Sunday, November 19, 2006

a note on christopher middleton

What is it exactly that Christopher Middleton doesn't like when he says: "An eager-beaver rising literary man with "Eng. Lit." behind and abreast of every novelty I certainly was not." [CHICAGO REVIEW, 51:1/2 (Spring 2005), 13.] Eager-beavers have a penchant, often, for self-display, of their eagerness as much as whatever its content is. The kind of thing one finds at sports venues and, so I'm told, corporate boardrooms. "Rising," of course, signifies a distracting attentiveness to one's career. "Literary" is not a good word to someone who feels that the last thing literature should be is literary, i.e., self-reflexive. For Middleton's and other surrounding generations, that meant resisting the influence of the world's most grateful colonial author, T.S. Eliot. After THE WASTE LAND, that is. "Eng. Lit.," speaking of colonialism, is the American rendering of the term and speaks to/about the eagerness with which the middle generations of American poets embraced (re-embraced?) the traditions and forms of the mother tongue and, by implication, little outside it. "Eng. Lit." was a closed shop, into which you could put American or any other experience if you did it the right way. It was not very open to influences from elsewhere--David Jones, Stevie Smith, and maybe Robert Graves to the contrary--despite or perhaps because so much of the other world, outside Eng. Lit., was beginning to bear down on it. Such attitude, be it underscored, came from an Englishman (Middleton) who made his way to Texas and, of course, the German language, two zones resisted in the deep provincial recesses of Englishness, there and abroad. Though one can't help but point out the love of jazz (the other?) in the writings of Philip Larkin, John Wain and Kingsley Amis. "Novelty" probably explains itself. The spuriously new, the trendy, whatever prevents focus on what matters. I don't know whether America made all this happen for Middleton or whether indeed it was England that drove him from England, but the need for The New was as strong in him as it was in the man who left Crawfordsville, Indiana for Venice in 1908. And who never came back except to spend twelve years in St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Friday, November 10, 2006

an old philosopher in cambridge

It’s odd reading Frank Kermode’s NOT ENTITLED: A MEMOIR. On the one hand, it’s the description of the rise of a working-class Manxman (already an outsider to British life by coming from a quaint cul-de-sac of its imperialist sprawl) to be the holder of the King Edward VII Professorship of English Literature at Cambridge, an eminence one would have thought so stratospheric as to make the holder of it winged. But the point of the book seems rather to suggest that the eminence won in this life had less to do with the obvious rise than with the simultaneous resistance to it, with, in fact, the sense that the customary avenues to success, to say nothing of the palaces at the ends of their drives, were little more than clubs. The book’s title comes from a phrase once common in the British navy whereby common sailors lined up for their monthly wages were sometimes said to be "Not Entitled" to some part of their pay for one misdemeanor or another, often trumped-up by their superiors. As the term hovers over the whole book, however, it suggests Kermode’s own sense of his not deserving the reputation that came his way and that largely for his turning critic by default (he would rather have been a poet), where he spent most of his efforts writing literary journalism rather than the "serious" scholarship and/or criticism expected of him.

An accomplished social satirist, Kermode’s description of his tour of duty in the navy during World War II contributes considerably to our wonder that the allies managed to win it. Life aboard a converted merchant ship, captained by a succession of sometimes charming alcoholics but more often by pilferers, hoarders, and those drunk not only on pink gin but on authority as well, meant that Kermode kept his head down and followed the orders of the day, week or month, often at complete odds with the orders of the prior day, week or month. When coughed up on England’s dingy shore at the end of the war, he hardly knew what to do with himself. He was hired into the English Department at Reading by a professor who knew him whom he describes with great relish as essentially an actor who regarded the lecture hall as a kind of theatre. From there he moved to Newcastle Manchester, Bristol, University of London, and finally Cambridge (and I may have skipped a post or two), always bemused at those who hired him for not seeing that he was not quite the real right thing.

No charlatinism here, of course. It’s that he preferred, quoting Tristram Shandy’s father, to sleep diagonally in his bed, a literal fact of his old age but also a habit of mind that kept him from being the kind of scholar/ critic he obviously was supposed to have become and could have become if he had wished. He was an awkward boy, he says, particularly with women, and though married twice, he slept diagonally in that bed as well by "saluting" both of them in his book but otherwise leaving them entirely out of it. When I read the relevant paragraph to my wife, you could see her hackles rise. But then he did not write the book to please anybody but himself, and the "pleasure" to be had was in part the need to get his version of certain damning episodes in his professional life before the public, but more deeply the need to tell the truth of experience and of himself with all the necessary admissions of error that go with that. His life was, and still is, filled with an intellectual omnivorousness virtually absent from our time. One hardly knows what to call him, since teacher, critic, writer, scholar all fit him, as I think would something like esthetician. The book’s final chapter concerns his "flight" from the organized life of the universities where he had "the sense of being, too painfully, where one is not entitled to be, doing what one is not entitled to do." Though he lives in Cambridge, visited by friends and by his children, this old "philosopher" in his version of Rome looks out over his back garden at a statue of Diana, and writes, under the guise of book reviewing, descriptions of our cultural life that one is tempted to say ARE our cultural life slouching toward whatever it is to become.