David Platzer revisits an old book against literary dandies—Martin Green’s Children of the Sun: “To Green’s mind, the post-1918 dandies sought to be eternally young men living in a commedia dell’arte world of Pierrots, Harlequins, and Columbines, rather than responsible, mature fathers as their own fathers had been. He notes that his mentor at Cambridge, the stern critic F. R. Leavis, condemned P. G. Wodehouse, beloved of many a dandy and just about everyone else, for popularizing the avoidance of maturity. Leavis was one of Green’s somewhat curiously named group of ‘decent men,’ the others being George Orwell, D. H. Lawrence, and even the early Kingsley Amis of Lucky Jim before Amis, too, went dandy, endorsing smart clothes, snuff, and James Bond. In fact many of Green’s dandies, including Waugh, Powell, Connolly, Quennell, Betjeman, Graham Greene, Henry Yorke/Green, Ian Fleming, and Alan Pryce-Jones, did become fathers. Insofar as neither Howard nor Acton had children, and both had difficulties with their fathers, they suited Green’s thesis. Less helpful was that these progenitors, Francis Howard and Arthur Acton, were themselves aesthetes and artists rather than conventional philistines and responsible fathers.
Madeleine L’Engle’s moral banality: “For all L’Engle’s explicit spirituality, her works show a greater comfort with the Modern Moral Order than one might expect from a writer so often associated with the antimodern Inklings. For all her explicit Christianity, L’Engle also endorses a modern, liberal form of the religion. This is illustrated most infamously in A Wrinkle in Time as the protagonists list those who have made the greatest contributions against the powers of a darkness, a list that begins with Jesus Christ and continues to Leonard da Vinci, Albert Schweitzer, Gandhi, Buddha, and Copernicus. L’Engle features clerics in more than one novel (themselves somewhat non-modern figures by virtue of their role), but their wisdom tends to favor modern dogma, as when Bishop Colubra of An Acceptable Time blandly asserts that ‘yesterday’s heresy becomes tomorrow’s dogma.’ Ultimately the spiritual values L’Engle aims at tend toward those that are uncontroversial in the Modern Moral Order: A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door endorse love over hate, Dragons in the Waters challenges greed and environmental destruction, and An Acceptable Time provides a lesson against selfishness. Two novels take up sexuality, and while Many Waters seems to repudiate lust, A House Like a Lotus renders in uncomfortable detail an encounter between its teenage protagonist and a medical student, commenting blandly that love ‘has to be given’—a lesson on consent long before that topic rose to the front of our national consciousness. On the level of moral vocabulary, then, L’Engle’s work does not challenge the Modern Moral Order, but all too often uncritically accepts its terms.”
Walt Whitman’s last thoughts: “‘I seem to be developing into a garrulous old man—a talker—a teller of stories,’ he told his friend Horace Traubel, who was transcribing in shorthand most of what Whitman said to him during the last years of his life. By the time Whitman died in 1892, Traubel had accumulated about five thousand pages of these conversations, a monumental chronicle of Whitman’s reflections, ruminations, analyses, and affirmations.”
Harold Bloom, anti-Inkling: “It’s a bit surprising to come across Harold Bloom’s confession that the literary work that has been his greatest obsession is not, say, Hamlet or Henry IV, but a relatively little-known 1920 fantasy novel. After all, Bloom is our most famous bardolater. When I took an undergraduate class with him at Yale, he announced his trembling bafflement before Shakespeare’s greatness in almost every lecture. In the course of his career, Bloom has named a handful of other literary eminences who compel from him a similar obeisance—Emerson, Milton, Blake, Kafka, and Freud are members in this select club—but one does not find David Lindsay on this list. Yet, in his 1982 book Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism, Bloom writes of Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus: ‘I have read it literally hundreds of times, indeed obsessively I have read several copies of it to shreds.’ The much-shredded book has, he says, ‘affected me personally with more intensity and obsessiveness than all the works of greater stature and resonance of our time.’ In fact, Bloom wrote his own fantasy novel—The Flight to Lucifer, published 40 years ago this year—in apparent response to Lindsay’s. ‘I know of no book,’ he writes, ‘that has caused me such an anxiety of influence, an anxiety to be read everywhere in my fantasy imitating it.’”
