Notes After Austen (Updated, Again, Again)

Each summer I re-read all of Jane Austen. This year, I decided to post a bit about it on Facebook, just some notes and jottings, noting more. I will move future FB posts here as I go so you might want to check back periodically. (Original posts and comments are on my FB page.)

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Mr. Collins, proposing to Elizabeth Bennett: “And now nothing remains for me but to assure you in the most animated language of the violence of my affections.” Austen! Hard to think of any sentence whose form more completely stutifies its content. All you can do is bow and delight.

Finished Austen’s *Emma* this morning, and was struck by the final chapters more than I recall being before, particularly the similarities between Emma and Frank Churchill, remarked upon near the end by Emma herself. We might say that both Emma and FC are ‘imaginists’ to use the novel’s own term for Emma, but Emma’s imagination mostly imposes on herself, while FC’s imposes on the entire village (more or less): Emma fools herself, FC fools Emma, the Westons, and many others. Still, like FC, Emma manages to emerge from all her foolings uninjured, ‘the child of good fortune’ (Knightley’s description of FC). In the end, Robert Martin, by proposing yet again to Harriet Smith (and by being this time accepted), saves Emma from the one lingering secret she has kept from Knightley, and a raider of neighboring poultry yards motivates Emma’s father to allow her to marry sooner rather than later. — The child of good fortune, indeed! What a remarkable novel.

Reading *Mansfield Park*, my favorite of Austen’s novels. Chaps 8-12., roughly, are given over to differentiating Fanny Price from Mary Crawford. Although the word does not, so far as I recall, occur until Chap 9, and there not in application to either woman, — the word ‘disinterested’, as Austen used it so often in *Emma*, hovers over the differentiation. Fanny is disinterestedly engrossed in everything around her on the trip to Sotherton; Mary cannot manage disinterested engrossment in anything. She can be engrossed (if that is the right word) only where she is *interested*. She can see only for her own sake, not for the sake of seeing, or, better, for the sake of the thing seen. And so she is unseeing, blinded (“she saw Nature, inanimate Nature, with little observation”). Worse, Mary’s blindness is communicable, infecting Edmund as well as herself, although he has a restive sense that something is wrong with Mary, and wrong with him for being unable to *observe* it clearly. It will take Fanny a long time, and much suffering, to clear Edmund’s vision.

Austen’s ability to force characters into hearing what they do not want to hear, in a form to warm and wound the heart all at once. *Mansfield Park*, Chap 27, Edmund to Fanny, discussing his hopes and ‘misgivings’ about Mary Crawford, his planned proposal: “You are the only being upon earth to whom I should say what I have said; but you have always known my opinion of her; you can bear me witness, Fanny, that I have never been blinded.” But blinded and blind he has been and is.

Reading the amazing 34th chapter of Mansfield Park, the chapter in which Austen shows the character of Henry Crawford to the fullest. He is a man of genuine powers, agreeable to a remarkable degree. But for Austen — as Tave has shown — the relationship between ‘agreeableness’ and ‘amiableness’ is always under investigation. The two terms are so intimately related that they can be — and often are (by Austen’s characters, in life) — conflated. In many ways, their relationship is much like that between ‘truth’ and ‘validity’: they can be mistaken for synonyms, but they can part company. In the chapter, Crawford reads Shakespeare aloud so well that he eventually entrances even the reluctant Fanny, but as the conversation turns to reading aloud well (more generally) and eventually to reading Scripture aloud well, and to preaching, Crawford cannot manage himself for long. For all that he says of which Fanny approves of, he eventually wanders into the peculiar careless self-regard that is her aversion. Fanny involuntarily shakes her head in disapproval. Crawford sees her reaction but cannot really understand it. He sees nothing to repent of: he was sincere in what he said. Of course, Crawford is so thorroughly admixed with the false that even what he says sincerely is gainsaid by his being the speaker. — But that is part of the problem. He can talk ‘sincerely’ about himself but with no proper response to the things he ‘believes’ about himself.

Finished MP. Lots of thoughts, but here’s one. There’s a fascinating subjunctive paragraph as the novel ends, one that details a successful bid by Crawford for Fanny. Its tone suggests that it details what *almost* happened. — But that’s false. To use the lingo of analytic philosophy, the world described is no *nearby* possible world. Given Crawford’s watery character in the actual (fictional) world, the stoutness of resolution that bid involves makes it quite *distant*. The tone, I believe, is Austen’s narrative voice ventriloquizing Crawford’s own, showing his point of view on the unfolded events, his very unhappy sense that a different, better life was *almost* in his grasp.

