Saturday, January 16, 2021

Notes for a Commonplace Book (29)


Thomas De Quincey:
Of this at least, I feel assured, that there is no such thing as forgetting possible to the mind; a thousand accidents may, and will interpose a veil between our present consciousness and the secret inscriptions on the mind; accidents of the same sort will also rend away this veil; but alike, whether veiled or unveiled, the inscription remains for ever; just as the stars seem to withdraw before the common light of day, whereas, in fact, we all know that it is the light which is drawn over them as a veil -- and that they are waiting to be revealed, when the obscuring daylight shall have withdrawn.

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
I suspect that Borges, who knew De Quincey's work well and regarded it highly, likely had this passage in the back of his mind when he wrote his famous short story about a man who suffers a head injury and becomes literally unable to forget anything.

That no memory is ever entirely erased is not, perhaps, an entirely untestable proposition. One could easily imagine experiments that would demonstrate the existence of "inscriptions" of which the mind has no conscious memory. But in the end it probably should be regarded as a supposition that is both certainly true — in some sense — and at the same time utterly unfathomable to rational inquiry. And it makes me think of gravity, which, if the little I understand of it is correct, never loses a faint pull on an object no matter how distant it travels.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Nobody Should Be Surprised


If anyone in this country is still harboring illusions about the man in the White House and his core of thugs, it's about time they asked themselves why — or how. Defeated at the polls, trounced in the courts (often by judges he put in their posts), repudiated by much of his own party, defied now by the (Republican) Senate majority leader and his own hand-picked vice-president, the sociopath has no avenues left but an appeal to violence, and violence, directly provoked by his own words, is exactly what we have. Is there really anyone left who can look at the scene in Washington today and not realize that the whole Trump cult has been nothing but a lie? It didn't "get a little out of hand"; it was rotten to the core from the very start, and every opportunist who thought it was possible to make common cause with MAGA cap-wearing, gun-waving fascist lunatics and somehow keep their hands clean has a lot to answer for today. How could anyone think that it was possible to make common cause with an unscrupulous monster who was willing to put his own ego ahead of the very principles of democratic government and the rule of law, and who was willing to unleash armed goons to achieve his ends? Does American democracy no longer matter? Was it really all worth selling out for a bit of partisan advantage, the chance to make an extra buck and bruise a few liberals?

Make no mistake; Trump is doomed. It's a lot easier to provoke a riot than it is to run a country when you've lost your last shred of legitimacy. The country's battered institutions will re-group, preserve what's left of their integrity, and move on to other crises. But the damage is done, literally and figuratively. Elections, as they like to say, have consequences; no one has any right to be surprised at the consequences of the presidential election of 2016. Learn the lesson. Next time it may be worse.

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Blackburn & Cortázar: The Correspondence

Today, entirely by accident, I learned of the existence of this bundle of eight chapbooks published in 2017 by the Center for Humanities at CUNY as part of a project called Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative. My interest in this particular number (Series VII) centers on two of the chapbooks, which bear the collective title of “Querido Pablito"/"Julissimo Querido," Selected Correspondence, 1958-1971 (Parts I & II). These volumes contain translations of the letters between Julio Cortázar and his first US translator (and literary agent), Paul Blackburn. I'm familiar with portions of the correspondence from the five-volume Spanish-language edition of Cortázar's Cartas, but I despaired of ever seeing them published here. (Some time ago I translated and posted brief excerpts here and here.)

The CUNY chapbooks are a little tricky to find at the moment, in part because CUNY's offices have been shuttered by the pandemic. If it helps, the ISBN for this series is 9780997679625.

World Without Borders has an excerpt from the CUNY volumes as well as an interview with the editors, Ammiel Alcalay, Jacqui Cornetta, Alison Macomber, and Alexander Soria.

In addition to the two chapbooks described above, the next installment in the CUNY series (Series VIII) contains a chapbook dedicated to a translation of a portion of Cortázar's posthumously-published study of Keats, Imagen de John Keats.

More information to come.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Thursday, December 24, 2020

A Parting


I came to this book by way of Coleridge and Wordsworth, both of whom are profiled, usefully if somewhat eccentrically, in its pages, but stayed for its other pleasures. One of the most memorable pieces here is "Recollections of Grasmere," which relates an incident from late 1807 when a couple named George and Sarah Green became disoriented on their way homeward during a snowstorm and perished, orphaning six children, the eldest of whom, a girl of nine, eventually went for help when the parents failed to return. William Wordsworth made a poem out of it, and his sister Dorothy wrote her own prose account (harder to find but said to be superior even to the one here). De Quincey skillfully sketches the background, describes the rugged upland landscape where the Greens lived, and narrates the difficult search that ended in the discovery of their bodies. He ends with an intriguing proposal for the construction of a system of "storm-crosses," equipped with bells, to prevent similar tragedies.