Joseph Bottum on Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s bad books: “For all his work over the decades, has he ever written a genuinely satisfying book, a book that keeps the reader’s attention till the end? The publisher, New Directions, would not have issued Little Boy if it were by someone else, and that seems the story of the man’s career: A reasonably good if distinctly second-tier writer, Ferlinghetti has consistently bulked up his books with third- and fourth-tier work, and he’s somehow gotten away with it because he’s Lawrence Ferlinghetti.”
John Wilson reviews Andrew Klavan’s latest novel: “Another Kingdom, the first installment in a projected trilogy, also began as a podcast. I don’t want to reveal too much about the unfolding of the story, but I can tell you that it shifts back and forth between parallel worlds. The protagonist is a thirty-year-old would-be screenwriter, Austin Lively, living (but far from lively) in North Hollywood. Early in the book, he goes through a doorway and suddenly finds himself in a vaguely medieval setting (‘Galiana’) and in immediate peril. Before long (via another doorway), he finds himself back in Hollywood. And so it goes through the course of the book, back and forth. Austin first believes he’s suffering from a psychotic break, but his circumstances—whether in Hollywood or in Galiana—don’t allow for a great deal of reflection. This is a recurring situation for Klavan’s protagonists. You see something that seems impossible. What do you do? Tell yourself you didn’t see it? Make an appointment with a psychiatrist? Or do you say: All right, that happened, even though I can’t explain it. What does it tell me? What does it mean?”
Essay of the Day:
I am not a fan of Garry Wills, but his essay in Harper’s on the human side of Thomas Merton is worth your time:
“After Merton published The Seven Storey Mountain, and people started showing up at his abbey as postulants to become monks or as ‘seculars’ making weekend retreats, Merton’s books began to earn real money for Gethsemani, funds needed to handle the flood of applicants and visitors he had inspired. His output now had to match this influx. His otherworldly superiors, meanwhile, suddenly had a crass stake in his popularity—it brought the abbey fame, recruits, and money. In time he would begin to resent this, saying the publicity made him feel ‘cheap’: ‘I am sickened . . . by being treated as an article for sale, as a commodity.’
“He became depressed and sour about what was happening to the abbey. It was staging itself, in a kind of ‘liturgical vaudeville,’ which heightened the flow of people he was bringing in—‘all those guys, some solid, mostly half-wits I think, who are nevertheless good, well-meaning people and honest in their way, and many of whom are here on account of me.’
“The abbey tried to make Merton more than an ornament of its establishment, giving him responsible roles such as the novice master. But he preferred to devote himself to his writing, and he let his fellow monks know in an open letter that he would not serve as the abbot, should that office come open, not wanting to spend the rest of his life ‘arguing about trifles with 125 confused and anxiety-ridden monks.’ The brothers could not publicly express discontent with that insult. He was their source of the world’s respect.
* * *
“He was able to get such special treatment simply because he threatened to leave the Cistercians for a more contemplative life in stricter monasteries. In 1965, to keep him on the vast grounds of the abbey, the abbot approved a state of virtual secession within the monastery. Merton could live in his own hermitage, distant from the main house, where he asked that other monks not visit him. He said that he wanted more solitude, but he told the truth in his journal, that he wanted ‘all the liberty and leeway I have in the hermitage.’ It gave admiring outsiders easier access to him and let him slip off the grounds to make unmonitored phone calls to them. Gregory Zilboorg, the first psychoanalyst who treated him, said, ‘You want a hermitage in Times Square with a large sign over it saying hermit.’
“One year into life at his own hermitage, he found the place useful in an unanticipated way. In 1966, he had back surgery in a Louisville hospital, where he fell in love with a young student nurse.”
Photo: Vapor Tracers over Norway
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