William H. Gass loved words. “A word is a wanderer,” he wrote in “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses.” “Except in the most general syntactical sense, it has no home.”
Gass longed to make worthy homes for words. He often chose lists.
Lists were his secular litanies. Lists allowed Gass, who always longed to be a poet, to ladle his words into natural meter.
We are lucky if we find a sentence or paragraph to hold onto—as a reader, as a writer. We write them on index cards and impale them into cork board. We let them collect dust under a lamp. We are strangely blessed if we can find a writer who can carry us even further—through a book, through a life.
I return to Gass like a pilgrimage. His final offering, The William H. Gass Reader, is a gift. Nearly a thousand pages of his essays about writers and artists, his theories about fiction, and selections from his novellas and novels.
When I say Gass loved words, I mean he genuinely, audaciously, absolutely loved words. Language seemed an infinite gift that he grasped. A typographic deity.
“I am an octogenarian now and should know better, but I recently let a sentence reach print so embarrassingly bad its metaphors seemed frightened into scattered flight like quail.” He was not afraid to fail.
“Skepticism was my rod, my staff, my exercise.” Gass was pessimistic. He was clothed in doubt.
Yet that skepticism, as it does with the best critics, gave foundation and significance to his celebrations. You cannot love words without also loving writers. Gass loved writers.
He loved Gertrude Stein. Her play, her power. “There are texts,” he writes in “Fifty Literary Pillars,” “and there are times, and sometimes both are right and ring together like Easter changes.” He thought Stein “did more with sentences, and understood them better, than any writer ever has. Not all her manipulations are successful, but even at their worst, most boring, most mechanical, they’re wonderfully informative. And constantly she thought of them as things in space, as long and wiggling and physical as worms.”
We need critics who can admire. We need critics who can feel awe.
Gass loved: Plato (“His dialogues are among the world’s most magical texts”). Virginia Woolf (Her diary “alters your attitude toward life”). James Joyce (“Finnegans Wake is the high-water mark of modernism, and not to have been fundamentally influenced by it as a writer is not to have lived in your time”). Samuel Beckett (“Beckett wishes to save our souls by purging us—impossibly—of matter”). Katherine Anne Porter (“From her first tale to her last, she was in complete command of her manner—a prose straightforward and shining as a prairie road, yet gently undulating, too”).
Gass makes us want to read more, and to read better. He believed reading was an athletic act.
He was not an athlete. But as a boy, he was a member of a speed reading team, and in “On Reading to Oneself,” in his typical self-deprecating form, he writes of how he learned to read as an act of love. He writes of how the “speeding reader drops diagonally down across the page, on a slant like a skier; cuts across the text the way a butcher prefers to slice sausage, so that a small round can be made to yield a misleadingly larger, oval piece.”
His vision of the world was always slightly bent. He turned us toward his curves.
He thought we were a mess. “Evil,” he wrote, “is as man-made as the motorcar.” He didn’t have much faith in us—our track record has not been particularly splendid—and concluded, “we shall probably be eaten by our own greed, and live on only in our ruins, middens, and the fossil record.”
He knew what we are capable of, and it scared him.
In an essay on Ezra Pound, Gass wrote of how Pound, in his later years, apologized for his anti-Semitism, calling it a “mistake” and some “suburban prejudice.” Gass’s rebuke is powerful: “The tone of that repentance is all wrong, suggesting that Pound had made some error in arithmetic on his tax forms which turned out to have unpleasant consequences. Anti-Semitism is not a ‘mistake’ or even a flaw, as if it left the rest of its victim okay and in good working order. As with racism, a little does more than go a long way; it goes all the way.”
Peel aside his play and Gass, truly, was one to trust.
What can a Catholic learn from an agnostic Protestant? More than I could ever imagine when I discovered Gass as an undergraduate—I devoured (to use his word) “The Pedersen Kid,” which is rightfully included in full within this Reader. I would never be the same. We both have an affinity for the word soul, and let me not parse our differing theologies: I appreciate the contours of his unbelief, for they live within a state of wonder.
