Yeats on Kipling: “I dislike his works so much that I feel sure it must have something to teach me”

A letter to the TLS:

Sir, – Jan Montefiore’s review of Alexander Bubb’s book on Kipling and Yeats (February 24) deserves a footnote. The Irish journalist Lionel Fleming, while on the staff of the Irish Times, met Yeats several times. On one occasion Yeats remarked: “It might surprise you to know what I am reading. It is Kipling. I dislike his works so much that I feel sure it must have something to teach me” (see Fleming’s Head or Harp, 1965).

KLAUS PETER JOCHUM
University of Bamberg, 96045 Bamberg.

There’s also an interesting letter from Martin Scorsese responding to a review of “Silence” (at the same link)

“People who are not expecting to cry will cry.”

“People who are not expecting to cry will cry.”

I would not necessarily expected to have found an article on what will happen when Queen Elizabeth II dies as gripping as I did, but Sam Knight’s piece in the Guardian is a fascinating, and in ways disturbing read.

annigoni

While Knight reveals some of the hitherto secret details – such as “London Bridge is down” as the code phrase to mark Elizabeth’s death – and discusses the immediate issues of Charles’ succession – the real interest of the piece is the psychological impact that the Queen’s death will have:

More overwhelming than any of this, though, there will be an almighty psychological reckoning for the kingdom that she leaves behind. The Queen is Britain’s last living link with our former greatness – the nation’s id, its problematic self-regard – which is still defined by our victory in the second world war. One leading historian, who like most people I interviewed for this article declined to be named, stressed that the farewell for this country’s longest-serving monarch will be magnificent. “Oh, she will get everything,” he said. “We were all told that the funeral of Churchill was the requiem for Britain as a great power. But actually it will really be over when she goes.”

Knight links this to Brexit, to the possibility (again) of Scottish independence. Elizabeth’s coronation, in ways, marked the beginning of television age in Britain, and her death and burial will no doubt be over-interpreted in ways, but Knight’s piece is compelling in its evocation of an inevitable event that will mark a more than symbolic watershed.

queen coinwarhol_2348861k

The most arresting line is at the end of this paragraph (though I do wonder how Brian Masters could possibly have come up with his estimate):

People will be touchy either way. After the death of George VI, in a society much more Christian and deferential than this one, a Mass Observation survey showed that people objected to the endless maudlin music, the forelock-tugging coverage. “Don’t they think of old folk, sick people, invalids?” one 60-year old woman asked. “It’s been terrible for them, all this gloom.” In a bar in Notting Hill, one drinker said, “He’s only shit and soil now like anyone else,” which started a fight. Social media will be a tinderbox. In 1972, the writer Brian Masters estimated that around a third of us have dreamed about the Queen – she stands for authority and our mothers. People who are not expecting to cry will cry.

No matter what one thinks of monarchy – or The Monarchy – this is one of those instances where I can only urge Read The Whole Thing. Knight writes that the life expectancy for a 91 year old is four and half years – but of course Elizabeth has very good maternal genes for longevity, and London Bridge is likely to have some years yet before falling.

George Steiner on music (from “Real Presences”)

George Steiner on music (from “Real Presences”)

The meanings of the meaning of music transcend. It has long been, and continues to be, the unwritten theology of those who lack or reject any formal creed. Or to put it reciprocally: for many human beings, religion has been the music which they believe in. In the ecstasies of Pop and Rock, the overlap is strident.

  • George Steiner, “Real Presences”, p. 218

 

real-presences

George Steiner on secondary culture in 1989

real-presences

Each day, via journalism, via the journalistic-academic, the inherent value, the productive powers the savings embodied in a creative currency, this is the say in the vitality of the aesthetic, are devalued. The paper Leviathan of secondary talk not only swallows the prophetic (there is prophecy and the prophecy of remembrance in all serious poetic and artistic invention); it spews it out diminished and fragmented. In the absence of the guarantor, a counterfeit mode of exchange, that of the review speaking to the review, of the critical article addressing the critical article, circulates endlessly. It is not, as Ecclesiastes would have it, that of “of making many books there is no end”. It is that “of making books on books and books on those books there is no end.”

  • George Steiner, “Real Presences” p. 48

“Teach us to care and not to care/ Teach us to sit still.” Ash Wednesday

“Teach us to care and not to care/ Teach us to sit still.” Ash Wednesday

wp-image-1731534322jpg.jpg

An Ash Wednesday I’ll Never Forget:

Chesterton did not actually say that those of us who don’t believe in God will believe in anything, but he ought to have because it’s true. Between the ages of 12 and 20, before I began my return to the Church on February 17, 2010, I believed in, among other things, Buddhism, vegetarianism, pacifism, gay marriage, Marxism, libertarianism, literary criticism and – most shamefully, I think – the literary merits of Finnegans Wake.

Priests looking for youth evangelisation strategies should note that was only the penultimate item on this list that did me any good, for had I not one day found myself writing a rather dull and pointless essay on Yeats and TS Eliot, I might never have returned to the faith. Perhaps the Catholic Truth Society should do up a neat little pamphlet on FR Leavis. But let me back up.

