Thursday, April 12, 2007

So It Goes


On the Lehrer Report tonight, Christopher Buckley, in a discussion about Kurt Vonnegut, referred to Jonathan Swift's epitaph. I looked it up in my handy Bartlett's:

Ubi saeva indignatio ulterius cor lacerare nequit.


My Latin long ago turned to compost, but I take it that the sentence literally means something like this:

Where it is impossible that savage indignation can further lacerate my heart.


Thankfully, my Barlett's refers to Yeat's poem on Swift's epitaph, in which he wrote:

Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.


It's a little odd to think of Yeats writing about Swift's death in 1933 as if it had just occurred, just as it's a little odd to pair Swift's epitaph with Vonnegut. But then again, every wretched age—and they're all wretched—needs its satirist, and between Swift and Vonnegut is the writer who, as Buckley pointed out, is more Vonnegut's literary precursor: Mark Twain.

Henry had little to do with that threesome, but all this talk about oddity brings him to mind:

Henry sats in de bar & was odd,
off in the glass from the glass,
at odds wif de world & its god . . .


Kurt is no longer at odds wif de world & its god, but his book—the one I read—still is. So it goes.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Rich Distractions

I've been working some very long hours lately and while the blogging urge has come over me once or twice in the last week, I haven't been able to think of a thing to say.

Actually, I can think of plenty to say, as always, but none of it is coherent. It's like Jackie Gleason in "The Hustler" has just broken, and the balls are ricocheting all over the table. "Robert Hayden did a poem about Bessie Smith, and Romare Bearden did a painting about her. Cool, huh?" Or: "Countee Cullen's a better poet than he's normally given credit for. Am I dreaming?" Or: "The Jazz Poetry website is dorky to me, but will it help my students?" Or: "The world did not know what to do with Paul Robeson's talent. Now what do we do?" Or: "Is it really healthy to listen to Mahalia Jackson this much?" Or: "I really should read Jean Toomer's Cane in its entirety. It's the greatest novel I've never read." Or: "Did Zora Neale Hurston really write an essay called 'Brown Bag?' Did I make that up?" Or: "Claude McKay's accent is a revelation, isn't it?"

What I should really do is give a plug for Unpacking My Library, the smart new blog from A Reader. Every Friday he posts original photographic work, and at least once a week he "unpacks" the significance—personal, intellectual or otherwise—of books in his extensive library. His musings on photography and philosophy are particularly worthwhile, and The English Teacher eagerly awaits more of them.

Oh—and I almost forgot: A Reader regularly posts poems that strike his fancy. A Reader's posting of an Andrew Marvel poem has reminded The English Teacher of Marvel's "The Mower's Song."

My mind was once the true survey
Of all these meadows fresh and gay,
And in the greenness of the grass
Did see its hopes as in a glass;
When Juliana came, and she
What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me.

But these, while I with sorrow pine,
Grew more luxuriant still and fine,
That not one blade of grass you spied,
But had a flower on either side;
When Juliana came, and she
What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me.

Unthankful meadows, could you so
A fellowship so true forgo,
And in your gaudy May-games meet,
While I lay trodden under feet?
When Juliana came, and she
What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me.

But what you in compassion ought,
Shall now by my revenge be wrought:
And flow'rs, and grass, and I and all,
Will in one common ruin fall.
For Juliana comes, and she
What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me.

And thus, ye meadows, which have been
Companions of my thoughts more green,
Shall now the heraldry become
With which I will adorn my tomb;
For Juliana comes, and she
What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

"Trouble of the World"

Martin Luther King Jr. said of Mahalia Jackson, "A voice like this comes along only once in a lifetime." After listening to her rendition of "Soon I Will Be Done," which she performed in 1963 as "Trouble of the World," I wonder if a voice like this ever comes along again.

I've been listening to the audio companion to the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, which I highly recommend to anyone teaching the vernacular sources of the African American literary tradition. The CD contains some remarkable work, including a work song recorded in 1947 at the Parchman Farm Penitentiary in Mississippi; Louis Armstrong's "Black and Blue," which the CD booklet describes as a "racial protest piece"; Malcolm X's witty, ironic "The Ballot or the Bullet" speech; and "Go Down, Moses" sung by Paul Robeson, whose power, intelligence and commitment to social justice make him one of the underappreciated talents of the 20th century.

But of the twenty-one pieces on the CD, Mahalia Jackson's performance stands as an achievement among achievements. The liner notes describe how this

1963 gospel version of the spiritual—featuring the singer against a background of piano, organ, bass and drums—presents Mahalia Jackson's magnificent voice playing with and between the notes, sliding and leaping the intervals, now like a blues singer, now like an opera singer, dialoguing with the inspired piano, building to crescendos, elevating the song to meanings beyond those conveyed by words alone.


I have nothing to add.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Emily Dickinson's 648: The Dying Eye


Over at Unpacking My Library, A Reader is posting a poem every Sunday. Yesterday, with his posting of a poem by Anne Bradstreet, I suddenly realized I could freely post any poem in the public domain. I went through my list of favorite long-dead poets and I decided to start with Emily Dickinson.

A couple years ago, when I was going through a bad patch with my eyes, I learned that Emily Dickinson suffered from some sort of eye malady, the precise nature of which is not documented. For much of 1864 and 1865, she was confined to Cambridgeport, where she sought treatment for her eye condition. In "'Eyes Be Blind, Heart Be Still': A New Perspective on Emily Dickinson's Eye Problems," Martin Wand and Richard B. Sewell conclude, based on what little historical evidence there is, that Emily Dickinson's eye condition was exotropia, resulting in "eyestrain, blurring of vision, double vision, headaches, etc."

I'm not entirely convinced by Wand and Sewell's diagnosis, but I do find their almost offhand remark helpful: "As might be expected of anyone with a serious eye condition, the fear of blindness is never far from one's consciousness." That I can confirm.

When I went through all of Dickinson's poems during her peak years, I found thirty-three that refer to the eyes or sight. Among these are some of her more well-known poems:

Before I got my eye put out (336)
I like a look of Agony (339)
We grow accustomed to the Dark (428)
From Blank to Blank (484)
The difference between Despair (576)
I heard a fly buzz – when I died – (591)
Much Madness is divinest Sense (620)
The tint I cannot take – is best – (696)
[R. W. Franklin's numbering system]


I suppose that some clever graduate student has already written a dissertation on blinded, obscured and slanted sight in Emily Dickinson's poems, but in the event that someone hasn't snarfed up this suggestive idea, I offer it to anyone who needs it free of charge. I'm not likely to write a bona fide lit-crit paper anytime soon. I will merely add that in the process of going through Dickinson's eye poems I took a closer look at some lesser known poems and was intrigued by what I found. Among my favorites is 648, which I leave to you to puzzle out on your own:

I've seen a Dying Eye
Run round and round a Room –
In search of Something – as it seemed –
Then Cloudier become –
And then – obscure with Fog –
And then – be soldered down
Without disclosing what it be
'Twere blessed to have seen –

Friday, February 09, 2007

Nelson Bentley

Julian Bentley has been kind enough to share with us this lovely triolet about her father. Nelson Bentley was a beloved English professor at the University of Washington. As a poet, he delighted in bringing modern subjects and language to traditional forms, including the triolet.

A mischievous look about his eyes,
Worn-heeled shoes, wild thatch of hair,
He delighted in eccentrics, quirky types,
A mischievous look about his eyes.
Kind to underdogs, averse to snooty pride,
My father had a funny sort of flair,
A mischievous look about his eyes,
Worn-heeled shoes, wild thatch of hair.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Reading Proust (Part 8): Not Reading Proust

I am not reading Proust. Actually, I read one page this morning—a beautiful page to put me in the mood for writing. But that's about it for the last few weeks. I don't have time for books I want to read because I'm too busy with books I have to read.

One of the books I have to read these days is Madame Bovary. I'll be team-teaching the novel in the spring, and I haven't read it since I was in high school. Until I picked up the book some days ago, I remembered (accurately or falsely) very little: Madame Bovary read romantic novels; she fooled around with a slick rich guy who dumped her; her husband was dull as an ox (the words "Bovary" and "bovine" are linked in my mind); Madame Bovary took arsenic or rat poison; she died a painful death.

In high school, I also read The Sorrows of Young Werther, which featured, as I recall, a dramatic suicide. I don't remember whether Werther read romantic novels, but Goethe's romantic novel left me depressed for several days. I contemplated suicide. When my English teacher, Mrs. Orris, told me she didn't like it when students read The Sorrows because they often became depressed, I felt so unoriginal that I soon snapped out of it. I was a genius then, and geniuses don't experience unoriginal things.

Is the conventional wisdom that Madame Bovary is an unoriginal character originally conceived by Flaubert? I don't know how to address this question because I'm only a fifth of the way through the book, but I do recognize Madame Bovary as solidly within the literary tradition of bad readers. Indeed, one could argue that the form of the novel itself began with a famously bad reader—Don Quixote. However, when Flaubert describes an evening get-together in which Charles and M. Homais fall asleep at the fire and Léon and Emma are drawn into a tête-à-tête, I suspect Flaubert's literary sources go back further than Cervantes. Here is the scene in Lowell Bair's translation:

By now the fire had died down and the teapot was empty; Léon continued to read and Emma listened to him, absent-mindedly turning the lampshade decorated with paintings of pierrots in carriages and tightrope dancers with their balancing poles. Léon would stop and make a gesture calling her attention to his sleeping audience; then they would talk to each other in low voices, and their conversation seemed sweeter to them because no one else could hear it.