What a wonder it is to make a world of words.
“Words are with us everywhere. In our erotic secrecies, in our sleep. We’re often no more aware of them than our own spit, although we use them oftener than legs.” Words “lift our spirits—these poor weak words. They guide and they coerce. They settle fights, initiate disputes, compound errors, elicit truth. How long have we known it? They gather dust, too, and spoil in jokes which draw our laughter like the flies.”
While a graduate student at Cornell, where he studied philosophy, Gass took a course with the legendary M. H. Abrams, a seminar course on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The students read not only the Biographia Literaria—but also “every book it quotes from, mentions, alludes to.”
Gass said the method “taught me how to read, how to reread, even how to overread.” He learned “never to rely on secondary sources, but to trust only primary ones—a teaching that leads directly to this ideal: write so as to become primary.”
is a staff writer for The Millions. He has written for Rolling Stone, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and The Kenyon Review. His newest book is Ember Days, a collection of stories. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and twin daughters. Follow him @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at www.nickripatrazone.com.
In her essay In Praise of Unlikeable Characters, fellow staff writer Emily St. John Mandel writes about protagonists who behave badly, like the eponymous Marie in Marcy Dermansky’s frisky little novel, Bad Marie. It’s true, many readers want to actually like a book’s main character — they’d take them to lunch if they could — but true villains are a hoot, everyone knows that. Who doesn’t love to hate Dr. Claw and his menacing feline in Inspector Gadget?
The problem is, in a work of thoughtful fiction, most villains are given a modicum of humanity; it’s their hidden vulnerability, their tangled motivation, that makes a reader believe they are real people. Makes them less villainous, really. Dermansky’s Marie is “supremely conniving,” as Mandel puts it, but she isn’t a villain. She isn’t vile. It’s impossible to hate someone that shocking, that fun.
I’ve been thinking lately about the truly poisonous characters in fiction. The female ones, specifically. Because women are vilified every day for not doing or saying what they’re supposed to. Is it anti-feminist to write an evil woman? I hope not, because there are some truly fabulous cunts in fiction.
John Williams’ quiet masterpiece about an unassuming English professor named William Stoner spans more than 45 years and depicts, with simplicity and compassion, the slow and important work of understanding the self — one’s passions and desires, one’s body, one’s flaws. A main source of conflict in the novel is Stoner’s wife, Edith. Like Stoner at the beginning of the novel, Edith doesn’t know who she is. At the start of their courtship, we learn:
Her needlepoint was delicate and useless, she painted misty landscapes of thin water-color washes, and she played the piano with a forceless but precise hand; yet she was ignorant of her own bodily functions, she had never been alone to care for her own self one day of her life, nor could it have ever occurred to her that she might become responsible for the well-being of another.
Unlike her husband, though, who discovers his love of literature and commits himself to the study of it, Edith never finds or seriously seeks out true fulfillment. Her unhappiness is a weapon she uses in their marriage, and the above passage only hints at her capacity for viciousness. She usurps his home office, she pits their daughter against him. Oh, how she terrorizes Stoner! I recently led a discussion about this novel and midway into it a woman raised her hand and said something like, “What the hell is up with Edith?” This was followed by a flurry of nods and invectives from the rest of the class. It takes everything in me to summon up sympathy for Edith — to even comprehend the depth of her meanness. Though her role in Stoner’s narrative is complex, I’m sure that if she starred in her own novel, it would be a tedious, vacuous, and miserable read. Boo! Hiss!
