudible to others nearby."
Consider, D'Ambrosio asks, this passage from Seymour:
"... I privately say to you, old friend (unto you, really, I'm afraid), please accept from me this unpretentious bouquet of very early-blooming parentheses: (((()))). I suppose, most unflorally. I truly mean them to be taken, first off, as bowlegged - buckle-legged - omens of my state of mind and body at this writing."
The parentheses, D'Ambrosio observes, "sit like Kevlar jackets all through the writing, protecting Buddy's identity from attack, keeping the sentences safe."
(That's some damn good criticism, right there, yes?)
D'Ambrosio has poked around in Salinger's work to find "prodromal clues somehow indicated [that] Salinger's plunge into silence was symptomatic of something." The empty endless, open-mouthed cavern of the lyric "O" Walcott limns?
Well, let's see. Here's another bit from Seymour, about the eponymous dead brother:
"Vocally, he was either as brief as a gatekeeper at a Trappist monastery - sometimes for days, weeks at a stretch - or he was a non-stop talker."
And here's how Holden Caulfield, a resolute anti-Confessionalist believe it or not, opens up Catcher:
"If you really want to hear about it the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before that had me and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."
Oddly enough, the first conversation I had with Walcott consisted of his asking me just these things; he wanted to know the truth about whomever he was speaking to. Well, here's how Holden brings the novel about him to an end:
"Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody."
Holden Caulfield had lots of heart, the very thing Derek finds missing in postmodern poetry and drama; I suspect he misses someone, himself. Anyhow, as D'Ambrosio notes, Holden's instinct proves his conclusion to be right, "proves that the process of writing only creates further problems."
Is it better, then, to say nothing? After all, the silence "is already there, waiting in the wings of Salinger's most clamorous and fluent book." Why does a writer choose silence? For a writer, D'Ambrosio asks, is it tantamount to suicide?
"In some ways it is, I believe, but the question for me is why - why does the writer choose silence? The deliberate decision to quit clawing at the keyboard is too mechanical to be an answer. Stopping isn't the real matter, but rather the result of some other prior disturbance that can't be named. Silence in this sense isn't the equivalent of suicide or death, but of secrecy. That's what it's about - what is not said."
Flawed as it is, Seymour (I'm repeating the quotation) "is like a story in hiding, its prose on the lam, its characters putting on disguises, its ideas concealed." And so are our own stories, lines, masks, and ideas. But I'll hush now, except to say that Hallman's book - which also gathers together the likes of Virginia Woolf on Hemingway, Nabokov on Kafka (find out what bug Gregor Samsa really turns into!), Lawrence on Melville (strange!), Hesse on Dostoevsky, and much more - really does offer up a kind of criticism that is thrillingly alive, and not about advancing a career of some kind. Woolf says that thanks to the miracle of human credulity, the reader begins to think that critics, "because they call themselves so, must be right. He begins to suppose that something actually happens to a book when it has been praised or denounced in print. He begins to doubt and conceal his own sensitive, hesitating apprehensions when they conflict with the critics' decrees."
I had buried my own indebtedness to a youthful reading of Salinger out of some kind of snobbery or barnacled, grown-up sophistication. (Later in the anthology, Walter Kirn recalls how literature courses at Princeton didn't help him deepen his understanding of Catcher; the English Department was, "just then, in a phase of high obscurity, and readable modern American authors such as Salinger weren't part of the syllabus. Desparate to take on the snobbery of [his] teachers," he "came to regard the old hermit's books as classing young-adult fiction" like say Old Yeller, Black Beauty, and A Separate Peace; the pleasure he took in Holden Caulfield's voice was "Exhibit A in the case against his greatness.")
I'm grateful to Salinger, in the end - and for Hallman's anthology - for restoring to me the power and value of my own silences as a reader, not to mention as a writer who was, in fact, on the verge of stopping.
Pictured: The Miroir or Glasse of the Synneful Soul, a translation from the French, by Elizabeth, presented to Catherine Parr in 1544. The embroidered binding with the monogram KP for "Katherin Parr" is believed to have been worked by Elizabeth I.