Among the other local characters described here is a brilliant self-taught philologist named Elizabeth Smith, who died in obscurity at the age of twenty-nine, not before mastering French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, German, Greek, and Hebrew and aquiring "no inconsiderable knowledge of the Syriac, the Arabic, and the Persic." Her headstone, which De Quincey calls "the scantiest record that, for a person so eminently accomplished, I have ever met with," declared simply that "she possessed great talents, exalted virtues, and humble piety."

The most affecting piece, however, is one devoted to De Quincey's friend Charles Lloyd, a promising but troubled young writer and family man whose "mysterious malady" — some kind of mental or nervous disorder — led to long periods of inhuman confinement in an asylum. (De Quincey improbably links Lloyd's illness to his Quaker upbringing.) At one point, Lloyd escaped and fled to De Quincey, who offered to shelter him from the pursuers who were expected to come. Lloyd declined the offer and set out again, with De Quincey accompanying him part of the way.
We set off on foot: the distance to Ambleside is about three and a half miles; and one-third of this distance brought us to an open plain on the margin of Rydalmere, where the road lies entirely open to the water. This lake is unusually shallow, by comparison with all its neighbours; but, at the point I speak of, it takes (especially when seen under any mode of imperfect light) the appearance of being gloomily deep: two islands of exquisite beauty, but strongly discriminated in character, and a sort of recess or bay in the opposite shore, across which the shadows of the hilly margin stretch with great breadth and solemnity of effect to the very centre of the lake—together with the very solitary character of the entire valley, on which (excluding the little hamlet in its very gorge or entrance) there is not more than one single house—combine to make the scene as impressive by night as any in the Lake country. At this point it was that my poor friend paused to converse, and, as it seemed, to take his leave, with an air of peculiar sadness, as if he had foreseen (what in fact proved to be the truth) that we now saw each other for the final time. The spot seemed favourable to confidential talk; and here, therefore, he proceeded to make his heart-rending communication: here he told me rapidly the tale of his sufferings, and, what oppressed his mind far more than those at this present moment, of the cruel indignities to which he had been under the necessity of submitting...

In vain I pressed him to return with me to Grasmere. He was now, for a few hours to come, to be befriended by the darkness; and he resolved to improve the opportunity for some purpose of his own, which, as he showed no disposition to communicate any part of his future plans, I did not directly inquire into. In fact, part of his purpose in stopping where he did had been to let me know that he did not wish for company any further. We parted; and I saw him no more. He was soon recaptured; then transferred to some more eligible asylum; then liberated from all restraint; after which, with his family, he went to France; where again it became necessary to deprive him of liberty.
The essay closes in bravura fashion with De Quincey listening to the uncanny murmuring of the River Brathay, where he and Lloyd had walked together in better times:
Often and often, in years after all was gone, I have passed old Brathay, or have gone over purposely after dark, about the time when, for many a year, I used to go over to spend the evening; and, seating myself on a stone, by the side of the mountain river Brathay, have staid for hours listening to the same sound to which so often Charles Lloyd and I used to hearken together with profound emotion and awe—the sound of pealing anthems, as if streaming from the open portals of some illimitable cathedral; for such a sound does actually arise, in many states of the weather, from the peculiar action of the river Brathay upon its rocky bed; and many times I have heard it, of a quiet night, when no stranger could have been persuaded to believe it other than the sound of choral chanting—distant, solemn, saintly. Its meaning and expression were, in those earlier years, uncertain and general; not more pointed or determined in the direction which it impressed upon one's feelings than the light of setting suns: and sweeping, in fact, the whole harp of pensive sensibilities, rather than striking the chord of any one specific sentiment. But since the ruin or dispersion of that household, after the smoke had ceased to ascend from their hearth, or the garden walks to re-echo their voices, oftentimes, when lying by the river side, I have listened to the same aerial saintly sound, whilst looking back to that night, long hidden in the frost of receding years, when Charles and Sophia Lloyd, now lying in foreign graves, first dawned upon me, coming suddenly out of rain and darkness; then—young, rich, happy, full of hope, belted with young children (of whom also most are long dead), and standing apparently on the verge of a labyrinth of golden hours. Musing on that night in November, 1807, and then upon the wreck that had been wrought by a space of fifteen years, I would say to myself sometimes, and seem to hear it in the songs of this watery cathedral—Put not your trust in any fabric of happiness that has its root in man or the children of men. Sometimes even I was tempted to discover in the same music a sound such as this—Love nothing, love nobody, for thereby comes a killing curse in the rear. But sometimes also, very early on a summer morning, when the dawn was barely beginning to break, all things locked in sleep, and only some uneasy murmur or cock-crow, at a faint distance, giving a hint of resurrection for earth and her generations, I have heard in that same chanting of the little mountain river a more solemn if a less agitated admonition—a requiem over departed happiness, and a protestation against the thought that so many excellent creatures, but a little lower than the angels, whom I have seen only to love in this life—so many of the good, the brave, the beautiful, the wise—can have appeared for no higher purpose or prospect than simply to point a moral, to cause a little joy and many tears, a few perishing moons of happiness and years of vain regret!
NB The Penguin edition of Recollections of the Lakes and Lake Poets shown above, which dates from 1970, is apparently now out of print. There are other editions available, but one does have to wonder, what is the mission of the Penguin Classics if a book like this no longer belongs on their list?

Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Waters of the Deep


William Wordsworth:
... once in the stillness of a summer's noon,
While I was seated in a rocky cave
By the sea-side, perusing, so it chanced,
The famous history of the errant knight
Recorded by Cervantes, these same thoughts
Beset me, and to height unusual rose,
While listlessly I sate, and, having closed
The book, had turned my eyes toward the wide sea.
On poetry and geometric truth,
And their high privilege of lasting life,
From all internal injury exempt,
I mused, upon these chiefly: and at length,
My senses yielding to the sultry air,
Sleep seized me, and I passed into a dream.
I saw before me stretched a boundless plain
Of sandy wilderness, all black and void,
And as I looked around, distress and fear
Came creeping over me, when at my side,
Close at my side, an uncouth shape appeared
Upon a dromedary, mounted high.
He seemed an Arab of the Bedouin tribes:
A lance he bore, and underneath one arm
A stone, and in the opposite hand a shell
Of a surpassing brightness. At the sight
Much I rejoiced, not doubting but a guide
Was present, one who with unerring skill
Would through the desert lead me; and while yet
I looked and looked, self-questioned what this freight
Which the new-comer carried through the waste
Could mean, the Arab told me that the stone
(To give it in the language of the dream)
Was "Euclid's Elements;" and "This," said he,
"Is something of more worth;" and at the word
Stretched forth the shell, so beautiful in shape,
In colour so resplendent, with command
That I should hold it to my ear. I did so,
And heard that instant in an unknown tongue,
Which yet I understood, articulate sounds,
A loud prophetic blast of harmony;
An Ode, in passion uttered, which foretold
Destruction to the children of the earth
By deluge, now at hand. No sooner ceased
The song, than the Arab with calm look declared
That all would come to pass of which the voice
Had given forewarning, and that he himself
Was going then to bury those two books:
The one that held acquaintance with the stars,
And wedded soul to soul in purest bond
Of reason, undisturbed by space or time;
The other that was a god, yea many gods,
Had voices more than all the winds, with power
To exhilarate the spirit, and to soothe,
Through every clime, the heart of human kind.
While this was uttering, strange as it may seem,
I wondered not, although I plainly saw
The one to be a stone, the other a shell;
Nor doubted once but that they both were books,
Having a perfect faith in all that passed.
Far stronger, now, grew the desire I felt
To cleave unto this man; but when I prayed
To share his enterprise, he hurried on
Reckless of me: I followed, not unseen,
For oftentimes he cast a backward look,
Grasping his twofold treasure. -- Lance in rest,
He rode, I keeping pace with him; and now
He, to my fancy, had become the knight
Whose tale Cervantes tells; yet not the knight,
But was an Arab of the desert too;
Of these was neither, and was both at once.
His countenance, meanwhile, grew more disturbed;
And, looking backwards when he looked, mine eyes
Saw, over half the wilderness diffused,
A bed of glittering light: I asked the cause:
"It is," said he, "the waters of the deep
Gathering upon us;" quickening then the pace
Of the unwieldy creature he bestrode,
He left me: I called after him aloud;
He heeded not; but, with his twofold charge
Still in his grasp, before me, full in view,
Went hurrying o'er the illimitable waste,
With the fleet waters of a drowning world
In chase of him; whereat I waked in terror,
And saw the sea before me, and the book,
In which I had been reading, at my side.
From The Prelude