“I am not the kind of person who leaves the woman with cancer,” says the push-over husband in my favorite story by A.M. Homes, “but I don’t know what you do when the woman with cancer is a bitch.” Who would know what to do? In “Do Not Disturb” we witness a dysfunctional marriage turn even more toxic as the narrator’s wife, a surgeon who knows exactly how cancer can terrorize one’s body, undergoes a hysterectomy and chemo, all the while being nasty to her partner and saying things like, “I feel nothing. I am made of steel and wood.” The wife’s brief moments of vulnerability — for instance, when she farts and runs out of the room, embarrassed — redefine her vileness as nothing more than a defense mechanism in the face of a life-threatening disease. But when I reach out to sympathize with her, she bites my hand.
Some readers complain that Cathy — Cal and Aron’s mother in John Steinbeck’s classic novel — isn’t a believable or plausible character. That might be true, for her cruelty renders her inhuman. I’d diagnose her as a dangerous psychopath; she kills her parents in a house fire, shoots her husband, abandons her newborn children, and murders her brothel boss so that she may inherit the business — and does it all with a smirk. She feels no empathy, thinks only of herself. And, like some reality television villainess, she’s beautiful. Of course she is. Here is a description of her as a school girl:
Cathy grew more lovely all the time. The delicate blooming skin, the golden hair, the wide-set, modest, and yet promising eyes, the little mouth full of sweetness, caught attention and held it.
I love Cathy’s inner-monster almost as much as I love Steinbeck’s descriptions of her. With prose rhythm like that, I forgive this book for all of its flaws, for the way it demonizes a woman for using her sexuality to get what she wants.
The three female protagonists of Margaret Atwood’sThe Robber Bride suffer at the hands of Zenia, the man-stealer (and man-eater), who isn’t so much a woman as non-gendered — she is without a verifiable past, she is almost mythic in her actions and in her ability to disappear and renew herself, and she does not suffer as the other women, or men, in the novel do. If she wants something (or someone), she uses her body to get it. But she uses something else, too, and that something remains a mystery to the characters. Zenia has large breasts but they aren’t real. She’s a home-wrecker and it’s fun to hate her.
I’d consider Margaret Atwood a feminist writer, meaning, I suppose, that her books pass the Bechdel test every time, and that she gives her characters, male or female, rich internal lives. Her novels are often about women and the issues that preoccupy them, from family to their bodies to friendships with other women. It’s funny, then, that when thinking of vile women in fiction, I thought not only of Zenia, but also of Serena Joy, the steely Commander’s wife in The Handmaid’s Tale, and of Cordelia, the manipulative Queen Bee from Cat’s Eye. With Zenia, though, her behavior seems motivated only by a need to lie, rather than by something more complex and sympathetic. I’d argue that the novel’s comic tone allows for Zenia’s larger-than-life, wonderfully vile presence in Atwood’s oeuvre. Atwood is a feminist writer because she writes flawed female characters who, like real people, judge one another. Evil is not gender-specific, though the way we vilify others often is.
There you have it, though this is certainly not an exhaustive list. Who are your favorite vile women in literature?
Matt SeidelOctober 18, 2013 | 3 books mentioned4 min read
It gives me great pleasure to picture the Apostle of Democracy doing quarter-mile repeats on the lawn of Monticello, perhaps in preparation for a match race with his Federalist challenger John Adams at the Founding Fathers Relays. But I digress.