Thus a bond was established between them, a continual exchange of books and songs; Monsieur Bovary, little inclined to jealousy, took it as a matter of course.


I'm thinking of Dante's account of Paolo and Francesca in Canto V of The Inferno. Canto V is set in the realm of the lustful, where, like hapless birds, the damned are buffeted by tormenting winds. The symbolism is obvious: the lustful are overcome by punishing winds in death because they allowed themselves to be overcome by their sinful passions in life. Dante initially serves us up with a series of cameos by the literary lustful, including Semiramis, Dido, Cleopatra, Helen, Achilles, Paris, and Tristan. Virgil apparently names another thousand souls—how patient Dante is—but the two eventually come upon those historical figures now made literary by Dante. The passage begins with Francesca's famous line:

. . . "Nessun maggior dolore
che ricordarsi del tempo felice
ne la miseria . . ."


Or in my translation:

. . . "There is no greater pain
than to remember times of happiness
when in misery . . . "


Francesca then goes on to describe how she and Paolo were seduced by reading the romances of Lancelot:

". . . One day, for pleasure,
We read of Lancelot, by love constrained:
Alone, suspecting nothing, at our leisure.

Sometimes at what we read our glances joined,
Looking from the book each to the other's eyes,
And then the color in our faces drained.

But one particular moment alone it was
Defeated us: the longed-for smile, it said,
Was kissed by that most noble lover: at this,

This one, who now will never leave my side,
Kissed my mouth, trembling. . . ." [Robert Pinsky's translation]


The passage ends with this:

". . . Galeottto fu 'l libro e chi lo scrisse:
quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante."


Or in my translation:

". . . That book was a Galeotto and he who wrote it:
that day we read no further."


I quoted the final two lines in Italian because the use of the name Galeotto is important. Galeotto is Italian for Gallehault, who acted as a go-between for Lancelot and Guinevere. The influence of Dante's Tuscan dialect on what we now call Italian is apparent in the meaning of the modern galeotto: a panderer. In effect, Dante is saying that in bad reading, the book serves as a kind of pimp between the reader and her sinful acts of passion.

I stand in awe of Dante as a poet; as a theologian he appalls me. Yet, his belief in the justness of eternal torture is merely conventional for his time. As long as pride against God was seen as the first and fundamental sin, the use of torture was a justifiable corrective to bring about a restoration of humility before God. As Judith N. Shklar has pointed out in Ordinary Vices, Montaigne moved outside the Christian theologian framework when he made man the measure of all things and judged cruelty as the worst thing we do to each other. As Montaigne famously said in "Of Cannibals":

But there never was any opinion so disordered as to excuse treachery, disloyalty, tyranny, and cruelty, which are our ordinary vices. [Donald Frame translation]


If Christians are a bit less cruel than they were in Dante's time, it's because their Christianity has been humanized by our first and greatest essayist and humanist, Montaigne. Avishai Margalit—skeptical as he is that John Rawls' idea of social justice can be pragmatically realized—has posited the decent society as one that refrains from institutionalizing cruelty and humiliation. In this sense, Margalit is working within the humanistic strain of Judaism, which is as much heir to Montaigne's humanism as liberal Christianity.

A couple years ago, when my wife and I visited the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padova, I was struck by the resemblance of the stacks of tormented naked bodies in Giotto's Inferno to some of the photographs coming out of Abu Ghraib. I wouldn't call it so much an instance of life imitating art as conceptual structures reverberating through time. As I understand it, Flaubert saw himself as objectively, almost scientifically, portraying his characters in precise evidential detail. One should not take his intention, however, as indicative of an art free of art, any more than we should expect, say, documentaries to be free of the art of filmmaking. Flaubert, whatever he may have thought he was doing, was working within ineluctable literary structures whose sources, though at odds with his philosophical outlook, compelled him through time with their aesthetic power.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Proust's Metaphysical Problem

We haven't heard from Dr. Harris for some time. We weren't worried, though. We knew that he was cooking up something very good for us. Here it is. We are not disappointed.

The English teach has persuaded me to read Montaigne. He didn’t need to use his full persuasive powers; I already admired Montaigne’s essays. But, my familiarity with them was limited to what is anthologized in my library. I look ahead to buying Donald Frame’s translation of the complete essays. I’m particularly interested in reading “On Persuasion.” Critic Roger Shattuck believes this essay holds the key to understanding one of Proust’s motifs: disappointment at realizing one’s wishes.

Shattuck quotes Montaigne’s insight that we humans suffer from “an error of mind,” “that I attach too little value to things I possess, just because I possess them and overvalue anything strange, absent, and not mine... My neighbor’s house, the way he runs his affairs, his horse, though no better than my own, are all worth more than mine precisely because they are not mine.” Shattuck calls it “soul error.”

Of the church in the seaside town of Balbec, Marcel tells us his mind had

rescued the Virgin of the porch from the reproductions I had seen, protecting her forever from any vicissitudes which might jeopardize them, letting her stand unscathed amid their annihilation, ideal, full of her universal value…


When Marcel sees the actual church, he finds “that the statue… was reduced to nothing but its own shape in stone, right next to an election notice, no less within arm’s reach than it, no less touchable with the tip of my cane, rooted to the square, inseparable from the junction of the high street….” The election notice, Marcel’s cane, the square, and the street quickly and fully displace Marcel’s idealization of the church porch.

The language suggests more than dashed expectations. Before visiting Balbec, when he “rescued” the Virgin from life’s “vicissitudes” and made her “universal,” Marcel had achieved a Platonic understanding of her. Seeing the church porch threatens this achievement. The election notice, square, and street throw an impenetrable veil over his Virgin, preventing Marcel from perceiving her true nature. Marcel’s problem is metaphysical.

In Swann’s Way the Narrator says this about his relationship to life outside his bedroom:

When I saw an external object, my awareness that I was seeing it would remain between me and it, lining it with a thin spiritual border that prevented me from ever directly touching its substance; it would volatize in some way before I could make contact with it, just as an incandescent body brought near a wet object never touches its moisture because it is always preceded by a zone of evaporation.


This observation begins a short passage on the nature of reading. Reading provides a psychological screen on which external objects mingle with a book’s imagined events (recalling the magic lantern which creates the same kind of aesthetic experience in Marcel’s bedroom). The internal life that reading creates provides a “constantly moving handle” one can use “to control the rest” (that is, the external world), by which the reader discovers the book’s “philosophical truth and beauty.” Emotions are “intensified tenfold.” In contrast, actual life is insensate:

our heart changes, in life, and it is the worst pain; but we know it only through reading, through our imagination: in reality it changes, as certain natural phenomena occur, slowly enough so that, if we are able to observe successively each of its different stages, in return we are spare the actual sensation of change.


If noticing change in our own hearts is difficult, understanding the thoughts and feelings of others is an intractable problem. A “real human being, however much we sympathize with him… remains opaque to us, presents a dead weight which our sensibility cannot lift.” Reading obviates this by offering a direct view into the feelings of others, at least as writers describe them.

Encounters with the actual world cannot directly yield truth. Truth can be attained only by assimilating, distilling, and re-imagining life. The way out of Plato’s Cave is by creating art.

The true world/actual world problem at the heart of Proust’s endeavor is, as I noted earlier, metaphysical. Nietzsche recapitulates the problem’s twenty-five-hundred year history in a brief list of its six stages (or “errors”), titled “How the ‘True World’ Finally Became a Fable.” The first stage is to think

The true world—attainable for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man; he lives in it, he is it.

The oldest form of the idea, relatively sensible, simple, and persuasive. A circumlocution for the sentence, “I, Plato, am the truth).


From the Nietzchean point of view, Marcel’s attempt to find truth is wrong-headed. “The ‘apparent’ world is the only one,” he writes in Twilight of the Idols, “the ‘true’ world is merely added by a lie.” Marcel’s recurrent disappointments are inevitable because the effort to find “permanence and unity” leads to falsification, not truth. Like the philosophers Nietzsche criticizes, Marcel is always (to use Nietzsche’s words) “confusing the last for the first,” always placing “that which comes at the end—unfortunately! for it ought not to come at all!—namely, the ‘highest concepts,’ which means the most general, the emptiest concepts, the last smoke of evaporating reality, in the beginning…” Not concepts perhaps, but expectations—the imagined before the real. Nietzsche’s assertion that “the testimony of the senses” trumps reason aptly sums up Marcel’s experience on the porch of Balbec’s church.

Nietzsche’s attack on Platonism does not strike at Marcel’s quest to become a writer, however. “Any distinction between a ‘true’ and an ‘apparent’ world,” he writes, “is only a suggestion of decadence, a symptom of the decline of life.

That the artist esteems appearance higher than reality is no objection to this proposition. For ‘appearance’ in this case means reality once more, only by way of selection, reinforcement, and correction.


We might add the remark as a footnote to the Narrator’s remarks on reading, knowing its truth by our own reading of In Search of Lost Time.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Reading Proust (Part 7): Proust on Reading


The opening passages of Marcel Proust's On Reading contain the most beautiful account of childhood reading that I've ever read. Originally serving as a preface to Proust's translation of Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies, the essay begins this way:

There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we believe we left without having lived them, those we spent with a favorite book. [translations throughout by Jean Autret and William Burford, found in On Reading (New York, 1971)]


His opening is deceptive in its simplicity, for Proust quickly complicates his first thought with his second sentence:

Everything that filled them for others, so it seemed, and that we dismissed as a vulgar obstacle to a divine pleasure: the game for which a friend would come to fetch us at the most interesting passage; the troublesome bee or sun ray that forced us to lift our eyes from the page or to change position; the provisions for the afternoon snack that we had been made to take along and that we left beside us on the bench without touching, while above our head the sun was diminishing in force in the blue sky; the dinner we had to return for, and during which we thought only of going up immediately afterward to finish the uninterrupted chapter, all those things with which reading should have kept us from feeling anything but annoyance, on the contrary they have engraved in us so sweet a memory (so much more precious to our present judgment than what we read then with such love), that if we still happen today to leaf through those books of another time, it is for no other reason than that they are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished, and we hope to see reflected on their pages the dwellings and the ponds which no longer exist.


