Poetic Words: Two by DJ Enright

An underrated British poet, one who kept a light touch even on dark topics…

Apocalypse by D J Enright

From a Berlin tourist brochure:
‘After the New Apocalypse, very few members were still in possession of their instruments. Hardly a musician could call a decent suit his own. Yet, by the early summer of 1945, strains of sweet music floated on the air again. While the town still reeked of smoke, charred buildings and the stench of corpses, the Philharmonic Orchestra bestowed the everlasting and imperishable joy which music never fails to give.’

 It soothes the savage doubts.
One Bach outweighs ten Belsens. If 200,000 people
Were remaindered at Hiroshima, the sales of So-and-So’s
New novel reached a higher figure in as short a time.
So, imperishable paintings reappeared:
Texts were reprinted:
Public buildings reconstructed:
Human beings reproduced.

After the Newer Apocalypse, very few members
Were still in possession of their instruments
(Very few were still in possession of their members),
And their suits were chiefly indecent.
Yet, while the town still reeked of smoke, etc,
The Philharmonic Trio bestowed, etc.

A civilisation vindicated,
A race with three legs still to stand on!
True, the violin was shortly silenced by leukaemia,
And the pianoforte crumbled softly into dust.
But the flute was left. And one is enough.
All, in a sense, goes on. All is in order.

And the ten-tongued mammoth larks,
The forty-foot crickets and the elephantine frogs
Decided that the little chap was harmless,
At least he made no noise, on the bank of whatever river
it used to be.

One day, a reed-warbler stepped on him by accident.
However, all, in a sense, goes on. Still the everlasting
and imperishable joy
Which music never fails to give is being given.

Dreaming in the Shanghai Restaurant

I would like to be that elderly Chinese gentleman.
He wears a gold watch with a gold bracelet,
But a shirt without sleeves or tie.
He has good luck moles on his face, but is not disfigured with fortune.
His wife resembles him, but is still a handsome woman,
She has never bound her feet or her belly.
Some of the party are his children, it seems,
And some his grandchildren;
No generation appears to intimidate another.
He is interested in people, without wanting to convert them or pervert them.
He eats with gusto, but not with lust;
And he drinks, but is not drunk.
He is content with his age, which has always suited him.
When he discusses a dish with the pretty waitress,
It is the dish he discusses, not the waitress.
The table-cloth is not so clean as to show indifference,
Not so dirty as to signify a lack of manners.
He proposes to pay the bill but knows he will not be allowed to.
He walks to the door like a man who doesn’t fret about being respected, since he is;
A daughter or granddaughter opens the door for him,
And he thanks her.
It has been a satisfying evening. Tomorrow
Will be a satisfying morning. In between he will sleep satisfactorily.
I guess that for him it is peace in his time.
It would be agreeable to be this Chinese gentleman.

[In a reading, Enright remarked, “I should perhaps say the restaurant wasn’t in Shanghai nor indeed in any other part of China but in Singapore.”]

And there’s a Goethe connection. One of his favorite quotations:

“You cannot give the world the slip more certainly than through art, and you cannot bind yourself to it more certainly than through art.” – Goethe


Unreasonable Words: The Most Difficult Books

Richardson’s 1500 page epistolary novel from 1748. Not my summer reading choice.

Years back, when he was in the middle of his ““Oprah’s Book Club flap,” novelist Jonathan Franzen made this observation,

“One pretty good definition of college is that it’s a place where people are made to read difficult books.”

From an article of his about William Gaddis, among other things, that appeared in The New Yorker.

The difficult books that defined my college experience included almost the entire second half of a course in Modernism in American Fiction (once Fitzgerald and Hemingway were out of the way, the going got tough). Despite (because?) of that it was the most stimulating course I had in college, and one of three that has stayed with with me. Plato’s Theaetetus and Parmenides, on the other hand, flummoxed me categorically at age 19 and drove me from being a philosophy major. Something I should perhaps be grateful for. God knows, I’m introspective enough already.

I’m sure, however, that somebody out there loves the Parmenides, if only for coming to terms with what Wikipedia understatedly terms its challenging and enigmatic character. Books evoke intensely personal reactions–favorable or not (“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”–Dorothy Parker). “Difficulty” is as personal as love, and, as with anything, only the individual reader can decide whether it is at some level earned and why.

That doesn’t check the irresistible impulse to make lists of the hardest books, and the literature site The Millions has been up to just that for the last few years. Publishers Weekly has the final results, all winners of the heavyweight round.

No arguments from me against the claim that these are challenging. Nightwood was one of the works I came to grief on in that Modernism course. Pretty opaque–although that was part of the point–and having a swifter student explain what was happening, particularly in the icky last scene, is not a part of the course I treasure.

However, not sure Heidegger and Hegel belong on a list that is otherwise mostly fiction. German philosophers = bad prose, it’s the brand essence. Arguably, philosophy is a species of technical writing anyway, and the ranks of turgid technical books (at least a few of which will pass the test of time) is vast.

Then there’s modernism: four of the ten are modernist novels from the first half of the 20th century, including the aforementioned Nightwood. Being hard was part of the point of modernism: hard on the idea of narrative, hard on traditions of the novel, hard on the reader’s expectations, hard on language itself. Seems like they deserve a league of their own: which Stein and Joyce would still probably win. Woolf’s sentences are so lovely that you can kind of lap it up like a cat and not notice you haven’t known what the hell was going on or who was speaking for pages.

The Millions writers, Garth and Emily, still deserve our praise. Their annotations certainly suggest they made it through the whole lot. I’d be scared to even download the 1,500 page Clarissa to my iPad. I only got the 16 gig.

My overall response: searching for lists of the best books under 200 pages!