Thanks to some friendly advice from LanguageHat, and seeing competing pronunciations flying around in the comments of the previous pronunciation post, especially for that pesky Goethe, I decided to go to the library and to do a little more Internet research to try to get some definitive pronunciations for these names, specifically printed references where available.At the library I took a look at Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature (EoL) – pronunciations aside, a very cool reference book – which was very helpful in giving me pronunciations for most of the names on our list. The problem is that the pronunciations are given using symbols that are not easily expressed in HTML, and thus are impossible to convey on this blog. Another problem is that the book was published in 1995, and thus leaves out some of the contemporary authors on this list.However, with some further digging online, I was able to find some sources, including Merriam-Webster Online (M-W), which uses simplified, Internet friendly notation. You can refer to the M-W pronunciation guide for help if you need it. I also looked at the online version of the The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition (AH), whose pronunciations I’ve only linked to rather than copied because it uses images to convey pronunciation symbols, and I can’t easily replicate them here on the blog. Best of all, these two sources include audio pronunciations, as well. Very helpful. Finally I also looked at Pronouncing Dictionary of Proper Names (PD), some names from which somebody has posted here.When none of those sufficed I used references from newspaper and magazine articles, hoping that their writers did the research and found out the correct pronunciations, ideally from the authors themselves.J.M. Coetzee – kut-‘see, -‘see-uh (audio via M-W)Paul Theroux – both PD and EoL have it as thuh-ROOHenry David Thoreau – thaw-‘roh (audio via M-W, via AH). The “Pronouncing Thoreau” sidebar on this NPR story goes into some further detail.John Le Carre – luh-ka-ray (audio via M-W, via AH)Dan Chaon – I’m going to stick with my friend Edan’s pronunciation – “Shawn” – since she had him as a teacher.Pulitzer – ‘PULL it sir’ (see #19 in the Pulitzer FAQ, audio via M-W and via AH, which also offers the “PEW” pronunciation as an alternative.)Donald Barthelme – There seems to be some disagreement on this one. AH has it with a “th” sound – see pronunciation and audio – while the EoL has it with a hard “t” sound. Not sure which is right.Michael Chabon – “Pronounced, as he says, ‘Shea as in Stadium, Bon as in Jovi,'” according to this profile, though other news sources pronounce the last syllable ranging from “bun” to “bawn” to “bin“Thomas Pynchon – ‘pin-chuhn (audio via M-W, via AH)Rainer Maria Rilke – ‘ry-nur Maria ‘ril-kuh, -kee (audio via M-W, via AH. AH does not offer the “long e” at the end as an alternative pronunciation, nor does EoL.)Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – Unfortunately not much of a definitive answer here. M-W prefers saying it with more of an “r” sound ‘ge(r)-tuh (audio), but offers ‘g[oe]-tuh as an alternative. AH prefers the latter, note the the subtly different audio. EoL has both of those but it calls the “r” sound “Anglicized.” It also has a “long a” sound in the first syllable listed as Anglicized.Ngugi wa Thiong’o – His first name is pronounced “Googy,” according to UC Irvine, where he teaches, while his last name is presumably pronounced phonetically. Eoin Colfer – The Seattle PI and Guardian both say the first name is pronounced “Owen.” The last name is phonetic.Seamus Heaney – ‘shay-mus ‘hee-nee (audio via M-W, via AH)Jorge Luis Borges – ‘bor-“hays (audio via M-W, via AH)Vladimir Nabokov – nuh-‘bo-kuff (audio via M-W, via AH. Both AH and EoL offer alternative pronunciations with a stress on the first syllable.)P.G. Wodehouse – ‘wud-“haus (audio via M-W, via AH)Chuck Palahniuk – Lots of sources, including USA Today, say “Paula-nik.”Michel Houellebecq – LA Weekly and many other sources say “Wellbeck.”Jeffrey Eugenides – “yu-GIN-e-dees” according to the Houston Chronicle.Jack Kerouac – ‘ker-uh-“wak (audio via M-W, via AH)Colm Toibin – most sources, like the SF Chron have it as “toe-bean,” but the Boston Globe says “Column to-BEAN.”Bonus Links:The BBC Pronunciation Blog.Voice of America’s guide to pronouncing challenging names in the news, and a Washington Post story about that guide.The really cool kids, however, prefer these pronunciations.
The Big One—"the inevitable mega-hack that will rumble society to its core"—will have the potential to bring down our financial infrastructure, deleting fortunes and 401Ks in the blink of an eye and causing the kind of damage to our material infrastructure that could lead to death.
1. The Paradox: I don’t want to discuss Karen Green’sBough Down in the shadow of her husband’s death; if it is impossible not to, this condition replicates another mode of cultural violence, namely, subsuming a woman’s texts to her more famous, more serious, male writer counterpart.
