Saturday, December 30, 2017

From the Greatest of All Novels

This Stinking Lizaveta was a very short girl, "a wee bit under five feet," as many pious old ladies in our town touchingly recalled after her death.  Her twenty-year-old face, healthy, broad, and ruddy, was completely idiotic; and the look in her eyes was fixed and unpleasant, though mild.  All her life, both summer and winter, she went barefoot and wore only a hempen shift.  Her nearly black hair, extremely thick and as curly as sheep's wool, formed a sort of huge hat on her head.  Besides, it was always dirty with earth and mud, and had little leaves, splinters, and shavings stuck to it, because she always slept on the ground and in the mud.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017


Rave on John Donne; rave on Mr. Yeats ... Down through the Industrial Revolution, empiricism and the atomic and nuclear age ... Rave on words on the printed page.

Friday, December 22, 2017

From the Greatest of All Novels

People talk sometimes of a bestial cruelty, but that's a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. The tiger only tears and gnaws, that's all he can do. He would never think of nailing people by the ears, even if he were able to do it.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

From the Greatest of All Novels

The Father Karamazov, newly introduced to the revered saint-still-walking-on-earth, the elder Zosima, in his cell, admits, not to say confesses, to the elder that he himself is a buffoon, and goes on to elaborate on how this phenomenon has manifested itself from time to time in his life:

And that's how I am, it's always like that with me.  I'm forever damaging myself with my own courtesy!   Once, this was many years ago now, I said to an influential person, "Your wife, sir, is a ticklish woman," referring to her honor, her moral qualities, so to speak.  And he suddenly retorted, "Did you tickle her?"  I couldn't help myself; why not a little pleasant banter, I thought?  "Yes," I said, "I did tickle her, sir."  Well, at that he gave me quite a tickling ...!  But it was a long time ago, so I'm not even ashamed to tell about it.


I keep coming back to Susan Sontag's "Illness as Metaphor."  It is so natural to experience illness or other suffering as punishment.  The graver the illness, the greater the sin.   My brother-in-law's mom on her deathbed shouted repeatedly "What have I DONE?!!"

But the alternative -- that suffering visits us at random, without regard to whether there is a symbol of our piety at the door frame, is both more likely true and still harder to comprehend.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


The confusion and barrenness in psychology are not to be explained by calling it a "young science"; its state is not comparable to that of physics, for instance, in its beginnings....For in psychology there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion ...

The existence of experimental methods makes us think that we have the means of solving the problems that trouble us; though problem and methods pass one another by.

Sunday, December 10, 2017


Oscar Wilde said that "A bad man is the sort of man who admires innocence."
Our Blessing and Our Curse is Self-Awareness

All of the gratuitous detail in the world, gratuitous insofar as it is outside the apprehension of women/of men.

For instance, a monumental canyon in a crater on the far side of the moon, never seen by the human eye before Apollo.

Or the symmetry in the pattern of cells in the gut of a sea creature that only lives in depths of 5000 feet or more.

Why does this gratuitous detail strike me as sinister, as nightmarish?

Is there a Book of Common Prayer, one that cuts across all civilizations?   In it, does Jesus ask "why hast Thou forsaken Me?"   And who is the Person behind this "Thou", the Person who cuts across all civilizations?   If there is no such Person, then are we, all, not yet more forsaken?

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The women tear their blouses off
And the men they dance on the polka dots
It's partner found and partner lost
And it's hell to pay when the fiddler stops.
(It's closing time.)
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age;
That blasts the roots of trees is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

Friday, December 8, 2017

William H. Gass is dead at 93.

The Globe says today that he cut his literary teeth in classes taught by Ludwig Wittgenstein at Cornell after WWII.

But Wittgenstein taught fewer than five classes at Cornell, I believe, while visiting with his friend Professor Norman Malcolm.   And of course Wittgenstein was not a writer per se but rather an eminent philosopher who happened also to be a great prose stylist.   So the influence was probably ethical/aesthetic rather than literary.  

