E.M. Forester on the Prophetic in Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky’s characters ask us to share something deeper than their experiences. They convey to us a sensation that is partially physical– the sensation of sinking into a translucent globe and seeing our experience floating far above us on it’s surface, tiny, remote, yet ours.

E.M. Forester from Aspects of the Novel


On Swag and Other Heritage Words in English

History is a burial ground for lexicographical trends. But words are often prone to strange resurrections. I was reminded of this while thumbing through The Cassel Dictionary of Slang by Jonathan Green. Measuring in at more than 1300 pages, this curbstone of a book is a survey of informal language in English, from the Renaissance to the present day. Among the book’s pleasures are the odd instances of continuity between the historical past and contemporary popular culture. Take for instance,

Swag n. [late 18C+] (Und.) a thief’s booty (esp. linen and clothes as opposed to jewels or plate) or a peddler’s wares

How wonderfully odd that this word has the same essential meaning today as it when it was spoken by  thieves and mountebanks in the days of Hume, Burke and Rousseau. A populist might advance this fact as evidence for the robustness of contemporary culture, but the argument cuts both ways. Some words never recover from being in vogue. Swag may end up being as quaint as vaticide, perpotation, smellfeast or anything else in the multitude of lexical novelties captured in Johnson’s Dictionary.

Words can also have strange afterlife, as time and chance attach meanings unimaginable to the original coiners. Another instance of thieves cant oddly prefigures the digitalized capitalism of our own time.

McGoogle n. [1930s] (US Und.) the big boss. [joc. use of supposed proper name]

Aren’t bloggers, if they wish to have traffic on their sites, subordinates of McGoogle? Historical irony alone ought to be enough return the word to common usage.

Charles Darwin on the Forests of Brazil

Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest. The elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers, the glossy green of the foliage, but above all the general luxuriance of the vegetation, filled me with admiration. A most paradoxical mixture of sound and silence pervades the shady parts of the wood. The noise from the insects is so loud, that it may be heard even in a vessel anchored several hundred yards from shore; yet within the recesses of the forest a universal silence appears to reign.

from the Voyage of the Beagle

Modernist nostalgia with Voices and Visions

A large part my interest in books and writing stems from two early influences. The first was the Norton Anthology of English Literature, an aged copy of which was given to me by my paternal grandmother when I was about 13 years old. The second influence was Voices and Visions, a documentary series on American poets produced in the late 1980s by a South Carolina PBS affiliate. VHS copies of each episode always seemed to be on hand at the local branch of the Fort Vancouver Public Library. Something about the about those videos suggested to me, even then, that they would see very little use.

It’s difficult to separate the reasons why Voices and Visions appealed to me as a young teenager and the reasons why I still enjoy the series today. Perhaps I felt something hypnotic and seductive in the way each poem was visualized: a line or a stanza appearing on the screen with a picture of the corresponding image, then followed by some critical eminence like Frank Kermode or Hugh Kenner patiently but confidently explicating thornier issues such as meaning or intention or the history of the art form.

Watching the series now, what strikes me most is how many people were still alive who knew the great modernist poets during their prime. You get the eerie impression that Hart Crane, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore had died just recently. In hindsight, this must have had a strong impact on the writers I would later identify with—and not an altogether positive one. I felt more engaged with people who had died thirty or forty years ago than I did with anyone in contemporary culture.

I leave it to the reader to enumerate reasons why nostalgia for the early 20th century is misguided. But after the all the reckonings and reassessments,  there is something persistently magnetic about the Modernist era, a time when literature and the world at large were, for better and for worse, running on the same course. Voices and Visions captures the spirit wonderfully.

You can watch all thirteen episodes for free on the series’ website here.

Borges on “Bartleby the Scrivener”

In 1944, Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short introduction to Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Just a few hundred words long, this little essay should not be overshadowed by the vast amount of Melville scholarship that has appeared before and since then. Borges asserts, rightly so, that “Bartleby” prefigures certain developments in the art of fiction, namely the psychological tale, exemplars of which can be found in the work of Joseph Conrad and Franz Kafka among others

Given his sensitive reading of Melville, it is strange then that Borges would place blame entirely on Bartleby for the gloom and disorder that falls on the law office. He writes, “Bartleby’s candid nihilism contaminates his companions and even the stolid gentleman who tells his tale and endorses his imaginary tasks.” True to a point—but the nihilism is there already, before Bartleby even enters the story. His fellow scriveners Nippers and Turkey, with their strange names, sullen temperaments, and erratic work habits, are functional only in comparison to him. And then there is the sarcophagal office, where the lawyer does his vague business. Consider this passage, which takes place as Bartleby is newly installed there:

I resolved to assign Bartleby a corner by the folding doors, but on my side of them, so as to have this quiet man within easy call, in case any trifling thing was to be done. I placed his desk close up to a small side window in that part of the room, a window which originally had afforded a lateral view of certain grimy back yards and bricks, but which, owing to subsequent erections, commanded at present no view at all, though it gave some light. Within three feet of the panes was wall, and the light came down from far above, between two lofty buildings, as from a very small opening in a dome. Still further to a satisfactory arrangement, I procured a high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice.

Bartleby’s refusal to do his copying forms as a natural corollary to the environment in which he works. Such a gentle but weak-minded man has no hope within the tomblike silence of that office. The sympathy that Bartleby elicits from the lawyer is not an endorsement of his behavior but the pangs of an insulated but otherwise healthy conscience. He recognizes where the corruption comes from—not from the scrivener, who is harmless and cannot even understand his own actions. The corruption is present as a natural quality of the environment. It stems from the prisons, workhouses, and ill kept offices that swallow the unlucky scrivener whole.