2. Because Green’s book is an achievement in that it resists such closure — resists naming her dead husband, the author, or his texts — making him, instead, her own shadow figure, one haunting the text and her life endlessly.
3. And yet if Green refuses to name the Dead Author, I have yet to read a review of Bough Down that hasn’t named him, or, indeed, identified her as his widow. That this is inevitable does not make it less complicated. That Green, a visual artist, was a writer long before she met said husband, and certainly long before his death — and that this is the first we’ve heard from her — is no less insignificant. That her text, like her life, is marked by an awareness of suffering — loss, grief, psychic alienation — makes Bough Down, as excruciating as it is, if you are of a certain persuasion, which I’d argue we all are at one point or another, deeply satisfying.
Because if Bough Down is a love story, it is also a documentation of a very specific trauma, that of loss — a documentation which a scholar could read as positively valued, as something able to provide many things, not least of all the removal of artifice.
If the Public Widow and the Memorial Ceremonies (Green’s references to the post-suicide ceremony) are rendered as alienating public displays — that is, Artifice — then Green’s book can be described in terms of lamentation, antidote to the artificial, lyric revealing something of the language (and silence) of loss, inextricably linked to love.
4. Anticipating this, the text includes a call from her son: “Happy Birthday Hag Widow,” a moment which marks both Green’s sense of humor and her willingness to de-mystify her plight. Her plight (she won’t elevate it to Fate and neither will this review): to live in the shadow of her husband’s death, to become his symptoms, to embody the taboo of suicide yet resist it. To create art — to write a book — which resists.
5. So if our reading of the book inevitably invokes the loss of the writer, one reading of its function is to provide psychological witness, cultural artifact, gendered performance, and political tool. Political because it is dangerous to be ill in this country, not to speak of within a larger system or paradigm, which makes individuals into “consumers” of mental health care. Dangerous because it is maddening to be an artist under capitalism, a spiritual seeker within a dominant psychopharmamedical complex where they take “drugs that give the well-insured tremors” that “make patients speak in incomplete” (It is here that Green’s line breaks off, a moment, like many in the book, pointing to the failure of language to represent grief, or anything else, with accuracy.)
Interlude for Memoir
6. 1992: I’m in the classroom for the first day of Death in Modern Fiction; my professor explains the focus of the course and its title this way: “I had to admit to myself — all of my favorite books are about death.”
Now I am able to put something important into words: All of my favorite books are about death.
7. 2013: My dad’s only sister, my beloved Aunt Mimi, dies on the first day of the year; one year earlier my dad suffers a near fatal heart attack. I hold his hand as a former priest administers last rites. I find myself reading what I can now identify as an important genre, which I begin to term Grief Memoirs: David Rieff on Susan Sontag, Manguso on a friend who jumped in front of a train, Meghan O’Rourke on her mother, de Beauvoir on her mother — books written by, for lack of a better word, survivors: children, parents, spouses, friends. Books written through or beyond grief.
How Literature Didn’t Save My Life
8. Not so many weeks later, I read a galley copy of David Shields’s collage text, How Literature Saved My Life, also about death — which is to say, about life. I begin to wonder: who isn’t a survivor? Who isn’t doomed?
I think: We are all doomed
9. Bough Down is a collage of text and image surrounding life and death and the ways in which Art or Literature fail to save us collectively. If Green’s book feels inevitable, it is also surprisingly confessional, painfully vital in its affirmation: Nothing will save a life, not even suicide. Not even the constant refrain of “What If?”: What if I had come home earlier that day? What if I hadn’t left him alone?
Bough Down is, perhaps, the book Shields is calling for in his latest texts — a book which avoids the obfuscations of fiction, of the novel form. A book whose hybrid qualities -whose refusal to occupy one definite genre — and yet insistence on invoking a multitude of forms — lends urgency to it.