Certainly a hint of W's judgment, rarely tempered with mercy, reflected in this paragraph in the obituary in the Times today:

He said the Pulitzer Prize for fiction "takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses."  He blamed university programs for creating writers whose stories treated ideas like "a cockroach in a picnic basket."  It wasn't that these authors had been brainwashed by their teachers, he added; it was that they had "no brain to wash."

Tuesday, December 5, 2017


When the moon so long has been gazing down
On the wayward ways of this wayward town
That her smile becomes a smirk,
I go to work!

Monday, December 4, 2017


When the only sound in the empty street
Is the heavy tread of the heavy feet
That belong to a lonesome cop,
I open shop.

Sunday, December 3, 2017


Did your dreams die young?
Were they too hard-won?
Did you reach too high and fall?

And there is no rest
For the ones God blessed
And He blessed you best of all.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

TFTD:   Your cheek too cold,
            Too pale to shine,
            Like an old, and waning, moon.
TFTD:  The wrath has finally taken form.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Joseph's Spousal Prayer and Speculation

Hail, Mary!

With mercy mild,
You beheld your only Child
All with bloody scourges rent --
Bruised of course, derided, cursed, defiled.

For you O Most Immaculate Heart and Help of Christians,
Who became the Vessel of Salvation for all humankind,
Blessed amongst all women
But at once my consort in the eyes of simple men --
A question if I may!

Would you make for me a sandwich
Of two loaves and maybe of three fishes
Without mayo
And with no fine drink to make a Hapless Meal
(The Curse of Marketing not having joined just yet
Its lesser brethren that we know now here in Palestine in A.D. 41 --
The Plagues of Locusts, Frogs and squirming Lice)?

And may I ask a question much more bold?
How would the world be different
If you had let me cross the bedding like a normal man
When younger, nearly helpless
With that other hunger?

If you had -- forget about the ecstasy! --
We could have raised our palms to God the Father,
Thwarted His Whole Plan for vengeance sake,
And joined the greatest actors on the earthen stage
By strength of will and not by mere submission!

Perched atop a teeming mountain of the greatest sinners,
Only Adam with his Eve could rival us.
We'd stand upon the Devil's own red carpet
Hell-bent without bending,
And the world would know us not for meekness,
Not for not offending.

Meekness though it overcame us.
Now we sit bereft.
And yet the Father, Holy Ghost and your own Son
Will blame us
That we let the Sands of Caesar
Bury us in doubt and rank despair.

But you, who are without corruption,
You will leave me here
On angels' wings.
I'll ply my trade.
I'll hammer home the crooked pegs
Until my eyes as well betray me
And I lay myself down with no comrades,
With no Holy Family
Without you --
My once imagined Vessel of Salvation.

Bad Tunes

What makes a song a really bad song?   There are so many ways to get there:

  • Maudlin
  • Derivative
  • Novelty song but not novel
  • Just plain stupid
  • Out of touch with the zeitgeist
  • Written by John Williams
But it can be a fine line.    Elvis' "Hunka Hunka Burnin' Love" is both just plain stupid and wickedly egotistical.    But Bruce Springsteen manages to pull off an amazingly high-preening couplet in:   

I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra!
I was born blue and weathered but I burst just like a supernova!

The poetry overcomes the ego.   And of course the voice behind the song is not intended to be the voice of Bruce per se.

Here are some examples of terrible songs (biased, I'm afraid, towards the Top 40 of my long-ago youth):

  • Red Roses for a Blue Lady
  • Puff the Magic Dragon
  • In the Year 3535 (if man is still alive)
  • Ebony Eyes (by the otherwise impeccable Everly Brothers -- "On a weekend pass, I wouldn't have had time, to get home and marry that baby of mine ..." Boo hoo.)
  • Moon River
  • Danny Boy
  • How Much Is That Doggy In the Window?
  • If You Wanna Be Happy for the Rest of Your Life (never make a pretty woman your wife, so from my personal point of view, get an ugly girl to marry you)
  • Crying (over you, by the often impeccable Roy Orbison)

Many, many others will come to me via the month's worth of music on my Ipod.