While Proust was already thirty-four when he wrote this essay in 1905, it marks, as the translators put it, a "true beginning" for the writer. His second sentence contains, for example, a Proustian reversal in which the annoying distractions from his early reading turn out to be, years later, the primary pleasures recalled in memory. This reversal is embodied in syntax and capped off with the longing to recapture days long "vanished."

Proust continues in a Proustian vein as he describes, in a kind of drama of detail, the two rooms he read in: the dining room before lunch and his bedroom after lunch. In the case of the latter, Proust introduces another Proustian reversal: the abundance of ornamental objects in the room makes it difficult for him to find and employ the few useful ones there, but the ornamental objects provide him with the most pleasure while he's reading. He writes:

. . . [A]ll those things which not only could not answer any of my needs, but were even an impediment, however slight, to their satisfaction, which evidently had never been placed there for someone's use, people my room with thoughts somehow personal, with that air of predilection, of having chosen to live there and delighting in it, which often the trees in a clearing and the flowers on the road sides or on old walls have. They filled it with a silent and different life, with a mystery in which my person found itself lost and charmed at the same time . . .


In a recent article, Alex Ross compared Wallace Stevens' poem "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm" to the opening passages of Brahms' fourth symphony. I associate the poem with Proust's "silent and different life"—a reading life that progresses through the day and late into the night, culminating with an inevitable Proustian disappointment when he finally finishes the book:

Then, what? This book, it was nothing but that? Those beings to whom one had given more of one's attention and tenderness than to people in real life, not always daring to admit how much one loved them, even when our parents found us reading and appeared to smile at our emotion, so that we closed the book with affected indifference or feigned ennui; those people, for whom one had panted and sobbed, one would never see again, one would no longer know anything about them.


Soon after this passage, he shifts to a more scholarly discussion of Ruskin, and we immediately feel the disappointment of losing our seemingly familiar Proust for an oddly academic one. Our disappointment is—dare I say it?—so Proustian.

My wife is currently reading Swann's Way, and she recently reminded me of a passage on pages 90-93 of the Moncrieff-Kilmartin edition in which Marcel describes how the people and landscapes in the novels he's reading are more real to him than actual people and landscapes. (With my wife, a close friend, and I all reading Remembrance at the same time, I'm beginning to feel part of something like the cult of Proust readers that Natalia Ginzberg describes with amusing irony in her novel Lessico Famigliare or Family Sayings). In Swann's Way, Proust carefully develops his aesthetic theory of "real" people versus "book" people, but for the moment I'm more intrigued with his discussion of "book" landscapes:

. . . [F]or the landscapes in the books I read were to me not merely landscapes more vividly portrayed in my imagination than any which Combray could spread before my eyes but otherwise of the same kind. Because of the choice that the author had made of them, because of the spirit of faith in which my mind would exceed and anticipate his printed word, as it might be interpreting a revelation, they seemed to me—an impression I hardly ever derived from the place where I happened to be, especially from our garden, that undistinguished product of the strictly conventional fantasy of the gardener whom my grandmother so despised—to be actually part of nature itself, and worthy to be studied and explored.

Had my parents allowed me, when I read a book, to pay a visit to the region it described, I should have felt that I was making an enormous advance towards the ultimate conquest of truth. . . .


Do I detect here a faint echo of Emerson? I'm thinking of the passage I cited in my previous piece on Proust:

By persisting to read or to think, this region gives further sign of itself, as it were in flashes of light, in sudden discoveries of its profound beauty and repose, as if the clouds that covered it parted at intervals and showed the approaching traveler the inland mountains, with the tranquil eternal meadows spread at their base, whereon flocks graze and shepherds pipe and dance. But every insight from this realm of thought is felt as initial, and promises a sequel. I do not make it; I arrive there, and behold what was there already. I make! O no! I clap my hands in infantine joy and amazement before the first opening to me of this august magnificence, old with the love and homage of innumerable ages, young with the life of life, the sunbright Mecca of the desert. And what a future it opens! I feel a new heart beating with the love of the new beauty. I am ready to die out of nature and be born again into this new yet unapproachable America I have found in the West.


The idea of advancing upon a landscape, the complicated association of literary landscapes with Nature, the imagination in action as a form of exploration—these motifs belong to both passages, and while the comparison might seemed far-fetched, I note that the scholarly Proust of On Reading writes about how there are writers "who liked to read a beautiful page before starting to work." "Emerson," he says, "would rarely begin to write without rereading some pages of Plato."

I don't know whose "beautiful page" Proust might have turned to before he took up Remembrance each day, but I understand the sentiment thoroughly. Much of what I'm reading these days—I'm thinking now of political blogs and academic articles—is atrociously written. Despite the demands on my time, I still aspire to string together some well-phrased sentences from time to time. But before I can take up that endless work one more time, I sometimes feel the need to refresh my eyes with a "beautiful page"—something neither political nor educational, but, as A Reader says in Unpacking My Library, something that "rekindles the imagination, and eases the way forward, if momentarily."

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Health Club

Julian Bentley has graced us with this new guest column. Her new piece follows in the same vein as Body Modification, posted recently on The English Teacher. I hope you find this essay as amusing and encouraging as I did.

Has the term "health club" ever struck you as somewhat of a misnomer? Doesn’t "club" connote some sort of exclusionary elbow-rubbing? Doesn’t it conjure up images of secret handshakes, funny hats and the exchange of business cards? Isn’t a club supposed to be a gathering of select people who share some profession or slightly obsessive interest? The members of my health club run the gamut from customer-service personnel and union worker to white collar professional—from super jock to desk jockey. There are firemen, nurses, doctors, teachers, writers, computer programmers, waiters, retirees, new moms, small business owners, real estate saleswomen, college students and grocery clerks. And those are just the people whose occupations I know about.

I concede that health clubs in general are exclusionary in that only people hovering around the increasingly elusive middle-class income level can afford membership. One could argue that only the fitness-oriented join health clubs, and that this is the compelling connection we have to one another. But you mightn’t assume this if you lined us all up in our street clothes at Ballard’s Bergen Place. We would simply look like what we are, a collection of middle-class American schmoes.

Perhaps the "club" part is the "clubhouse" itself, that special place set up with special equipment and trained personnel ready to help members with that most "secret" aspect of their existence: the condition of their bodies. Still, the word "gym" seems more honest. It’s a place to exercise. The majority of us are not there to yammer, but to unwind, tone up, and in some cases, stave off a heart attack. The term "gym" seems to have gone the way of Jack LaLanne and calisthenics, but I like the word; it’s no fluff. When you think "gym," you think sweat and work; when you think "health club," you think frou-frou spa reeking of "essential" oil. It’s all part of the conspiracy to make everything sound fancier than what it really is.

I live one block from my health club. I get home from work, pull on my old, faded work-out clothes, and head over to the subterranean den in Ballard that used to be a venue for live music. These days the place is aglow with fluorescent light, and the music has a butt-burning beat punctuated with periodic clangs of metal from the weight area. I treat this fetid little grotto the way previous generations of wage-earning men treated their favorite bar; I go there after work to decompress. It’s a place where you can kid yourself that you still have some control over your life; you still have a little piss and vinegar left in you after the boss has said his say (or in my case, after some hormone-drunk adolescent has spent the morning sneering in my direction). Like one of the "old boys" of yore (or maybe not so "yore"), I emerge from my place of refuge with a pinker hue, a rekindled blaze in my eye, and my chest puffed up with renewed confidence. After an hour of riding my butt numb on the exerbike, teaching high school seems almost rewarding. Yes, I’m a true believer in the tonic of exercise.

I work out regularly for a number of reasons. First, it takes the edge off my anxiety, which has soared like a rocket over the past few years. My husband attributes this to the setting in of "major adult concerns," the type you don’t have in your twenties and thirties: surviving financially during retirement, caring for your aging parents, dealing with the aches, pains, suddenly-appearing moles and other deviations that your body is suddenly rife with after 40. Second, I work out in an effort to burn through the pasta, cheese, cookies and ice cream I consume, all of which are integral to my hedonist nature. (How can a writer craft sensual imagery on the Atkins Plan?) Third, I feel happier after a workout. I feel vital and energetic, and the prospect of tackling my to-do list seems doable. Finally, working out is my first line of defense against menopause.

While my husband maintains that everyone starts freaking out at middle age, I know that we women get especially freaked out. It’s documented, after all. Medications and herbal remedies are being peddled as I type. And I find this reassuring; it’s not that I’m a nervous wreck who can’t deal with the pressures of adulthood; it’s that toxic menopausal hormones are clouding my thinking and interrupting my sleep, not to mention having a deleterious effect on my figure. Exercising helps me contend with all these problems naturally. Hasn’t everyone read in some women’s magazine that exercise combats such menopausal afflictions as osteoporosis, cellulite and decreasing sex drive? Exercise is one thing I’m religious about.