10. My aunt’s death casts a pall over the start of the year, but that isn’t why I read these books. I would have read them anyway.
11. In “Room and a Half,” Brodsky writes that our parents teach us how to die — but what a messy process that is, where no one wants to be the teacher and the lessons lack both structure and objective.
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely
12. Bough Down recalls Claudia Rankine’sDon’t Let Me Be Lonely in structure: a hybrid text of images, prose, conversations, images. Like Rankine, Green posits a shifting “I” voice, there and not there, painfully present and yet refusing to participate in public ceremony — and when she does, it is decidedly performative: she is “the widow” but not the Public Widow. There are others ready for the public displays: the Romantics, the Support Guys — all prepared to run the industry devoted to our latest favorite Dead Author.
13. Green’s text proffers — and refuses — to give voice to the howl of grief; to the self that will not Get Over It, that will not find solace in death’s beautiful tug, that never learned to Move On. As she puts it: “I could love another face, but why?”
14. Anyone who has ever loved and lost — which is to say, anyone who has lived long enough — knows that to move on, to let go, is to (a) betray the one who has gone and (b) betray the validity of the void. The rousing daily chorus of our cultural voices of self-help, the paeans to Good-Living like to proclaim Carpe Diem and so on — an erasure or coercion that reinforces the isolation, the alienation of grief, which is part of what we wish to deny about being human — not a linear process so much as an undoing.
If life isn’t about loss and separation — about a realization that we hurt people we love and need, that we bear grief and guilt — then I don’t know what it’s about.
Redemption does not exist in Green’s Bough Down; the book rejects Art as Redemptive; the same goes for Shields’s book, deceptively titled as it is.
(And one might argue, if the unnamed Dead Author’s life and death proved anything, it was that LITERATURE WILL NOT SAVE YOUR LIFE.)
15. As in Rankine’s masterful work, Green’s book contains larger, implicit questions: for example: what can we be to each other? What to make of a system that failed “you” — of a doctor who did not see a person, but instead a set of symptoms? What of a system that insists on dehumanizing the self, the spiritual, the artistic — of a spouse who refuses to return to a psych ward? refuses the world of the well-adjusted (not an accidental term)? What of a spouse who becomes precisely that which she couldn’t save?
And yet, a self must move (if not quite on); Green writes: “Ultimately, the loss becomes immortal and hole is more familiar than tooth.”
16. In her beautiful essay on Francesca Woodman, Ariana Reines invokes Woodman’s note to interrogate the seduction of suicide:
This action that I foresee has nothing to do with melodrama. It is that life as lived by me now is a series of exceptions…I was (am?) not unique but special. This is why I was an artist…I was inventing a language for people to see the everyday things that I also see…and show them something different…Nothing to do with not being able “to take it” in the big city or w/ self doubt or because my heart is gone. And not to teach people a lesson. Simply the other side.
It’s hard not to imagine a note from Green’s husband saying something similar — it seems that his entire adult life was this struggle: to be special and not unique. To live in a world that didn’t see him as he saw/felt himself: an extraordinary ordinary person. But, as Green writes, “Some people would rather die than be understood.”
17. I tried and failed not to mention the fact that hovers beyond the text, the suicide of the writer who was also the very particular, specific man married to Green; and yet — how does one not feel the levels, the layers or the eventualities? How does one not see in his choice the destruction of lives and the creation of art? Or the very particular way in which the depth of life is limited through the creation of art. Green writes: “You’ve won every argument except the one about my being better off.”
18. Bough Down makes a point of refusing the romance, reminding us to see it another way: “I don’t want him at peace.” She, after all, was an artist long before he married her, before he met her. She fell in love. He was perfect for her (The doctor says if you were so “perfect for me” you’d probably still be around, no offense.). Part of the shock and shimmery ache of the book is the way she resists, not only redemption, but revelation, rendering these moments of seeming-disclosure more cutting. Or: “They talk about him like he’s meant to be dead and that makes me mad.” and “Death excites people but from a distance.”