Anatomy of a Hack

Found Via Daring Fireball: Tech writer Mat Honan (Wired and elsewhere) describes a destructive hack, with this observation about the state of security for cloud users:

Moreover, if your computers aren’t already cloud-connected devices, they will be soon. Apple is working hard to get all of its customers to use iCloud. Google’s entire operating system is cloud-based. And Windows 8, the most cloud-centric operating system yet, will hit desktops by the tens of millions in the coming year. My experience leads me to believe that cloud-based systems need fundamentally different security measures. Password-based security mechanisms — which can be cracked, reset, and socially engineered — no longer suffice in the era of cloud computing.

Makes a good case for using two-factor authentication at a minimum, in particular, to protect your Google account.

More Zagajewski: Music and Words

I keep saying I’ll stop with the Adam Zagajewski bits, and better before it becomes precious (if that hasn’t already happened).

But two more:

“When asked if European music has core , that is, if one work or another might be called its heart, B. answered, “Yes, of course, the aria ‘Erbarme Dich’ from Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew. (Text is “Have mercy on me ” and is Peter’s realization that he has betrayed Jesus.)

Here’s Marilyn Horne pouring that opulent tone of hers all over it, and but still haunting and backwards looking.

Nice performances by Christa Ludwig and Michael Chance on YouTube as well.

I agree with B, and it’s diverting to think of other musical genres or art forms that have “a heart” in a single work –jazz, graphic novels, fashion?  The “core” of 90s television would be Seinfeld.

Another quip of Zagajewski’s from later in the book:

“Good writers package the unknown in the known. Bad writers put the unknown on top.”

Jenny Diski on The Sixties

Found in the Bethesda Public Library (mostly a disappointment, I guess the Newton Free Library has set the bar too high for suburban library overachievement), was a little book by Jenny Diski on The Sixties. She’s always rewarding to read in the LRB (including even her recent dissent from the chorus of approval for Downton Abbey). Here’s the opening of her Sixties book:

“Now that it has gone the twentieth century has become an idea. The past is always an idea that people have about it after the event. Those whose job it is to tell the story of the past in their own present call it history. To generations born later, receiving recollections from their parents or grandparents, or reading the historians, the past is a story, a myth handily packaged into an era, bound by a particular event–a war, a financial crisis, a reign, a decade, a century–anything that conveniently breaks the ongoing tick of time into a manageable narrative. Those who were alive during the period in question, looking back, call it memory, memory being just another instance of the many ways in which we make stories. But although the past always belongs to the present and future, the later third of the twentieth century we know as the Sixties was one of those particular periods that was an idea to many even before it became the past. The Sixties were an idea in the minds, perhaps even more powerful than the experience, of those who were actually living through them.”

The idea of the Sixties shaped me (Diski has the period extending through the mid-70s, my adolescence) as surely as The Great Depression era shaped my parents. She makes the connection between the 60’s take on the way of the world and the its affinity with the Thatcher/Regan era that followed (at the time seen like a counter-revolution or at least a disinfecting). Her thesis that they were the same in key ways (the obsession with the individual and with recasting freedom and liberty, the distrust of government, and radical ideas about “society” as a sort of category error) has been written about before, but Diski anatomizes it all with a witty scalpel, leaving any partisan on the “left” or “right” pondering the large cost of unintended consequences that the era bequeathed us.

Sleeping with Your Smart Phone

Harvard Biz School prof Leslie Perlow took on the 24/7, always on, AOMO culture at its most intense, the world of management consulting, and made a simple, but startling suggestion:

From a Forbes piece on her work (Sleeping with Your Smart Phone? Here’s the Cure):

Perlow started with a simple, minor — and ingenious — change to one small team’s routine. Instead of working late every night, she said, what if each consultant vowed to wrap up early one night a week. Do anything except work, she said. Play golf. Have dinner with your kids. See a movie. Pick your diversion; just find some way to reconnect with the rest of the world.

Consultants trembled. “What if my clients need me?” they asked. Get a colleague to cover for you, Perlow replied. And start holding weekly meetings where team members figure out how to divide up work more effectively. That way some part of the team can be available around the clock without requiring everyone to be on call.

Gradually her approach took hold. Consultants discovered that they liked a little time off. They felt better about their jobs. They were less likely to quit. Most strikingly, they and their bosses rated their work more highly. Something about these pauses was making consulting more efficient, more team-oriented or maybe even more creative.

A little like the technology sabbath idea, but perhaps easier to do? Some how I missed this year’s “National Day of Unplugging” and was late for my “technology detox.” Damn smart phone reminders must have been turned off.

Fine Pictures: Bellows at NGA

George Bellows: Blue Morning

The George Bellows show at the National Gallery has already gotten lots of comment. So no need to add my bit, beyond saying for anybody who loves American art and taking in the whole of a varied career, it makes for a rewarding afternoon.

The NGA show has the iconic Bellows canvases of course: the fight paintings like “Stag at Sharkey’s,” something to see in person, and those sinewy urban impressionist images of New York, like “Blue Morning” (above), one of a series about building Penn Station that focus on forms and people, not monumental architecture. But he also did many portraits, most of women, vast amounts of political art (varied in quality), including covers for the socialist monthly The Masses. An interesting, but disturbing, room is given over to his anti-German lithographs from the WWI era. They are violent and ham-fisted propaganda (if you go with the kids skip that gallery).

All these pop with energy and people, but he also did some stunning landscapes, including of Monhegan Island (inevitable, perhaps, since his teacher was Robert Henri who painted there.) His take on Monhegan’s neighbor island, Manana, (below) is a high point of the NGA show. The painting captures the enveloping mystery of looking at this uninhabited rock, and is also a side of Bellows that is quiet and still (although not without a hint of menace).

George Bellows: An Island in the Sea