I don’t spend all my spare time at the health club, though. I have "inner resources," as my mother calls them. I read a novel whenever I can manage to plow through the perpetual ream of student papers on my desk. I write when I can, which usually amounts to summertime. My husband and I go out for sushi Friday nights and often find time to take a walk to Shilshole Bay on Sunday afternoons. I call one friend a week, on average, albeit usually to explain that I am too busy to actually get together. I visit my 83 year-old mother every other week, though this is hardly what I’d call a relaxing enterprise. But at least I’m not like Side o’ Beef, the bald bruiser who’s at the gym no matter what time of day I stop in, grunting in a sexual way as he lies on his back pushing a well-hung barbell towards the ceiling. There’s something frightening about his dedication to body building. What, exactly, does he hope to accomplish? Perhaps he’s bound for the Olympics. Perhaps he believes that through sheer muscle inflation he can ward off life’s difficulties like some superhero. Yet even if he worked himself up to the girth of a zeppelin, he’d be no match for Life. There’s just no escaping the equation of Life divided by Time, plus Chance.

Speaking of approaches to fitness, let’s consider the binge exercisers. These are the folks who come in daily for one or two months, ride the elliptical machine like a meth fiend, and then vanish from the club till the following January. I think of them as New Year’s Resolutionists. They look impressive while their commitment lasts, red-cheeked and steamy as they pedal their machines like one of those cartoon characters whose legs disappear in a circular blur. What I want to know is what happens to them? Do they fall prey to a hot fudge sundae one day and just keep going from there? Do they go out for an evening jog and vanish into the sunset, unable to restrain themselves from exercising into oblivion?

Then there are the athletic event trainees, awesome individuals who ply their Herculean trade before the rest of us, throwing around their pearls (their biceps) before swine. I watch the toned, tan young woman with the black ponytail leaping along her treadmill for one hour, barely breaking a sweat. I watch the bearish man with the kind expression walk backwards at a sharp angle up the treadmill, his calves thick with muscle. Perhaps he’s training to hike the Pacific Crest. The health club staff is always creating attractive displays that showcase the activities of its most talented patrons. Triathlon and marathon completion times are noted, as are new weight lifting benchmarks. One of those burly-boys down in the pit can lift 435 pounds! I think I know which one he is: the guy who looks vaguely like the cow on that French cheese, La Vache Qui Rit. These people tread the health club carpets with confidence, muscled arms sticking out from their sides like overripe fruit. Two of the patrons are weirdly androgynous, one man and one woman. It’s as if they’ve exercised themselves to a level of sexlessness, as if the human body hits a certain hormone level, stimulated by physical activity, and becomes a firm-breasted, lean-in-the-shanks humanoid. This is all the reason I need to avoid overdoing it. The last thing I’m aiming for is to end up looking like Zeppo Marx.

Moderates like me, menopausal women and middle aged men, are moderates out of necessity. We know that permanent injury is just one wrong reach away. Yet we’re fairly fit and think of ourselves as "youngish." All we wish is to stay in this holding pattern for several decades. So we come, we stretch, we sweat, we prevail over the urge to just go have a beer and forget about it. We’ve all seen those news exposés like Eye on America featuring fat Americans, their bulbous abdomens the only thing you see in the camera’s frame. None of us want to end up like that. All of us know it’s within the realm of possibility. In a city where it rains one day in two and gets dark at four-thirty November through January, the gym keeps us going, both physically and emotionally.

I’ve tried nearly all the programs offered at the club in an effort to maximize my fitness. I even tried yoga, which I had a hunch wouldn’t be my bag because I’m too type-A to concentrate on my breath for minutes on end. But all the women’s mags these days crow about the wonders of yoga. Julia Roberts does it. Madonna does it. And don’t they look great? No one mentions the fact that they both have personal chefs, maids, beauticians and a boatload of money.

I did yoga for a whole month, until I got fed up with twisting my body around like a Gumby doll and still being marveled at by the instructor for my lack of flexibility. Periodically she’d come pull my leg straight, her cold hand grabbing my limb like a meat hook and yanking unceremoniously. The irony that someone who places a little Vishnu statue at the front of the room before every class could handle my gams like Benny the Butcher did not escape me. Where was the peace, where was the love? I knew I should go back to my regular exercise routine when I began to resent every feature of the classic yoga practitioner: the pretentious little rolled-up mat, the expensive Capri pants and strappy top, the bare feet (always manicured, usually adorned with red toenail polish), and the virtuous facial expression which, in my experience, usually veils a nasty dark side, probably unleashed upon poor unsuspecting baristas. Give me the grunting hulks in the weight-lifting area any day. At least you get what you see.

I feel at home in the weight area. It’s one of those places where you can get distance from things and spend time with your own thoughts while being in the midst of humanity (albeit grunting humanity). I can choose whichever machines I like, adjust them to fit my squat five-foot-two body and zone out to the rhythm of whatever tune is being piped in. With every push, I force a little frustration out; with every inhalation, I draw determination to deal with the next set of obstacles. There’s something about anaerobic exercise that works stress almost completely out of your system, as if you’re performing a kind of exorcism on yourself. Every now and then a man who’s really exerting himself coughs out a sound of struggle, and I wonder: why don’t women ever emit that kind of sound when they lift weights? Just who are the drama queens in our society?

I’m interested in the other middle-aged women at the gym. They come in with that mild fatigue around the eyes and subtle slackness in their step that belies the unassailable vigor they possess. The military doesn’t realize what it’s got in this untapped resource, not that any of us would be stupid enough to give our lives for the vainglorious delusions of a gaggle of men. One woman who’s about sixty-five and comes to our gym appears to be a cancer patient. She disappears slowly into the dressing room, her bruised and wrinkled skin looking as if it pains her in its very hanging from her bones. Minutes later, she’s out on the floor pumping iron. Hers is one of the most life-affirming statements I’ve ever seen. With every visit she makes— looking weaker, I’m afraid, every time—she is showing her will to protest against the dark. We mid-life gym-goers may have a little paunch here, a droop to our haunch there, but where the younger women seem generically attractive in that fresh, firm way, like a new-caught salmon on the racks at Pike Market, we have character. We have staying power. All women are sisters, but younger women belong to a junior sisterhood. Their bodies and psyches are in the midst of a different reality, one which tends to win more kindness and acknowledgment. My mother once told me that when a woman hits fifty, men don’t pay attention to her anymore; what she says is apparently no longer interesting. While I’d like to think that this attitude has diminished over the past thirty years, I can see there’s still a grain of truth to it.

I’ve forged a few casual friendships with my female cohorts at the gym. Friendships there are based on schedules. I’m part of the 3:30- 5:00 p.m. crowd. I imagine a goodly lot of us are teachers, because I see a number of T-shirts with Whitman PE emblazoned across the front, or Ballard, implying the high school. A tall, lean woman with brown hair and freckles wears an I Read Banned Books T-shirt. Perhaps a school librarian. We all see each other in the changing room, in our ratty exercise bras and sweaty togs, and we see each other out on the floor struggling, week in and week out, to maintain the tenuous hold we have on our shapes. Some of us smile and murmur hello to each other, others insulate themselves from additional human stimulus by plugging themselves into iPods. But I have actual conversations with some of the women who work out there. We talk above the whirr of our machines about long hours at work, small pleasures that glint here and there in our lives (good books, vacation plans), the needless violence our government officials seem to be stimulating across the globe, and, of course, food. It’s amazing how much we talk about food even as we work to erase its effects.

Not long ago, a gaggle of us late-afternoon women spontaneously launched into a discussion in the changing room. Sonya, a bright, independent blond who runs her own environmental consulting firm and brings actual books to read as she rides the exerbike, was there, as well as a good-natured, fair-haired, willowy woman who has one of those pliable yoga bodies. There was also a rather conservative-looking grandmother-type in round plastic glasses, short like me, but broader in the beam. Sonya was grumbling to me about one of the men who comes to the gym regularly. He’d just been out on the floor, doing what drives her to distraction: running in his chaotic, thumping style on the treadmill. I guess it’s both the sound and the floppy, out-of-control way he flings himself forward that unnerves her. We were all in various phases of peeling off our sweaty garments and preparing to re-enter the outside world. Sonya was complaining that the guy was driving her nuts. “You’re not supposed to thump on the machines like that. It ruins them.”

The grandmother chimed in: “Is that the man who always wears a mesh shirt?”

“Yes,” I confirmed. “Greasy hair, 35, slack mouth, permanent five o’clock shadow, his skin’s kind of sallow beneath the mesh . . .”

“Yuck.” Sonya shuddered, and we all laughed. “He smells, too. You ever noticed? I don’t think he ever bathes. Seriously.”

“I call him the Rehab Guy,” I admitted. “He always looks hung over, like he’s trying to get sober by working out.”

“I call him Thumper,” Sonya said, “like that rabbit in the children’s book.” We all laughed.

“The Mountain Climber guy thumps around quite a bit in those waffle stompers of his,” I said. “He must be training for some hike.”

“Which one’s the Mountain Climber?” asked the willowy woman.

And then we all started in on the nicknames we had for a whole slew of gym members, based on some salient feature of the person’s physique or the usual outfit he or she wore, or some fragment of personal information we’d picked up in a brief exchange. We found ourselves, perfect strangers, snorting with laughter amidst the lockers. The Grandmother calls one guy Zoey because of the tattoo he has on the back of his neck. I told her I call the same guy the Fireman, because I’d seen him driving around in his truck with a fire department decal on the back window. Other characters we mentioned were the Zen Guy, Mr. Nipple Ring, Girl with the Celtic Butt Tattoo, Cell Phone Attaché, and Billy Goatee.