19. Art is not enough. Art is never enough. Life is what matters and out of that we make out the words within the book’s art among her text, pages, this meditation on the impossibility of redemption or release, the rejection of fitting conclusion, the fiction of closure.
20. Writing about Simone Weil, Sontag said something about a culture’s need for the Suicide:
The culture-heroes of our liberal bourgeois civilization are anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois; they are writers who are repetitive, obsessive, and impolite, who impress by force — not simply by their tone of personal authority and by their intellectual ardor, but by the sense of acute personal and intellectual extremity. The bigots, the hysterics, the destroyers of the self — these are the writers who bear witness to the fearful polite time in which we live. It is mostly a matter of tone: it is hardly possible to give credence to ideas uttered in the impersonal tones of sanity. There are certain eras which are too complex, too deafened by contradictory historical and intellectual experiences, to hear the voice of sanity. Sanity becomes compromise, evasion, a lie. Ours is an age which consciously pursues health, and yet only believes in the reality of sickness. The truths we respect are those born of affliction. We measure truth in terms of the cost to the writer in suffering — rather than by the standard of an objective truth to which a writer’s words correspond. Each of our truths must have a martyr.
The suicide-as-salvation mythos exhausts itself here, where the writer has a wife, not to speak of parents and a sister and the many friends who loved him. To claim the suicide as a sort of present (as he himself may have put it) message surrounding his death is to reject the sheer violence of it to the life of, for one, his life partner.
21. How many have looked to Him, our collective Saint Suicide, for answers? That the person who did that must have answers — when Jonathan Franzen suggested that his suicide was a sort of career move, an inability to finish his book, he was slammed as heretical and yet — what do those who now read him — the many new readers since his death — hope to learn from his death?
“I can’t wrap this up.” Green ends her book with the insistence that, like language, closure fails, endings fail. The bough is down, and something else has begun: a new way to tell a story, a new way to understand the relationship between art and death.
22. The humor and ache of Green’s position, the loneliness and the rage behind the desolation, suicide’s widow — one who cannot see him as Saint or Martyr but rather as a guy who sweats, who was intimidated by lingerie, who hated the psych ward even if he knew he needed to be there, is enough to render this argument baseless, facile. That art is always an engagement with another human being cannot be denied — that art must ask the questions posed by Rankine: “What can we be to each other?” “What do we mean to each other?” In this sharp, devastating book, Green finds a way to engage with the lost Other — a self both elusive and specific, who has left us, yet again, asking these impossible questions.
Greg GerkeApril 14, 2011 | 3 books mentioned44 min read
The Englishman Sir Thomas Browne lived in an era rich in destruction, including constant European wars, plagues, fires and the regicide of Charles the First, as Browne himself witnessed. It is no wonder death and the processes of burial should be the subject of his most celebrated work, Urn Burial—a sometimes archeological, sometimes metaphysical treatise on not only burial customs but what the human race hopes to gain from living regardless of what it leaves behind when dying. Now in our era of natural and financial disaster, where death is often exploited but also hidden more and more, Urn Burial has been reissued as part of the New Directions Pearl Series, which celebrates favorite authors in affordable, easy to carry pocket editions. Their minimalist covers progressively show a rhombus expanding in shape and growing in color—perhaps a nod to the company’s rich catalogue.
His life spanning three-quarters of the 17th Century, Browne, a physician, but also a scientist of sorts with his fingers in philosophy and spirituality, filled his writings with rigorous erudition, footnotes in many languages and references to classical literature and the historical leanings of such peoples as the Chaldeans, the Persians and the Scythians. These referents are sprinkled in the sentences of a stylist whose ornamental language and prose rhythms have caused such literary titans as Emerson, Melville, Woolf, Joyce, Borges, Gass and Sebald to praise him enthusiastically. Of the contents of the Roman urns found in Norfolk, England, Browne says:
In sundry Graves and Sepulchres, we meet with Rings, Coynes, and Chalices; Ancient frugality was so severe, that they allowed no gold to attend the Corps, but only that which served to fasten their teeth. Whether the Opaline stone in this Urne were burnt upon the finger of the dead, or cast into the fire by some affectionate friend, it will consist with either custome. But other incinerable substances were found so fresh, that they could feel no sindge from fire.
