Charles River

Charles River
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"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Book Meme or, A Brief Stratigraphy of My Reading

for Bruce Holsinger, who asked for it

N.B. An earlier version of this was posted here, but I realized it was neither completely forthcoming nor sufficiently accurate, though “accurate” at this distance is a matter of interpretation. Now read on.

Recently, the book meme has resurfaced and is making the rounds again on Facebook. Somewhat to my annoyance I was tagged by a good friend. I plead my beloved cat’s medical crisis (it's touch and go) as an excuse for my churlishness. But it’s fun to read other people’s lists and see which books shaped or still haunt them. And it’s prompted me to compile an annotated list of the books that formed my spiritual blueprint, as it were, the Arnoldian touchstones. The book meme lists I’ve seen generally fall into two categories: childhood nostalgia and intellectual coming-of-age. As my title implies, this list is a little of both – a road-cut of my reading. If textuality is in some sense spirituality, then we are shaped by the logic of the looking glass and Lacan was right, just not quite in the way he thought, since what we see when we read novels or poems are the struggles and lives of others, multiple, strange and bewitching.

Proceeding more or less in chronological order:

Fantastic Four, Nos. 45-75

I sometimes think that more of my basic worldview was shaped by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko than by almost anything else, including the Catholic Church – the heady combination of utopianism, cynical swagger, and the sublime was irresistible. I poured over these comics like they were illuminated manuscripts, which of course they were.

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

I first read this in 8th grade. The pace of adventure and the sheer strangeness and delight were thrilling, but it was the sheer music of the names and lineages, which pile up like so many Homeric epithets and the overpowering sense of elegy and melancholy that suffuses the quest of the ring, which as I see now, is the ultimate Freudian symbol of Lack. Though really the books seem to be about the repression of dangerous pleasures and the need to regulate them. LOTR is profoundly conservative, really – in its appeal to some primal Christian myth, in its rejection of modernity (for Tolkien, the real evil seems to be the Industrial Revolution. In this, he is not unlike Blake). After many re-readings, the stout, but frolic, yeomanry of the various Hobbits begins to wear considerably. But the theme of Earth as a slowly fading paradise is powerful and the deep sadness of the Elves, their melancholy sublime, forms the core of the work: immortals who are doomed to see the world change and decay while they themselves do not. Exquisite, when not drowning in sentiment.

Dune, Frank Herbert

Yes, but is it science fiction? Dune’s messianic will-to-power and damnation is incredibly seductive. The stuff about ecology seems a mere gloss, something tacked on to make the Dream seem real. This is really a novel about the rise of an Actual Overman who is one part TE Lawrence and another part Timothy Leary and how he suffers the torments and pangs of ascending to Total Vision and Power. As such, kind of disturbing, but Herbert continually undercuts it by showing the price that’s paid. As SF, it’s an odd duck though. Really more of a late medieval Crusader romance and finally, a rather underrated piece of counter-cultural postmodernism in a Maslovian vein. I would add to this genre Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, which is a cross between the Bhagavad-Gita and Raymond Chandler, and HP Lovecraft’s masterpiece “Shadow out of Time” – the ultimate fantasia on Gnostic alienation. Add as well Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (which Chip Delany and I agree is the single best SF novel ever written) and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, first read in grade school and only many years later recognized as belonging to the Stapledon line of Uplift novels. SF as secular theology.

Sonnets to Orpheus, Rainer Maria Rilke

Read first in the M.D. Herter Norton editions with their funky geometric covers. I cannot overstate the impact of these poems on me when I was 18, 19. Vatic and utterly committed to vision as such, they have never been far from me, even as I have fought to shake off their influence. Rilke essentially invented his religion – chthonic hymns to Heracleitian flux and transience and the spiritual power of haecceity. At the same time, though, I’ve come to recognize, in John Berryman’s immortal words, that “Rilke was a jerk.” He unscrupulously used the women in his life to support his own, abandoning his wife and child, to hole up with various decaying aristocrats. At its worse, his poetry is precious and claustrophobic: the work of a puer aeternus. At its best, it is sublime and radiant. He is the great poet of innerness, solitude, the Open, and death.

The Pisan Cantos, Ezra Pound

When I was a freshman at San Francisco State, the late Scott Wannberg read out loud, in a mangy dorm room, Canto 81, and that changed my life forever. I’d never heard such music before. It reached after everything. Whatever I’ve done since has been some kind of pursuit of that moment. I had no idea, of course, what any of it meant. Who Waller and Dowland were I would soon discover, combing through the library, while ABC of Reading propounded Pound’s argument that after Chaucer English poetry had drifted into a doldrums that only Wyatt’s Petrarchan verse rescued it from. I didn’t even recognize that Pound’s deliberate archaisms were archaic. Nor did I know what was at stake in the poem – how it represented Pound’s intransigent faith in Fascism. But the sense of someone at the end of their tether, the search for redemption and forgiveness amid the ruins was deeply moving, along with the yearning for the unobtainable Earthly Paradise.

The Palm at the End of the Mind, Wallace Stevens

The little paperback edition, with the large green lettering, was a portal to magic. Harold Bloom and Steven’s daughter, Holly, edited it and it remains the primary gem, better somehow than the Collected, the entrance to the master’s labyrinth of dream and disquisition. I gave my perfectly preserved copy (white pages, no spine damage) to my junior Jillian last summer when she professed love for Stevens. How could one do less? To share Stevens is to share a world. These poems have never stopped inspiring me, since I first read them in a shack-like apartment in Huntington Beach, three blocks from the Orphic surf.