As I left the gym that day, I felt a quiver of delight. Our name-calling of fellow gym patrons may not have been especially nice, but I believe the names were given in a spirit of appreciation for the lesser foibles of humanity. Our jesting was done with the recognition that each one of us is ridiculous in our own way, perhaps in several ways, and that far from being mortifying, this is reassuring. God forbid a world bereft of the ridiculous. God forbid an existence in which people have lost their sense of irony, their ability to see our President, for example, as a fool, laughable if his decisions weren’t so destructive. We must pay heed to the injustices in the world, lift our voices and work to correct them. But we also need to acknowledge the absurdity of the human race, with its feelings of self-importance and its wildly divergent views of good and evil, success and failure, and "fitness."

We middle-aged people, men and women, are specially poised to embrace the ridiculous, because most of us have caught a glimmer of the truth: we all become increasingly ridiculous with age and in direct proportion to how important we think we are. Maybe our divine purpose is to finally grasp that each of us is but a speck in the universe of species and concerns we call life. Maybe there is no purpose. Why keep hauling myself to the gym, then? Because despite the chaos and strangeness of life, despite being disappointed in the degree to which people can destroy each other, I want to be able to experience every bump and glide while I can, and take those rare opportunities to enjoy a good laugh. Nothing makes me feel more alive than working my mind and body every day, till both are nearly spent. C’est la vie.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Storm of Style: On Mozart

Last night, as I visited a friend and listened to a recording of his recent performances at a Berlin piano competition, I was reminded how enduring music, played well, can corroborate our deepest praises for life. In times of extreme distress, I can sometimes be a bit of an obsessive Bach listener, but my friend's descriptions of Mozart's music have inspired me to listen to his works with what I hope is a renewed appreciation.

This morning my friend fortuitously sent me a link to The Storm of Style: Listening to the Complete Mozart, Alex Ross' review of the composer's life and work in the two-hundred fiftieth anniversary year of his birth. One of the recurring themes of Ross' article concerns the many myths surrounding Mozart's life, which he summarizes this way:

For a long time, well into the twentieth century, many people pictured Mozart as the “eternal child”—an antic boy-man who happened to write sublime music. This was a theme of Alfred Einstein’s 1945 biography, long considered the standard work. Pushkin, in his play “Mozart and Salieri,” came up with an influential variant: Mozart as “idle hooligan.” This led to the eternal adolescent of the play and movie “Amadeus”—the potty-mouthed punk who happened to write sublime music. Other commentators have made Mozart out to be a Romantic in the making or a modernist before the fact—an aloof, tortured character, an agent of sexual subversion, or a clandestine social revolutionary.


To dispel such myths, Ross draws on the research of present-day scholars who portray the complexities of Mozart as a working artist. Mozart's more recent biographers "describe him not as a naïve prodigy or a suffering outcast but as a hardworking, ambitious, successful musician—'Mozart as a Working Stiff,' to borrow the title of a 1994 essay by Neal Zaslaw." Of course, Mozart could be "physically restless," "flirtatious" and "obscene." (Mozart called a canon for six voices "Leck mich im Arsch," which means what you think it means.) But as Ross describes him, Mozart was, above all, an artist constantly at work:

Scholars have also demolished the old idea that Mozart was an idiot savant, transcribing the music that played in his brain. Instead, he seems to have refined his ideas to an almost manic degree. Examination of Mozart’s surviving sketches and drafts—Constanze threw many sketches away—reveals that the composer sometimes began a piece, set it aside, and resumed it months or years later; rewrote troubling sections several times in a row; started movements from scratch when a first attempt failed to satisfy; and waited to finish an aria until a singer had tried out the opening. Ulrich Konrad calls these stockpiles of material “departure points”—“a delineation of intellectual places to which Mozart could return as necessary.” In other words, the music in Mozart’s mind may have been like a huge map of half-explored territories; in a way, he was writing all his works all the time. The new image of him as a kind of improvising perfectionist is even more formidable than the previous one of God’s stenographer. Ambitious parents who are currently playing the “Baby Mozart” video for their toddlers may be disappointed to learn that Mozart became Mozart by working furiously hard, and, if Constanze was right, by working himself to death.


Ross describes how, from an early age, Mozart was a kind of studious sponge who soaked up influences from whatever music he was exposed to:

Young Mozart shows an uncanny ability to mimic the styles and forms of the day: Baroque sacred music, opera buffa and opera seria, Gluckian reform opera, Haydn’s classicism, the Mannheim symphonic school, Sturm und Drang agitation, and so on. Quite a bit of the music is reassuringly routine; Hermann Abert writes, in his massive biography, that Mozart “evolved along sound lines, without any supernatural leaps and bounds.”


In discussing Mozart's growth toward adulthood, Ross raises the question of whether the traumas of his life—"the failure of his venture to Paris, the death of his mother, Leopold’s scathing criticism"—brought a "new musical maturity." Ross seems to answer his own question when he concludes with a quote from Stanley Sadie: "There is no real reason to imagine that [Mozart] used his music as a vehicle for the expression of his own personal feelings." Ross again raises the question of the link between his difficult life and his flourishing art when he discusses Mozart's mid- to late-twenties. Yet, he again seems to favor the image of Mozart less as suffering artist and more as working artist. In particular, he cites the growing influence of Bach's music:

The instrumental works, with their architecturally imposing first movements and their slow movements that open up multiple inner worlds, are the most expansive of their time, looking forward to Beethoven only insofar as Beethoven looked back at them. Yet the futuristic broadening of scope is made possible by a study of the past; Mozart immerses himself in the art of Bach, prompted by a fad for old music in aristocratic circles. (The Emperor liked fugues.) Counterpoint is used to elaborate and intensify the thematic argument of sonata form. Also, in the slow movements spasms of dissonance are used to offset the surplus of beauty; Scott Burnham notes that the famous Andante of the Concerto No. 21 contains a quietly shuddering five-note collection that is not so much a chord as a cluster. Counterpoint and dissonance are the cables on which Mozart’s bridges to paradise hang.


For the final period of Mozart's life, Ross concentrates on "Don Giovanni." This passage alone made me want to go out and rent a DVD of the opera:

In a jubilee year, when all the old Mozart myths come rising out of the ground where scholars have tried to bury them, the usefulness of “Don Giovanni” is that it puts a stake through the heart of the chocolate-box Mozart, the car-radio Mozart, the Mozart-makes-you-smarter Mozart. If the opera were played in bus stations or dentists’ waiting rooms, it would spread fear. It would probably cause perversion in infants. No matter how many times you hear the punitive D-minor chord with which the opera begins, or the glowering diminished seventh that heralds the arrival of the stone statue of the Commendatore (“Don Giovanni, you invited me to dinner, and I have come”), it generates a certain mental panic.


In a time when so much of our music is either forgettably inane or forgettably recondite, Mozart's music remains happily accessible to a wide range of audiences. As we end the first two-hundred fifty years of Mozart's music and begin the next two-hundred fifty, Ross reminds us of Mozart's own "pragmatic philosophy":

These concertos [Nos. 11, 12, and 13] are a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult; they are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid. There are passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why. . . .


Without knowing why, I wish everyone pleasure and prosperity in 2007.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Body Modification

This guest column comes to us from Julian Bentley. Ms. Bentley has written a memoir of her experience growing up with two poet-parents and a murder mystery set in the San Juan Islands. While she seeks publishers for these two books, she is working on a new mystery novel set at an international school in Italy.

Two of Ms. Bentley's essays have been previously published in The English Teacher: The Lunch Ladies and The Secret Life of a Librarian.


The man who’s piercing my nose looks like a snake. His face is brown and shrunken, his eyes gleam with pop Buddhism, and greenish-blue tattoos cover the back of his neck. His earlobes have quarter-sized holes in them from ear plugs. I flash back to the Inca unit I taught my ninth grade class a few months back. The Incas wore ear plugs. They also made blood sacrifices to the gods, involving children on mountainsides. Mounted on the wall behind Snake Man is some sort of aboriginal spear. “Is that the piercing instrument?” I joke. He doesn’t seem to have a very good sense of humor; he answers as if I’m seriously enquiring. Across his other shoulder is a Buddha figure perched on a shelf. I fix my gaze there during the penetration.

Welcome to the world of "body modification." That’s what they call it, the Generation Y’s. A student recently introduced me to this term in a written reflection (assigned when the teacher can’t bear to read another essay with a thesis statement) on a Gloria Steinem article spoofing Freud. In the piece, Steinem mocks Freud’s penis envy and writes instead about male womb envy. Somehow my student got off on a tangent about the latest thing in the body modification crowd: penis scarification. This is meant to enhance the woman’s pleasure (how thoughtful), but there are other motivating factors having to do with redirecting the flow of urine so that the penis is purely for pleasure, and the expelling is done further up the member. Charming. I am truly getting old. When aspects of your culture become unfathomable, it is the beginning of the end. Or at least, it is the beginning of The Change.

I have embarked on The Change. If not physically yet, I am emotionally experiencing The Change. At 44, I’m piercing my nose for a variety of reasons, none of which I’ve articulated until this moment. It’s a mild act of defiance: just wait till my next job interview with a school administrator; they’ll look at my degrees and my experience, and then they’ll have to contend with the green rhinestone in my schnoz. It’s a kind of liberal label, I imagine, though I’m sure Jenna and her twin will probably show up on CNN with piercings of their own sooner or later. On some level, it’s a way of entering a new sphere—the sphere of the openly-defiant-against-conventions. (That is, until nose-piercing becomes conventional). I defy middle age to turn me into a wage-earning lackey who just wants to fit in. Some people have extramarital affairs at mid-life, or become shop-a-holics, or take off across the country in their cars and never come back. We each choose our own response to the discovery that we have reached the halfway point, and life has not turned out as we imagined it would. This is my first response. I wonder what else I’ll resort to in the future to stave off mid-life.