The consonance of the c- and f-sounds in the last two sentences sends the stirring suppositions of how the ancients might have acted in light of what was left in the urns careening into the reader’s mind. No archeologist ever took such care to construct such luxurious lines for his readership. Browne, on the level of language as well as inquiry, is not that strict, exacting, stereotypically staunch fusspot of science. With wonderment at the last resting place of the Opaline before its reappearance eons later, this excerpt is a poetic pull at assembling history, not a scientific one. Whether his poetic language rubbed his thought less astringent or not, Browne presents himself as more an interlocutor, a foil reflecting the given light of the sun so others many feel a little less dark in their darkness.
Browne’s inquiries at first range around the text without hope of answer, as his reports on the findings are often terminated with the knowledge of no certain knowledge: “…we hold but a wavering conjecture” and “we hold no authentick account.” Yet from this uncertainty Browne is able to later anchor his treatise with an extravagant philosophy of carpe diem:
It is the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man, to tell him he is at the end of his nature; or that there is no further state to come, unto which this seems progressionall, and otherwise made in vaine; Without this accomplishment the naturall expectation and desire of such a state, were but a fallacy in nature.
As Browne details the expedition and the history of our forebears he also steams his looking glass with his own breath. As he curiously contemplates death, more thoughts on death are produced. And yet after asking is there “no further state to come?” Browne finds there is something for the living. His charting of a feeling deep and rich in himself reaches full flavor in the infamous fifth chapter, where the prose bounds and jostles with rhythms, inversions and alliteration. The seer fuels his thought with a faintly Buddhist fatefulness:
Darknesse and light divide the course of time, and oblivion snares with memory, a great part even of our living beings; we slightly remember our felicities, and the smartest stroaks of affliction leave but short smart upon us. Sense endureth no extremities, and sorrows destroy us or themselves. To weep into stones are fables. Afflictions induce callosities, miseries are slippery, or fall like snow upon us, which notwithstanding is no unhappy stupidity. To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetfull of evils past, is a mercifull provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil days, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting rememberances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions.
We can’t know what is coming but if we can forget what misery may have accompanied our past we can fly into our future a little lighter with only a slight sorrow at time weighing us down. In contrast to the earlier questioning, Browne is very sure-voiced, speaking as the god who might have created the whole enterprise called “existence” that so troubles and entertains indiscriminately. No matter the custom, no matter the “Coynes” stowed in the urns for the ferryman Charon to give them safe passage across the rivers separating living from the dead, the “precious pyres” for the recently departed bodies—Browne seems to say it is what comes before the last breath that holds the most meaning as the words, “Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us. A small fire sufficeth for life, great flames seemed too little after death,” seem to subscribe to.
As the sentences accumulate in the fifth chapter, (George Saintsbury in A History of English Prose Rhythm called it “the longest piece, perhaps, of absolutely sublime rhetoric to be found in the prose literature of the world” and W.G. Sebald in his introduction from his own notable novel The Rings of Saturn, described the sentences as “resembl[ing] processions or a funeral cortege in their sheer ceremonial lavishness”) one can feel how Browne himself lived or burned “always with this hard gem-like flame,” as Walter Pater, in his book The Renaissance, would write as an echo of Browne’s fiery phrase above two hundred years later.
The unearthing of the Roman urns fanned those flames for Browne and sent him to construct a response to his bloody era in a style later called “baroque.” If life ends with death and that is all we know and all we can ever know, Browne knew to breathe in life fully and in the breathing to make it beautiful.