Gene Wolfe’s Nouns, the Right Whale’s Song, and the New Poet Laureate of the United States
I’ve finished the final lectures on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The final two treat friendship and action. Friendship according to Aristotle is the “most necessary” virtue. I won’t go into Aristotle’s types of friendship (those founded on utility, pleasure, and virtue), but I appreciated his view that friendship is one of the foundations of civilization. It is what binds a city together. We see this idea in classical and modern literature, too. Friendship and hospitality (which is welcoming a stranger as a friend) are quintessentially human attributes in The Odyssey, for example, which are not shared by the gods or the sub-human cyclops. These two ideas—that friendship is the basis of civilization and a touchstone of humanity—are also found in Francis Bacon’s short essay “Of Friendship,” which is obviously drawn from classical sources. Whatever “delights in solitude,” Bacon writes, “is either a wild beast or a god. For it is most true, that a natural and secret hatred, and aversation towards society, in any man, hath somewhat of the savage beast.” It’s not that solitude is bad or unnecessary. It is that to live only in solitude is to live a sub-human life. Without friends, Bacon continues, the “world is but a wilderness.”
It seems to me that we’ve lost this high view of friendship as an aspect of human identity, which we now regularly confuse with personality or view as a discrete construction of the autonomous will rather than as something that is composed of universal attributes. So, it is no surprise that our lives increasingly look like those of the cyclops. We live in caves, in fenced-in back yards, and “consume” each other—on television, in movies, on Facebook and Twitter. And because our lives (I’m speaking generally here) are ordered around maximizing physical pleasure, not virtue, they must end in suicide when the body’s capacity for physical pleasure wanes. The opioid crisis starts with this low view of human nature and won’t end until a grander view is recaptured, which I don’t see happening any time soon.
In other news: Joy Harjo is the new poet laureate of the United States. She’s being described as the first Native American appointed to the post, but the poet and translator A. M. Juster argued on Twitter last night that that honor belongs to William Jay Smith.
One of the first international news stories was about the rampage of the “Beast of Gévaudan,” a wolf in south-central France that was supposedly responsible for the death of 300 people.
Two cheers—no, three—for cultural appropriation: “The world is a hopelessly, magnificently criss-crossed, overlapping, and interrelated tangle. There’s no going back. Whatever good has come out of mankind’s stumbling, staggering march through the millennia should be cherished by us all: neither forced on anyone nor forcibly withheld.”
Listen to the first recording of the “song” of the right whale.
Neil Gaiman on Gene Wolfe’s nouns: “I know where I was and who I was when I read The Sword of the Lictor. By the time The Citadel of the Autarch came out, in 1983, I was a young journalist and was thrilled to be sent a review copy. I met and interviewed Wolfe shortly after. He was kind and patient with my questions. This was thirty-five years ago, in Birmingham. He and his wife Rosemary were over as he was Guest of Honour at the British Fantasy Convention, and to do some book promotion. We became friends. Gene answered all of my questions about The Book of the New Sun, and I wish I had the kind of memory that Severian is cursed with, because then I could remember which word he told me was a typo that he had kept and thus was the only word you cannot find in a big enough dictionary . . . The words are important. This is science fiction, not fantasy (even if the science is usually so advanced and far from our own time that it is, as Arthur C. Clarke put it, ‘indistinguishable from magic’) and the words help ground it. They are not invented. They are real. The names of animals are taken from animals that are no longer with us, or from obscure sources.”
Miranda returns to Broadway: “Freestyle Love Supreme, the hip hop theatrical improv show co-created by Lin-Manuel Miranda in 2004 and staged intermittently since, will make its Broadway debut in September, producers – including Miranda – have announced.”
Essay of the Day:
In The London Review of Books, Adam Shatz revisits the life and work of French filmmaker, Resistance fighter, and “anarchist of the right” Jean-Pierre Melville:
“Melville was a loner and a curmudgeon, with more than a touch of Bartleby. He built his own studio so that he wouldn’t have to take orders from anyone, and lived there with his wife and three cats. (The staircase from the studio to the flat upstairs features in nearly every Melville film.) He hated shooting because he had to wake up early and change out of his pyjamas. He could be charming but on set was often a tyrant; he considered it a betrayal when his actors became romantically involved. He was a great talker, with a deep, velvety voice, but he hated cliques and industry schmoozing. One of the fathers of the Nouvelle Vague, he soon fell out with his ‘children’. ‘I desire only one thing in life: to be left alone,’ he said. Individualism was something he revered, especially as portrayed in American gangster films and westerns. He described himself as an ‘anarchist of the right’, but was in no way a political reactionary. ‘If I had been profoundly on the right, I couldn’t make the films I make,’ he told the Portuguese critic Rui Nogueira in Le Cinéma selon Melville, a book of interviews published two years before his death in 1973. What he was, he explained, was ‘backward-looking. I shun the world of the present, which I never manage to love.’
“Melville’s refuge was his desk, where he wrote his scripts and edited in the middle of the night, with his sunglasses on and all the windows and shutters closed. He believed art was ‘possible only when the creator is alone, when he isolates himself from the rest of the world’. (He preferred the term ‘creator’ to ‘director’ since he considered writing and editing to be the most important aspects of his work.) Several of his movies, including his three great films about the war, were adaptations of novels. In the first scene of Le Silence de la mer (1949), a man leaves a suitcase on the street; another man opens it to find, underneath some pressed shirts, the 1942 novel of the Resistance by Vercors on which the film is based. The pages of the novel reveal the credits: a device, as André Bazin noted, that Robert Bresson borrowed for his 1951 adaptation of Georges Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest.”
* * *
“What did Melville really know of the world he put on screen? He described the war as the ‘rare time when one encounters virtue’, and as ‘the most beautiful years of my life’. But he remained discreet, even secretive, about his experiences, and ruled out ever making a movie of them, though he flirted with the idea of writing a novel about the battles inside the Resistance. When Bertrand Tavernier, who worked as his assistant on Léon Morin, prêtre (1961), asked him what he did during the war, Melville said he’d ‘gone to England so he could see The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’. He was so cagy that some of his closest colleagues – including Schlöndorff, whom the childless Melville regarded as a son – wondered if his Resistance past was a myth, all part of the same persona as his Stetson and Ray-Bans.
“Thanks to two recent books – Bertrand Teissier’s biography Jean-Pierre Melville: Le Solitaire and Jean-Pierre Melville, une vie, an unusually illuminating coffee-table book by the film critic Antoine de Baecque – we have a much fuller picture not only of Melville’s war, but of the ways it shaped his films. As de Baecque writes: ‘Melville would remain a man the war had fashioned, faithful to a vanished time.’ While the sets of his films were expressionistic confections, not faithful recreations – Melville aimed for authenticity, not realism – their themes, especially brotherhood and betrayal, came directly from the war. As he told Nogueira, ‘what people tend to take for imagination’ in his films is ‘in reality an effect of memory’.”
Photo: Port of Marseille
Poem: David Yezzi, “Sugar on Snow”
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