I hear the instrument tearing through my nasal wall. The piercer, himself well into his fourth decade, looks into my eyes. “How are you doing?” he asks in his soft, oily voice. It strikes me that he is like a sort of doctor. A witch doctor. What does his mother think of those empty loops in his earlobes? Can you imagine the reaction of any future in-laws? I doubt they’re gonna tell their kid, "Nice catch!"

Here I am, sitting on his examining table, a chunk of my nose residing on a tray somewhere, scraped off onto a paper towel . . . My eyes are watering a bit from the shock. He shakes my hand as if he’s just helped me bear a child. We’ve forged a blood bond. My husband sits behind me taking in the details of the place. Maybe one of us will get a piece of writing out of it, if nothing else.

Body modification. Let me tell you about body modification. It starts at 25 and slides south forever after. One of my high school students, a youth, has miniature ebony tusks plugging each ear lobe. An art teacher down the hall has some multi-colored tattoo wrapped all up and down her arm. People, you are not radical. Getting old is radical. Piercing involves one minute of ripping pain and a brief interaction with someone who, forgive the cliché image, probably engages in sadomasochistic rituals from time to time on a Saturday night. Pardon me if I grossly misjudge. Aging, on the other hand, is S L O W modification. Year by year by year the hair changes color and texture, the skin dries into tiny, channel-like scales that can be seen when you obsess on it in the sunlight. Crows’ feet appear unless you’re blessed with a plump face. And then the body begins to develop strains and aches: a trick knee here, an arthritic elbow there. You go to the gym in an attempt to tighten everything back up and get buff. You pump iron or ride the elliptical machine; you force yourself to jog for as long as you can possibly stand it. But the modification continues. S L O W L Y. New, subtle jowls form as your face hangs ever more heavily on the frame of your skull. The tattooed, scarred and pierced are making a statement, but look at the statement people over 40 make: we’ve fucking made it through decades, and we have lived through "piercing" experiences of all sorts.

Two days after my visit to the body piercing parlor, it’s clear that my piercing didn’t take. My infinitesimal jewel has become imbedded in my nose. On a visit to my mother’s, she informs me that my nose jewel looks like a blackhead. Thanks, Ma. I can always count on you to say the most tactless thing imaginable. My husband orders me to go back and have "them" take a look at it. The expression on his face frightens me. Clearly, he thinks I’m headed for infection and—he even mentions the word—surgery. After a day of teaching, I zoom to the University District and take my nose in for a check-up. A good-looking African American guy with a nice, subtle gold nose post examines my nose and affirms that no, it’s not supposed to look like that. Luckily, he says, the owner is in, and he’ll fix me up. I select a larger rhinestone that, God willing, will not become subcutaneous within 24 hours.

The owner is an attractive guy in his 30’s. He has shaggy brown hair seeping out from under a baseball cap (Snake Man had a shaved head) and little onyx studs in each dimple. He has matching studs in other strategic locations on his face, including his eyebrows and chin. The dimple studs have the curious effect of making him look like The Joker on Batman. His earlobes are stopped with large gray agates and he has an empty O in his lower septum where he probably once wore a large silver ring. I feel oddly reassured by him; surely, the owner is an expert in his field, and he seems soft spoken and gentle. The Snake Man had looked as if he could get—well, rather venomous, if pressed.

The larger stud, he assures me, will cure the problem. He’ll make the stem of the jewel longer, so that there’ll be more play there and it won’t pull the jewel down into my flesh. As he swabs my nose in preparation for another round of pain, I make the observation that he is surprisingly tattoo-free for having been in the business 12 years, as he’s just finished telling me. He’s not really into tattoos, he says. Oh, he has a few in various places beneath his clothing (I bar my imagination from going in dangerous directions), but he’s more into piercing and scarification. In fact, he chats along, his tongue has been split and he’s got some other scars . . . When people come to him with an idea for a scar, say a flower, he loves being able to help them realize their vision.

It’s a strain to keep my face from revealing the kinds of thoughts and images flowing through my mind, such as how did you develop this interest in burning scars into peoples’ flesh, are you mentally ill, and where exactly are your scars? I think with an inner flinch of my student’s "reflection." I begin to visualize this guy’s forked tongue and feel my eyes go wide.

A brief surge of pain, and my new rhinestone is in. Smiles back and forth, thank you very much, pay at the front, and ciao. On the Ave, students in flip-flops saunter along in the sun, probably just finished with final exams. On my way to the truck, I stop to buy something at the University Bookstore so that my parking will be validated. I grab an eighty-nine cent bag of fruit jellies and wait in line. A college kid standing next to me in line asks if he can and grabs my bag of fruit thingies simultaneously, scouring the list of ingredients on the back. “Yup, carnauba wax,” he announces with an air of satisfaction.

“Wax?” I ask, my nose throbbing. I really don’t give a shit if I’m about to eat wax. Besides, the package guarantees lots of vitamin C.

“Same stuff they put in Pledge and various floor polishes,” he tells me, waiting, no doubt, for me to grimace and stick the stuff back on the shelf.

“A little floor polish won’t hurt me,” I say with a slight smirk. Really, what difference is a little wax gonna make in the scheme of things, buddy? How old are you, anyway? Worried about toxins? Hell. What isn’t toxic? Don’t want to alter your chances for a good, long life? Don’t want to risk "body modification?" Everything "modifies."

I head back to my Ballard apartment, my stack of student papers, and my nice, intelligent, scar-free, unpunctured husband. He’ll be relieved that we don’t have to consider amputation. This time.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Reading Proust (Part 6)


I've begun reading the opening paragraphs of The Guermantes Way, and I feel that sense of hopefulness I often feel when starting a new book. Everything is before me, and I can already anticipate Marcel's touching love for his grandmother, his odd infatuation with Mme de Guermantes, the reappearances of Françoise, Saint Loup, Albertine, and the inimitable Charlus. Here is an illustration of why I said in my previous piece that I'd once decided only to read books I'd already read: because reading the best books a second time is arguably more pleasurable than reading any book the first time.

Not that this has stopped me from, on occasion, lining up six or seven books I've never read and reading the first several pages of each. My ostensible purpose in doing so was to see which book hooked me, but I also think I just enjoyed repeating the ritual of new beginnings. I'm reminded of that well-known passage from Emerson's "Experience" in which he writes of "the mode of our illumination" as being like the approach of "a new and excellent region of life":

By persisting to read or to think, this region gives further sign of itself, as it were in flashes of light, in sudden discoveries of its profound beauty and repose, as if the clouds that covered it parted at intervals and showed the approaching traveler the inland mountains, with the tranquil eternal meadows spread at their base, whereon flocks graze and shepherds pipe and dance. But every insight from this realm of thought is felt as initial, and promises a sequel. I do not make it; I arrive there, and behold what was there already. I make! O no! I clap my hands in infantine joy and amazement before the first opening to me of this august magnificence, old with the love and homage of innumerable ages, young with the life of life, the sunbright Mecca of the desert. And what a future it opens! I feel a new heart beating with the love of the new beauty. I am ready to die out of nature and be born again into this new yet unapproachable America I have found in the West.


We are entitled to wonder at this last puzzling sentence. Stanley Cavell has made more of it than I would have thought possible in his This New Yet Unapproachable America: Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein. Lacking Cavell's talent for subtle distinctions and precise indecisions, I read the passage as illustrating how the illumination arising out of the "converse" with "a profound mind" is like the vision of a grand landscape always unfolding before us into the distance. There is a sense of "beginningness" in this beholding, and Emerson would die out of nature and live again in this great new American landscape of unapproachable anticipation. I put "die out of nature" in italics not only for the complications of what he means by "nature," but also for the suggestiveness of the inevitable association of "die out of" with the passing of his son Waldo.

For those of us who've already read Remembrance, we know that the first paragraph of Guermantes, in which Marcel describes the change of residence to the Hôtel de Guermantes, foreshadows the death of his beloved grandmother. In the meantime, it is also a beginning with a beginning:

The twittering of the birds at daybreak sounded insipid to Françoise.


The irony of daybreak marred by insipid twittering birds is soon explained by the change at work:

Every word uttered by the maids upstairs made her jump; disturbed by all their running about, she kept asking herself what they could be doing. In other words, we had moved.


Their new existence at the Hôtel de Guermantes, while marked with unsettling commotion, begins in sentences simple enough. But it isn't long before Proust draws us into this bit of syntax:

Hence, if I had been tempted to scoff at her when, in her misery at having to leave a house in which one was "so well respected by all and sundry," she had packed her trunks weeping, in accordance with the rites of Combray, and declaring superior to all possible houses that which had been ours, on the other hand, finding it as hard to assimilate the new as I found it easy to abandon the old, I felt myself drawn towards our old servant when I saw that moving into the building where she had not received from the hall-porter, who did not yet know us, the marks of respect necessary to her spiritual wellbeing, had brought her positively to the verge of prostration.


In my first article, I had described how one of the pleasures of reading Proust was that it provided me with rich distractions during my bouts of insomnia. In Proust, one of the modes of our distraction is his syntax, which fixes our attention with its labyrinthine reversals. These reversals come quickly in this first paragraph, in which Marcel laughs at Françoise's tears but goes to her for sympathy; in which Françoise shows icy indifference to Marcel's sorrow because she shares it; and in which Françoise, as soon as Marcel tries to speak of the new house, laments the disadvantages of the old and speaks well of the new. Marcel writes of Françoise's "true feminine inconstancy," but this paragraph is all inconstancy embodied in syntax.

In my last article, I claimed not to have cracked Paradise Lost in three decades, but I remember my Milton professor having said something to the effect that Miltonic syntax was designed to remind us that we're fallen. If Proust's is about the irony of new beginnings in reversals, is Milton's about bringing us down to hard earth every time we reach the end of a period and can't quite hold the whole sense of the sentence in our distracted minds? Or was he suggesting something much simpler, that if we undergraduates were less sinful, we would have an easier time reading Milton? If anything, I mourn that I hadn't been more sinful as an undergraduate, even if it had meant foregoing the pleasures of Paradise. Like Thoreau, I wonder:

What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?


I have to say that I'm on the side of William Blake's ironic devil when he says "Exuberance is Beauty." This fall, I found graduate school to be a kind of new beginning for me, and I reached the end of the quarter feeling about as energetic and vigorous as I've felt in years. In a recent letter to an Italian friend, I apologized for not having responded sooner to his missives. He replied:

Anch'io sono lieto di sentirti dire che state bene. Essere occupati non è un delitto, bensì è sinonimo di vitalità.


Or in my translation:

I'm also happy to hear you say that you're well. To be busy is not a sin; rather, it's synonymous with vitality.


My friend had it right. Like Whitman and Montaigne—who share in common the invention of distinct literary personalities of seeming flesh and blood ("Cut these words, and they would bleed," writes Emerson of Montaigne)—I'd been feeling the busy vitality of bodily health. Naturally, this feeling couldn't last.

We Americans love new beginnings, the ready approach of the unapproachable. But as in "Othello," that other great work of jealously, Shakespeare reminds us that all beginnings start in mid-sentence. Roderigo starts the play with:

Tush, never tell me, I take it much unkindly
That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse
As if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this.


What, we're left to wonder, is "this," which Iago does not illuminate by calling it "such a matter?" "Desdemona's elopement" will do as a provisional answer, but the initial indefiniteness of the conversation between Iago and Roderigo throws us off, forcing us to strain at what they're talking about. The disorienting effect is but prelude to the much greater disorientations Iago insinuates into Othello's elusive consciousness. Othello, whose voice bespeaks a larger-than-life bodily command and presence, is undone not only mentally but physically. Iago's feat is to accomplish in the court what no one had ever accomplished on the battlefield: his mind's fear of betrayal betraying his body's sanity.

"Sanity," of course, derives from the Latin sanus or "healthy." A doctor's bad news always comes as a betrayal, though our first inclination is often to attribute the betrayal to the doctor instead of our own bodies. A health scare is just as good a way to end a year and begin a new one as any, but I find it ironic, to say the least, that at a time when I was enjoying the illusion that my middle-aged body might just keep going forever—I can still run a treadmill four-mile in under thirty minutes!—my urologist thinks I should get a biopsy of my prostate. That pesky persistent nub on the left side has not gone away, and while my PSA hasn't gone up—in fact, oddly, it went down over the last six months—there are those infrequent cases of men who have prostate cancer and low PSAs. The verbiage on the box of my "Prostate Ultrasound and Biopsy Prep Kit" (don't ask) says not-so reassuringly that approximately "50% of lumps found turn out to be non-cancerous." I flip a coin, heads cancer, tails not-cancer. Not-cancer! I flip again. Not cancer again! I flip again. Cancer. Shit.

While it may be a matter of luck how we die, it's not a matter of luck that we will die. I should qualify this overly confident statement by saying that after reading Robert Nozick's "Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?" in Philosophical Explanations, I'm half-convinced that the existence of existence is itself a matter of luck and therefore, by extension, so is non-existence. Be that as it may be, I take more comfort in the eminently sane Michel de Montaigne, who wrote in "Of Experience":

This ordinary expression "pastime" or "pass the time" represents the habit of those wise folk who think they can make no better use of their life than to let it slip by and escape it, pass it by, sidestep it, and, as far as in them lies, ignore it and run away from it, as something irksome and contemptible. But I know it to be otherwise and find it both agreeable and worth prizing, even in its last decline, in which I now possess it; and nature has placed it in our hands adorned with such favorable conditions that we have only ourselves to blame if it weighs on us and if it escapes us unprofitably. The life of the fool is joyless, full of trepidation, given over wholly to the future [Seneca]. However, I am reconciling myself to the thought of losing it, without regret, but as something that by its nature must be lost; not as something annoying and troublesome. Then too, not to dislike dying is properly becoming only to those who like living. It takes management to enjoy life. I enjoy it twice as much as others, for the measure of enjoyment depends on the greater or lesser attention that we lend it. Especially at this moment, when I perceive that mine is so brief in time, I try to increase it in weight; I try to arrest the speed of its flight by the speed with which I grasp it, and to compensate for the haste of its ebb by my vigor in using it. The shorter my possession of life, the deeper and fuller I must make it.


In a recent conversation with a friend, we talked ironically about how much of literature is just too depressing to read during winter, and I remarked, too easily, that it's depressing because the human condition is tragic. He asked me why I thought so, and I replied that one of the few things we have in common is that we're all going to die, and we're unable to celebrate it. Instead, he added, we go around killing each other. It passes the time, I said.

Charles Simic has described that type of poem made up out of thin air as possessing the beauty of religions made the same way. We have created elaborate structures of thought and feeling that seem designed to blunt the fact of our mortality. I understand the fear at work in such structures, but I see wisdom in Montaigne's determination not to live what life he has left with "trepidation," but with determination to make it "deeper and fuller." As I suggested to my friend, Montaigne's essays are one of those works of literature not depressing, because what we behold over the course of hundreds of pages of his musings is the wondrous growth of his own consciousness—a consciousness at once expansive and humane. We witness the creation of a self aware of its own character and accepting of its limitations. If, at the end of Remembrance, Proust shows us astonishing impressions of declining old age, Montaigne, at the end of the essays, leaves us with the hope that we can achieve our humanity nearly to the very end.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Reading Proust (Part 5): On Reading Itself

In his chapter "Reading" in Walden, Thoreau writes:

For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave. We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old. To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.


Thoreau does not suggest that reading is an exercise in reading oneself, as Proust does. Rather, Thoreau describes the "whole life" we must bring to reading if we are to read well and what kinds of works are worthy of that life. Earlier in this chapter, Thoreau recalls how he'd kept Homer's Illiad on his table, but because he'd been so busy building his house and hoeing his beans, he merely "looked at his page only now and then." In place of this "classic," he took up the kind of light reading we're all too familiar with:

I read one or two shallow books of travel in the intervals of my work, till that employment made me ashamed of myself, and I asked where it was then that I lived.


Is this a not-so-subtle way of saying that bad reading drives out good? Or is he saying that when we can't devote our whole lives to reading, because we're busy hoeing our beans, the only reading left to us is the kind that makes us ashamed? Where, indeed, does a "true" reader live if not in "true" books?

The intention of living in books, as Thoreau suggests, must be "steady"—that is, when he speaks of the "whole life," he means not only our whole being drawing on all of its accumulated experience, but our whole being devoted to a lifelong pursuit. A true reader is not merely an athlete in the prime of her life, but an athlete always. The shame for Thoreau is to have forgotten, for a stretch, how to live within the whole of himself, and the question of where he is living and in what pursuit is a theme Thoreau returns to repeatedly in Walden.

I don't know whether Thoreau read Montaigne, but his teacher—if I may call him that—Emerson did. In his essay "Of Books," Montaigne says that "I seek in books only to give myself pleasure by honest amusement; or if I study, I seek only the learning that treats of the knowledge of myself." At the end of his own book, in "Of Experience"— that great precursor to Emerson's essay—Montaigne illuminates his passage on reading when he says, "It is an absolute perfection and virtually divine to know how to enjoy our being rightfully." Montaigne, whose every page testifies to his devotion to books, understands the pleasure of reading as the pleasure of being, an end inseparable from his greatest of all projects, the assay of his self in writing.

While Thoreau can instruct us on what to bring to our reading and Montaigne on what to derive from it, we are left, in the solitude of our selves, to our own experience. Some months or years ago—what does it matter in book-time?—I told a few of my friends that from now on, I would read only books I'd already read. By my spurious calculations, I'd reached that late point in life that if I didn't cease trying to fill out my literary education, I'd run out of time for rereading the books that, over the last thirty-odd years, have given me the most pleasure. I'm not exactly sure what books I had in mind when I was saying this. I note that I still haven't cracked my old copy of Paradise Lost after nearly three decades. Perhaps I had in mind Proust, for whom such portentous declarations are hardly necessary.

If we consider writing as an assay of memory and experience, then Proust's closest descendent might be Wordsworth. However, I like to think of his more ancient countryman as Montaigne, whose work, for me, shares one important characteristic with Proust's: I can pick it up any time and read any passage, and still find the thread. I can't argue against Thoreau's ironic shame—how does one argue against his peculiar irony?—at having read travel books instead of Homer. However, as someone who's been hoeing his share of beans in graduate school, I could have recommended to him Montaigne, whose essays he might have borrowed from Emerson when he was over at his house, enjoying Mrs. Emerson's cooking. Or, had he lived long enough, he could have read Proust, though I somehow have a hard time imagining Thoreau feeling anything for Marcel's pursuits. Nature was Thoreau's mistress, and he loved her as all writers should love their subjects: with obsessiveness.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Reading Proust (Part 4)

I don't have a scholarly mind. By that I mean that I'm not inclined to make a careful study of a subject, to weigh competing considerations, to marshal my research in an even-handed way, and to delineate my arguments in precise and exacting detail. I tend to personalize the subjects I'm interested in and jump around at will, making the connections that appeal to me for emotional or intuitive reasons. I feel a little like the fox in Isaiah Berlin's famous essay in Russian Thinkers. The foxy style of mind—one "scattered or diffused," to borrow from Berlin—might not be useful for getting articles published in scholarly journals, but it's no impediment to commenting on Proust, as Proust himself might have agreed, even if Berlin did classify him as a hedgehog. In the October 9, 2006 edition of The New Yorker (not available, alas, online), the novelist Milan Kundera cites the following quote from Proust:

"Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer's work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader's recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book's truth."


For one who sometimes has trouble seeing to read, I'm fascinated by the idea of reading to see. I recently finished Within a Budding Grove, and I found myself deliberately resisting seeing anything of myself in the climatic moments of the book's final pages. Instead, I focused on my regret at not having paid better attention to a relatively minor character, M. de Norpois. It was as if, on leaving a thoroughly enjoyable party, I pondered how I should have spent more time talking to an interesting but reticent guest of the host's. M. de Norpois was certainly not the star of the party, nor had he much to do with my enjoyment of it, but he was the one I wished I'd talked to.

On page 1002 of the Moncrieff-Kilmartin edition, in a very long passage in which Marcel is attempting to illustrate the contradictions of Albertine's character, he says the following about M. de Norpois:

Among the men who have struck me as practising most consistently this system of killing several birds with one stone must be included M. de Norpois. He would now and then agree to act as intermediary between two of his friends who had quarrelled, and this led to his being called the most obliging of men. But it was not sufficient for him to appear to be doing a service to the friend who had come to him to request it; he would represent to the other the steps which he was taking to effect a reconciliation as undertaken not at the request of the first friend but in the interest of the second, a notion of which he never had any difficulty in persuading an interlocutor influenced in advance by the idea that he had before him the "most obliging of men." In this way, laying both ends against the middle, what in stage parlance is known as "doubling" two parts, he never allowed his influence to be in the slightest degree imperilled, and the services which he rendered constituted not an expenditure of capital but a dividend upon some part of his credit. At the same time every service, seemingly rendered twice over, correspondingly enhanced his reputation as an obliging friend, and, better still, a friend whose interventions were efficacious, one who did not simply beat the air, whose efforts were always justified by success, as was shown by the gratitude of both parties. This duplicity in obligingness was—allowing for disappointments such as are the lot of every human being—an important element in M. de Norpois's character.


Although this kind of duplicity is hardly confined to Ambassador Norpois's character,—indeed, one might say that the Parisian society of Proust's novel is filled with such amateur ambassadors—M. de Norpois is marked by combining this finely honed skill with another one of professional application. On page 605 we read:

And when Bergotte's opinion was thus contrary to mine, he in no way reduced me to silence, to the impossibility of framing any reply, as M. de Norpois would have done. This does not prove that Bergotte's opinions were less valid than the Ambassador's; far from it. A powerful idea communicates some of its power to the man who contradicts it. Partaking of the universal community of minds, it infiltrates, grafts on to, the mind of him whom it refutes, among other contiguous ideas, with the aid of which, counter-attacking, he complements and corrects it; so that the final verdict is always to some extent the work of both parties to the discussion. It is to ideas which are not, strictly speaking, ideas at all, to ideas which, based on nothing, can find no foothold, no fraternal echo in the mind of the adversary, that the latter, grappling as it were with thin air, can find no word to say in answer. The arguments of M. de Norpois (in the matter of art) were unanswerable simply because they were devoid of reality.


M. de Norpois is in full possession of the politician's art of making an argument so detached from reality, and yet so formidably internal to itself, that it's unassailable by any reference to reality. M. de Norpois is a poet in the style that Charles Simic often writes about: one who constructs poems seemingly out of thin air, with no apparent preexisting frame of reference. This style of poet is, for example, the opposite of W.H. Auden in his public mode, where the purpose of his ceremonial, occasional poems is signaled from the first line, if not the title. The same is true of Yeats—one of Auden's more famous subjects—in his public art. M. de Norpois is more like Simic himself, whose purpose in a poem may never be revealed. All we know is that it does what it does, and we're not likely to succeed in critiquing it by references to reality.

With regard to Proust's novel, we might argue that references to Proust's life are equally useless. In the same New Yorker article, Kundera writes:

In "In Search of Lost Time," Proust is absolutely clear: "In this novel . . . there is not one incident that is not fictional . . . not one character à clef." However tightly bound to the life of its author, Proust's novel stands, without question, at the opposite pole from autobiography: there is in it no autobiographical intention; he wrote it not in order to talk about his life but to show his readers their own lives.


I will add, parenthetically, that Kundera's view of Proust's view is very much the opposite of James Baldwin's. In "The Northern Protestant," his essay about meeting Bergman, Baldwin wrote:

All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up. All of it, the literal and the fanciful.


Around Christmas of 1983, I had dinner with James Baldwin and a couple of his friends when they were staying at the Amherst home of James Tate, who was on sabbatical. Baldwin was a Five-College Professor and was teaching fiction classes to some of my colleagues. I'd made Baldwin's acquaintance through friends and had gotten myself invited to dinner when, it seemed, just about everyone else had vacated town for the Christmas holidays. I was at least as presumptuous then as I am now, and at dinner I talked about reading the "confessional" poets, assuming that Baldwin didn't know anything about them because he wasn't a poet. Little did I know that Baldwin would soon be coming out with a volume of his own poems and that among the poets I discussed was one who had been an important friend of his—Randall Jarrell. Baldwin responded to me by quibbling with the word "confessional," arguing that all art was confessional. I don't know if he added "more or less oblique," but he certainly could have—or so it seems in my less-than-reliable memory.

Naturally, I would like to have it both ways: all art is confessional, more or less oblique, but its intention, at least in the case of Proust, is not autobiographical. Rather, the intention of the more or less oblique confession is to provide us with the optical instrument with which to reveal ourselves to ourselves. In the case of Within a Budding Grove, the optical instrument appropriately begins with an anacoluthon regarding the ambassador:


My mother, when it was a question of our having M. de Norpois to dinner for the first time, having expressed her regret that Professor Cottard was away from home and that she herself had quite ceased to see anything of Swann, since either of these might have helped to entertain the ex-ambassador, my father replied that so eminent a guest, so distinguished a man of science as Cottard could never be out of place at a dinner-table, but that Swann, with his ostentation, his habit of crying aloud from the house-tops the name of everyone he knew, however slightly, was a vulgar show-off whom the Marquis de Norpois would be sure to dismiss as—to use his own epithet—a "pestilent" fellow.


The original French ends with the word puant, which seems more suited, if you'll forgive me for saying so, to the idiotic Cottard. Be that as it may be, Proust's optical instrument doesn't work like an optician's, letting us get a better look at the surface or inner recesses of the eye. Rather, it's like one of those periscopes that allows us to look around corners at our own characters, as Helen Vendler once said of Berryman's "Dream Songs." I think it's worth asking ourselves what this opening has to do with the climatic moment on page 995 when Marcel is about to fling himself on Albertine and partake of his hyper-imagined kiss. If an anacoluthon is reversal represented in syntax, then the foiled kiss is an anacoluthon of the imagination. Not heeding Albertine's threat to ring the bells, Marcel persists:

. . . Albertine's round face, lit by an inner flame as by a night-light, stood out in such relief that, imitating the rotation of a glowing sphere, it seemed to me to be turning, like those Michelangelo figures which are being swept away in a stationary and vertiginous whirlwind. I was about to discover the fragrance, the flavor which this strange pink fruit concealed. I heard a sound, abrupt, prolonged and shrill. Albertine had pulled the bell with all her might.


What the periscope of this passage revealed to me was not some disappointed kiss of years past. Rather, it called to mind its precise opposite. When I was twenty-six and old enough to know better, I went out on St. Patrick's Day with a bunch of colleagues from my proposal writing group at Boeing. I sat next to a young woman whose name we'll call Marcy. She worked in the data entry group—are there such things now?—and I didn't realize I was attracted to her until we'd both had several beers. Suddenly I was possessed with a desire to kiss her and promptly did so. She seemed to enjoy it as much as I did, and an entire table of colleagues was treated to the spectacle of the two of us going at it for several minutes.

The next day I felt giddy, despite the mild hangover. I checked my heart and detected no blot of shame. Rather, I remembered with pleasure the sensation of Marcy's lips pulling on mine, her tongue worming around in my mouth. At lunch, we took a walk out to the parking lot. I showed her the used Toyota Tercel I'd recently purchased. Her comment was that she'd preferred the bright-red 240-Z I'd been borrowing from my father. Then, out of the blue, she asked, "Did we kiss yesterday?" She went on to explain that it was just kissing and that it really didn't mean anything.

Far from disappointed, I simply moved on, soundly reasoning that someone who couldn't accept my Toyota Tercel was clearly not meant for me. In those days, I knew how to move on. I had not yet met my Albertine as, in a sense, Marcel has not. For the Albertine of Within a Budding Grove is simplicity itself compared to the Albertine of later books. It's one of the pleasures I have to look forward to in the following pages: the reencounter with Marcel's Albertine and mine.