Monday, September 29, 2008

Online reading: week of September 29, 2008

A melancholy man of letters

Do we really need another biography of Samuel Johnson? Peter Martin and his publisher's evidently think so, with the recent release of Samuel Johnson: A Biography
Mr. Martin makes much of Johnson's acute melancholy—but then so did Johnson, who claimed that he led "a life radically wretched." It is an interesting question whether a person who thinks that he is on the brink of insanity is indeed so. What makes Johnson's life and writings—the poems, essays and literary criticism—so bracing is that we all suffer to some degree from the inner struggles that he maps with such candor and humor. We find in his essays a great deal of pre-Freudian wisdom, such as: "Much of the pain and pleasure of mankind arises from conjectures which everyone makes of the thoughts of others."

There is only one way to end a biography of Johnson. Mr. Martin quotes the famous valedictory words of an otherwise obscure contemporary who expressed what the entire English world felt after Johnson's death in 1784. "He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. Johnson is dead. Let us go to the next best. There is nobody. No man can be said to put you in the mind of Johnson."

And in another recent article on Peter Martin's other book on Samuel Johnson

Even though Peter Martin's new "Samuel Johnson: A Biography" is done well, one is still surprised to find it done at all (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25). It doesn't supplant Boswell's and can't avoid treading much of the same ground. But it successfully shifts Boswell's emphases, highlighting enough material Boswell missed or lied about to re-establish Johnson's giant stature for modern readers.

Books maketh the man

The Literary Review's article on the role that books played in the life of Oscar Wilde. His time in jail was a cruel torture in ways I had not realized:

When disaster struck in 1895 and he was tried and found guilty of 'gross indecency', it struck his books too. Auctioneers descended on the house in Tite Street, Chelsea that Wilde shared with his wife Constance and their two sons. His cherished book collection was sold at auction to pay his creditors. According to Wright, who has consulted the 'Tite Street Catalogue', Lot 114 included 'about' 100 unidentified French novels.

Among the humiliations Wilde suffered after being sent to prison were not only compulsory silence - prisoners were forbidden to speak to one another - but deprivation of books. All he had in his cell at Pentonville, apart from his bed (a plank laid across two trestles), were a Bible, a prayer book and a hymnal. When at last his sympathetic MP won him permission to have more books, Wilde nominated Pater's The Renaissance along with the works of Flaubert and some by Cardinal Newman. These were allowed, but only at the rate of one a week. Moved to Reading Gaol, he found himself under a more sympathetic prison governor. His book request lists after July 1896 show him developing an interest in more recently published titles, including novels by George Meredith and Thomas Hardy. Wilde later said that he also read Dante every day in prison and that Dante had saved his reason.

When he was discharged in May 1897, he was not allowed to take his accumulated books with him and faced what he called the horror of 'going out into the world without a single book'. But friends rallied round. Entering the hotel room in Dieppe where he was to begin his exile, he found it full of books furnished by his friends and he broke down and wept.

(Thanks to Jorge Vargas J. at Potpourri literaturnaya for the article link)

Eudora Welty's gateway literature

Gregory Cowles had a short piece on "gateway literature" ("the books that lead us to become serious readers") at The New York Times book blog a couple of weeks ago. This week he had a follow-up with Eudora Welty's gateway:

And I happened to discover Yeats, reading through some of the stacks in the library. I read the early and then the later poems all in the same one afternoon, standing up, by the window. … I read ‘Sailing to Byzantium,’ standing up in the stacks, read it by the light of falling snow. It seemed to me that if I could stir, if I could move to take the next step, I could go out into the poem the way I could go out into that snow. That it would be falling on my shoulders. That it would pelt me on its way down — that I could move in it, live in it — that I could die in it, maybe. So after that I had to learn it,” he said. “And I told myself that I would. That I accepted the invitation. ...

At length too, at Wisconsin, I learned the word for the nature of what I had come upon in reading Yeats. Mr. Ricardo Quintana lecturing to his class on Swift and Donne used it in its true meaning and import. The word is passion.

Hidden histories: new secrets about the ancient world

On a regular basis, articles show up where people have taken lines from Homer and been able to tie to physical or cosmological (or whatever) events in order to historically place when and where the battle of Troy actually took place. The oral history evolved over hundreds of years and finally recorded in a tale that reflected the then-current Greeks' view of man. Many questions raised by the works (which I'm looking forward to re-reading soon) show how little man has changed over the years:

Historical studies of literature are sometimes criticized for ignoring, or even diminishing, the artistic qualities that draw people to literature in the first place. But understanding how real history underlies the epics makes us appreciate Homer's art more, not less. We can see Homer pioneering the artistic technique of taking a backbone of historical fact and fleshing it over with contemporary values and concerns - the same technique used later by Virgil in "The Aeneid," by Shakespeare in his history plays, and by Renaissance painters depicting the Bible and classical antiquity.

And understanding Homer's own society gives us a new perspective on the oppressive miasma of fatalism and pessimism that pervades "The Iliad" and, to a lesser but still palpable extent, "The Odyssey." While even the fiercest fighters understand that peace is desirable, they feel doomed to endless conflict. As Odysseus says, "Zeus has given us [the Greeks] the fate of winding down our lives in hateful war, from youth until we perish, each of us."


Jorge Vargas said...

RE: comment on Books Maketh the Man

You're welcome Chrees! I guess there is no relation to Chriss Henchy?

Dwight said...

Nope, no relation. I signed up for something years ago and didn't want to use my name, so I typed in how I used to pronounce a friend's name. No hidden meaning...just something silly. And it stuck.