I owe my familiarity with the wonderful passage above to Thomas De Quincey's essay on Wordsworth, written in 1839, that is, well before the poem he quotes was made available to the general public. De Quincey had heard or read it decades earlier and recalled it nearly verbatim. His gloss on it is as follows:
Wordsworth was a profound admirer of the sublimer mathematics; at least of the higher geometry. The secret of this admiration for geometry lay in the antagonism between this world of bodiless abstraction and the world of passion. And here I may mention appropriately, and I hope without any breach of confidence, that, in a great philosophic poem of Wordsworth's, which is still in MS., and will remain in MS. until after his death, there is, at the opening of one of the books, a dream, which reaches the very ne plus ultra of sublimity, in my opinion, expressly framed to illustrate the eternity, and the independence of all social modes or fashions of existence, conceded to these two hemispheres, as it were, that compose the total world of human power -- mathematics on the one hand, poetry on the other...

He had been reading "Don Quixote" by the sea-side; and, oppressed by the heat of the sun, he had fallen asleep, whilst gazing on the barren sands before him. Even in these circumstances of the case -- as, first, the adventurous and half-lunatic knight riding about the world, on missions of universal philanthropy, and, secondly, the barren sands of the sea-shore -- one may read the germinal principles of the dream...

The sketch I have here given of this sublime dream sufficiently attests the interest which Wordsworth took in the mathematic studies of the place [by "the place" De Quincey means Cambridge University], and the exalted privilege which he ascribed to them of co-eternity with "the vision and the faculty divine" of the poet -- the destiny common to both, of an endless triumph over the ruins of nature and of time.
It would be interesting to speculate, as to the figure of the Arab, whether Wordsworth had in mind the transmission of Euclid (and even lyric poetry, via the troubadours) through Arabic intermediaries, but the Don Quixote he was reading itself has a ostensible (but presumably fictional) Arab source, one Cide Hamete Benengeli.

Though De Quincey refers to "the ruins of nature and time," he also seems to interpret the poem as simply expressing a desire to carve out a refuge from "the world of passion" by taking shelter in a "world of bodiless abstraction," as well as in poetry. Today, though, Wordsworth's line about "the fleet waters of a drowning world" may strike a more ominous note. And I want to read more of this poem.

With no greater excuse than the segue of moving from one poet laureate to a Nobel laureate, here is Bob Dylan's "Too Much of Nothing," in a 1970 live performance by Fotheringay, with the sublime Sandy Denny joining in on the refrain.


Say hello to Valerie, say hello to Marion,
Send them all my salary, on the waters of oblivion.

Monday, December 14, 2020

The Indifference of the Dead

Machado de Assis:
In life, the watchful eye of public opinion, the conflict of interests, the struggle of greed against greed oblige a man to hide his old rags, to conceal the rips and patches, to withhold from the world the revelations that he makes to his own conscience; and the greatest reward comes when a man, in so deceiving others, manages at the same time to deceive himself, for in such a case he spares himself shame, which is a painful experience, and hypocrisy, which is a hideous vice. But in death, what a difference! what relief! what freedom! How glorious to throw away your cloak, to dump your spangles in a ditch, to unfold yourself, to strip off all your paint and ornaments, to confess plainly what you were and what you failed to be! For, after all, you have no neighbors, no friends, no enemies, no acquaintances, no strangers, no audience at all. The sharp and judicial eye of public opinion loses its power as soon as we enter the territory of death. I do not deny that it sometimes glances this way and examines and judges us, but we dead folk are not concerned about its judgment. You who still live, believe me, there is nothing in the world so monstrously vast as our indifference.
Epitaph of a Small Winner is the American publisher's title of the first translation of the most famous work of the Brazilian novelist Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908). It was released in hardcover by Noonday Press in 1952 and in paperback four years later; the translator is William L. Grossman. The paperback cover shown above, which I rather like, is uncredited. (It doesn't look like the work of Shari Frisch, who provided a couple of dispensable line drawings to the interior of the book.) Later reprints of the same translation have different cover art and include a Foreword by Susan Sontag.

There have been at least four subsequent English versions, one of them published fairly obscurely in Brazil, and all of which make use of the book's actual Portuguese title, which translates as The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. Recent editions contain annotations and have been reviewed favorably, but the Grossman translation is perfectly adequate for most purposes. Why one short book, however enjoyable, would need five translations in sixty-eight years is a bit puzzling, given that there are comparable books that been translated only once (sometimes badly) or not at all, but the more the merrier.

Words Without Borders has a recent overview by Charles A. Perrone: "Machado de Assis Gains Different Voices in New Translations of Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas."