Sunday, January 8, 2012

Rarely and reluctantly

At this stage of my life, I'm amazed by those who can read more than a book a week, although when I was a teenager I could get close to reading one every couple of days. I was an indiscriminate reader back then. Ian Fleming, Albert Camus, Josephine Tey, W. B. Yeats, Allen Drury, G. K. Chesterton, Isaac Asimov, Richard Ellman, Jean Shepherd, Robert Farrar Capon, Dash Hammett. It was all good. Mysteries, histories, aliens, aliases, poetry, belles lettres, nature, politics, theology. I remember writing an arch essay for my college application on Lin Yutang's The Importance of Living -- as if I knew then what living was. A budding middle class white American Taoist. It was embarrassing bullshit but it did the trick. Mine was a consciousness largely formed by the way books accounted for the behavior I saw around me, that of adults and peers alike. Sometimes even my own, usually by way of modeling myself after some thwarted introvert like Binx Bolling, or even more foolishly, Emil Sinclair. Every sensitive teen has an emotional crush on Hesse for a spell.

One summer I read Ulysses on the wide stretch of fine-grained sand down by the West End parking lot at Jones Beach. The "snot-green sea" and "the jejune Jesuit" -- yes, I thought, I know this world exactly. As for Molly's big "yes" at the end -- well, she was unlike any of the girls I knew. Maybe one of their mothers was like that.

A lot of my reading came through my parents. From my father I came to know Archy and Mehitabel, Rachel Carson, E. B. White, Schopenhauer, George Gamow, Father Brown, the Conrad of Youth and Typhoon, Thomas Mann, and, yes, Lin Yutang. Literature of the aggrieved rationalist. My mother was the great fan of mysteries, historicals, and gothic romances. Daphne Du Maurier, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, George Eliot, Katharine Mansfield, the Bront√ęs, Mary Renault. Literature of escape, of the dream of an orderly world and righteous judgment brought down upon the guilty.

Like all bookworms, I've spent too much of my life making lists. Even now, I'm doing it, reviewing the inventory in my mental closet. All of a sudden remembering reading that sharp satiric collection of Dick Gregory's called From the Back of the Bus and thinking what a miracle it was that my mother hated racism in all its forms in spite of her mother, the ur-Nazi. Lists of titles, lists of authors, thinking that soon I will begin to let it all slip away in a haze of mis-remembered words, phrases, events, mistaking those things that really happened to me with those things I merely read about. These lists will die with me and no one will be able to separate the various strands and shape them into a coherent narrative.

But this is not what I wanted to write about. I wanted to write about Milosz's great poem "Ars Poetica?" from which the words "rarely and reluctantly" come. It's one I know by heart, and have used it variously, sometimes to justify my own inability to own up to the few poems I've written, afraid that unworthy demons held me in thrall when I did the writing, sometimes to dismiss the volumes of confessional verse I've read, so little of which will last beyond the morrow, sometimes to suspend judgment about the psychological wellspring for writing verse in the first place.

But then I realized I was referencing the wrong poem. I was thinking instead of "Readings" -- another Milosz poem, one that begins, "You asked me what is the good of reading the Gospels in Greek." One in which the poet asks us to read slowly, moving our fingers over the text, so that we may "discover the true dignity of speech." He then goes on to argue how little difference there is between our age and the age of the New Testament -- only the terms have changed while the phenomena have remained virtually the same. It's a poem of resignation that ends with an image of the end of the world. Not unlike an earlier poem of his that ends with a man binding his tomatoes.

When I was in Swtizerland back in the early 1990s, I hiked a few kilometers up to Hermann Hesse's villa, now turned into a museum. It's in a tiny village called Montagnola high above Lake Lugano, a serene and picturesque location, perfectly suited to an old soul like Hesse who liked to walk among the chestnut trees there. Though I had long ago given up on his writings, regarding them as an affectation of questing youth, this place of his completely seduced me. The quiet, the beauty of the woods and surrounding mountains, the lovely city lying below, the sense of isolation, of being protected on all sides from the vagaries of politics, armies, poverty, deprivation, and ugliness, it seemed the ideal spot to sit listening to the murmuring of one's own heart and follow the path to self-realization. I didn't want to leave the illusion that if only I could stay, the right words would come to me and my life would change.

We've all heard the Rilke poem about the statue of Apollo's torso -- and laughed at it, sniggering at the notion that a momentary aesthetic thrill could demand that one change one's life. Often I've joined in the laughter, believing myself far too knowing to be taken in by a poem. Even when I knew it was wrong and felt remorse. I've listened to the yawps of my fellow citizens, their tittering, their unthinking dismissal of anything shaped for eternity rather than immediate gratification. I've thought to myself, Rilke got one thing right -- there is no place that doesn't see us. Whenever confronted by a great work, we are exposed, shown to be exactly who we are. Our demons rise to the surface, with their black tongues and spiteful words. And the better angels of our nature? They're up in the mountains somewhere, subsisting on air, in a tower filled with books, needy, immature, waiting patiently for an epiphany, any kind of sign.

Here, in late middle age, it's hard to control the urge to spit on them, to make fun of them, those who can still read a book a day. It won't be long till life crushes them. It won't be long till their demons are let loose upon the world. It won't be long till they too will be unable to remember what exactly attracted them to all those books they've been reading.

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