On The Movement and Immobility of Douve, Yves Bonnefoy

Its actual title was the more prosaic “Selected Poems” and I no longer recall the name of the translator but it was published by Tony Rudolf’s Cape Editions in the U.K. and I loved those crisp, compact editions. This one had a pinkish cover. Sadly, an old girlfriend ran off with mine many years ago. Though I’ve since acquired many different editions of Bonnefoy’s work in translation, in every used bookshop I enter I always search for it. This book is written at a peak of sensual visionary breathlessness that is astonishing. There’s nothing quite like it.

The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner

My friend Stephen and I drove up from the O.C. to the long-since defunct Westwood Books in LA (where I also discovered Susan Howe and Clark Coolidge) and I seized on this tome, which I bought for $4.95 and still own, in the hope that it would explain everything. Reader, it did. This is the book that inspired me to become a scholar. It just took a bloody long time.

The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris

Kent Jones has paid fitting homage to this most cherished and contentious of film criticism books. My copy, purchased, I think, at Dutton’s on Laurel Canyon, was designed by the great Milton Glaser, who himself is a kind of postmodern artist. This book is almost a work of poetry. It opened my eyes, not just to films, but how to write about films. It’s a book that continues to teach, provoke arguments, and finally, praise film as the aesthetic form of modernity par excellence. Sarris’ brief entry on Max Ophuls says everything about why art matters (though he was wrong about Billy Wilder, as he later had the generosity to acknowledge).

Lyrical and Critical Essays, Albert Camus

Like everyone else, my first Camus was The Stranger, in high school, courtesy of the lovely and inspirational Mary Ann Frazer. Two years later in college, I read The Myth of Sisyphus, and the effort it took me to grasp Camus’ engagement with the history of Continental intellectual history was some kind of breakthrough for me. But it was the “Lyrical Essays” that smote me and pierced me to the heart, with their evocation of a landscape of exile and belonging, sensuality and alienation. One of the masterworks of 20th Century literature and a continual spiritual touchstone, unsparing in its honesty and integrity, its commitment to an austere form of beauty .

The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

I saw the Howard Hawks movie first, with Bogart and Bacall, and then found a green-spined Penguin edition at City Lights with a stark b&w still photo cover from the film. That copy has long since gone the way of the dodo, but it’s been continually replaced with numerous editions over the years. I rank Chandler with Fitzgerald and Cather and Faulkner as one of the major stylists of 20th Century American literature. And of course, Hemingway, whose shadow Chandler writhed under and I think successfully dispelled. Phillip Marlowe is not the answer to life’s problems, but his noble cynicism makes the dissonance of modernity endurable.

To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

I was going to list The Waves, which I think of as Woolf’s supreme achievement and a greater novel than Ulysses in its feeling for the very quick of life. But I read To The Lighthouse first and I must acknowledge it as a book of wonder and dismay and affirmation that impressed its poetic energies on my young soul. Everything seems to be in it. The desperate yearning of blind youth and of middle-aged femininity and the continual rush of the past into the present and the sudden terrible but achingly slow obliteration of time. It is the book of all our secrets and it is sublime.

A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

Unavoidable, really. But cliché, as Alfred Jarry observed, is the armature of the absolute. So I am, or was, or still am, some kind of Catholic. So I read this book as a blueprint for self-creation. So did a million other impressionable young men. So I never could quite live up to what Stephen mapped out in those fabulous and arrogant last pages. So the beauty of Joyce’s poetic prose dropped into my soul forever, like a toxic flower.

The Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly

How did I ever come to read this unholy book? The first sentence was like lightning and like poison, which I paraphrase here: “The only real task of any writer is to create a masterpiece.” I fear this is not what our MFA programs are churning out these days. And it’s a bad, bad thing to read when you are a callow 21 and entertain the delusion that you might actually have a masterpiece in you. But among the many pleasures, some few of which I understood, there was also this:

The wind doth blow today, my love,
And a few small drops of rain;
I never had but one true-love,
In cold grave she was lain.

St. Mawr, D. H. Lawrence

This was the first thing I ever read by DHL, besides the Selected Poems edited by Rexroth (whose introduction deserves its own place on this list), that really grabbed me. I didn’t understand two-thirds of it, as I realize now that I teach it. And my freshman at Amherst, especially the female students, often write staggering responses to it. It blows their minds, even after I’ve pointed out all the humbug. But for me, it was not the feminism of the novella that spoke, but its other half, its twin, I suppose, the wild chthonic nature worship, heathen and dark, ruinous and resurrectional. Lawrence was an obsessive, even tendentious, writer, but like HD and Pound he longed to invent his own religion by throwing over modernity all together in pursuit of the mad pagan Dionysian energies that technology was destroying. No one seems to read him anymore, but I will always venerate him, cock-eyed and half-assed and all. And I would add here Studies in Classic American Literature, too – still the most penetrating and hilarious book ever written about American writers.

On The Road, Jack Kerouac

When I was in high school, a girl I thought I was in love with gave me a copy of The Dharma Bums. It was sweet and golden and light as a feather. But then I found On The Road. Again, we enter the territory of cliché, but this book was a firecracker going off in my brain. It didn’t just speak of liberation; it lived it. There are two kinds of readers, I’ve come to feel – those who value the shallow cynicism of Catcher in The Rye, where Salinger masquerades as a cut-rate Dostoevsky, and those who dive into the Dionysian excess and confusion of On The Road. Kerouac, as Luke Menand says, was writing about the loneliness of men; their melancholy desire and inability to connect. But it’s also about darkness and a perverse Blakean longing for forbidden experience, for deranged orders of transcendence. For radical abundance over the paucity of disappointed affirmation. It schooled my soul. What more can I say?

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