I was a very pious child who grew up fearing hell with an almost physical intensity. Even the sight of shoulder devils in cartoons could fill me with dread. Yet I also struggled from an early age with very grave doubts. I distinctly remember lying in bed aged seven and thinking to myself: “When you die, there is nothing.”

Fast forward half a decade and I had become one of those obnoxious 12-year-olds who should not be allowed to read books. When my catechism teacher told us that skipping Mass was a mortal sin, I decided that there probably wasn’t a hell or a heaven, much less a God who cared what any of us did with his time on Sundays or any other day of the week.

At some point towards the end of my teenage years I ceased to be a thoroughgoing materialist. (How I unclasped myself from Feuerbach’s dank tendrils and came to believe in Something rather than nothing is difficult to say, but I chalk it up to falling seriously in love for the first time and listening to Van Morrison.)

I then became, or so I like fondly to think, America’s last earnest pagan. I do not mean that I worshipped Zeus or Diana – the closest I ever came was burning lavender-scented incense while reciting from Keats, a practice I would heartily recommend to all students reading English. But I did pay homage, almost literally, to things like grey waves, thunderstorms, autumnal leaves, the faces of beautiful women, the smell of lilacs and the first snow. Whatever was out there, the quaint little story about a Nazarene seemed to me too small for it.

Is it strange to say that I cannot remember anything else about that day in February? I have no idea what I ate for breakfast or how cold it was or whether that afternoon was one of those rare occasions on which I did anything at my Gogolian make-work job in the Office of Financial Aid. All I know is that at some point in the course of working on a literary essay I consulted Eliot’s Collected Poems and happened upon “Ash Wednesday”, which I had never much cared for.

But that day in the library I found myself utterly transfixed by this desperate plea for the intercession of our Mother written by an agnostic. (One of my fondest discoveries of recent years has been to learn how much of the poem is a pastiche of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin.) I was especially by these lines from the third stanza:

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain

wp-image-920999082jpg.jpg

Section 1 of Ash Wednesday:

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Borges on the will

‘You have spoken of the will,’ I said. ‘In the tales of the Mabinogion, two kings play chess on the summit of a hill, while below them their warriors fight. One of the kings wins the game, a rider comes to him with the news that the army of the other side has been beaten. The battle of the  men was a mirror of the battle of the chessboard.’

‘Ah, a feat of magic,’ said Zimmerman.

‘Or the display of a will in two different fields,’ I said. ‘Another Celtic legend tells of the duel between two famous bards. One, accompanying himself on the harp, sings from the twilight of morning to the twilight of evening. Then, under the stars or moon, he hands his harp over to his rival. The second bard lays the instrument aside and gets to his feet. The first bard acknowledges defeat.’

  • from “Guayaquil”, in “Doctor Brodie’s Report”, Jorge Luis Borges

“Sleeping, as we all know, is the most secret of our acts.”

Sleeping, as we all know, is the most secret of our acts. We devote a third of our lives to it, and yet do not understand it. For some, it is no more than an eclipse of wakefulness, for others, a more complex state spanning at one and the same time past, present, and future,; for still others, an uninterrupted series of dreams. To say that Mrs Jáuregui spent ten years in a quiet chaos is perhaps mistaken; each moment of those ten years may have been a pure present, without a before or after. There is no reason to marvel at such a present, which we count by days and nights and by the hundreds of leaves of many calendars and by anxieties and events; it is what we go through each morning before waking up and every night before falling asleep. Twice each day, we are the elder lady.

From “The Elder Lady” in “Doctor Brodie’s Report“, Jorge Luis Borges, trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni. 

c75

One of the things I have used this blog for is as a commonplace book, collating various quotes of interest to me. One interest I have is sleep, not only in the medical sense, not only in the personal sense, but in the sense of it being a true mystery of existence. We all need sleep, but why exactly? And what is it like to sleep? We all do it, but who can describe what the sensation of sleep is – indeed, if the phrase “the sensation of sleep” is meaningless, what then?

Not surprisingly, I have found that the best descriptions of sleep are in literature. I have collected passages from  J G Ballard, from  Elaine Dundy, from  Thomas Bernhard, from  Cees Nooteboom, from Bravig Imbs, from Marilyn McEntyre, from Heraclitus via George Steiner, from  Homer via Adam Nicolson, from  Vladimir Nabokov – an eclectic bunch, to be sure. No doubt many many more examples could be collected and I am missing some obvious ones. I have tended not to collect descriptions of dreams or dreaming.

Re-reading “Doctor Brodie’s Report” over the weekend, I came across the above passage, which, of all those I have collated, seems to capture most beautifully the mystery of sleep, the varieties of human experience of it, and as a sort of bonus something of the mystery of dementia. My own father died nearly five years ago, having had dementia for at least seven years and more likely a decade. One of the only blessings I can think of about our experience is that his essential personality was preserved. I do wonder what his day to day existence was like and I feel that Borges’ description of the elder lady’s life captures something essential and hard to pin down about it.