MP is a novel about conscience, consciousness and the (intertwined) corruptions of each. The stress on vision and blindness figures a stress on moral vision and moral blindness. The late, severe language on the Crawfords, on Mary’s mind as ‘bewildered’, ‘darkened’, and similar language about Henry’s, has been built to in careful stages. The long, centerstage section on the MP theatrical accomplishes much of the work, as conscience, its use, abuse, and absence is displayed. As the literature on conscience bears out, and as Austen understood full well, there’s no blameless exit from the predicament of an erring conscience: the person in the predicament is damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t. She either does what her erring conscience demands, and does wrong, or she violates her erring conscience and so does wrong. Austen elongates the section because of the delicacy of the predicaments of the characters. No one’s conscience is simply absent, but various consciences are being abused. Mary and Henry’s err in crucial ways. So too Maria and Julia’s. Edmund’s actions cause Fanny so much distress because she sees him violating, and even laboring to befuddle, his own (non-erring) conscience. Fanny herself is worked upon by the theatricals, and is dangerously close to duplicating Edmund’s folly. The unexpected arrival of Sir Thomas saves her from having to choose whether to play (read) Cottager’s wife. The problem with the Crawfords is that they do not just have bad ‘principles’, though no doubt some of their ‘principles’ are bad: they can’t see clearly enough as to justly apply principles of any sort. Their consciousnesses themselves are corrupt. They do not and will not see.Near the book’s end, Henry suggests to Fanny that, married to him, she will become, in effect, his conscience. Fanny rejects the imputed role. No one can be anyone else’s conscience. But she reminds Henry that he does not need her. Each of us, she tells him, has in him or her what is necessary for determining right and wrong. I find that line tragic: Abstractly, Fanny is right, and her saying what she says is charitable. But it is not clear that Henry, the particular concreted human being, has any longer in him what he needs to determine right and wrong. Beneath his errors of conscience lurks a more fundamental moral debility, the protoplasmic untruth in which his heart itself is and has long been afloat.

I’ve started S&S, more on it soon, but, for now, a couple of final notes on MP.— For a great deal of her life (and of the novel) Fanny seems almost voiceless. No one hears her, seeks out her thoughts (except Edmund). But she hears herself, the voice of her conscience. Fanny listens to Fanny, even when no one around her does, and despite no one around her else listening to himself or herself. — I’m thinking I will write an essay on MP. “The Moral Grandeur of Fanny Price”. — The Crawfords are such smiling villains. Complicated, gifted, they call forth sympathy and regret as they repel. Seeing them for what they are requires keeping in mind something J. L. Austin once pointed out in a footnote (about the dangerous tendency to conflate succumbing to temptation to losing control of oneself). Imagining himself succumbing to temptation, to taking his own and someone else’s serving of ice cream at High Table, Austin asks: “But do I lose control of myself? Do I raven, do I snatch the morsels…and wolf them down…? Not a bit of it. We often succumb to temptation with calm and even with finesse.” Just so the Crawfords, at least until Henry’s ‘etourderie’ (Mary’s word) with Maria.

S&S: Austen’s gift for delivering crucial character descriptions in ways that can easily slip past the reader: Early in S&S, when Colonel Brandon must cancel the pleasure party to Whitwell, Sir John tries to reverse Brandon’s decision by reminding Brandon of the sacrifices made to attend that morning (it’s after 10am). The two Miss Careys have come from Newton, the three Misses Dashwood walked from the cottage, and Willoughby “got up two hours before his usual time”.

Austen, S&S.
— More one-liners than in Emma or MP. The prose is far less complicated. Reminds me a bit of passages of H. James before he rewrote them and after he did (although Austen’s are obviously not the reworkings of passages).
— The very careful apparent parallel constructed in Marianne’s situation with Willoughby and Elinor’s with Edward Ferrars. The contrast then from the beginning between Marianne self-feeding misery and Elinor’s efforts at self-command, made all-the-more strenuous by facing an almost omnipresent tormentor in Lucy Steel. Lucy’s clever, coldly cruel indirection in her speeches to Elinor — wow. She strikes home with dagger-point precision while seeming all smiles and amiability. “She looked down as she said this, amiably bashful, with only one side glance at her companion to observe the effect on her.” Ouch. What Austen gives with one hand she takes back with the other.
— Austen’s careful foreshadowing of Lucy’s capacity for clever cruelty (the foreshadowing does not come long before the revelation of the fact) and of Lucy’s sister Anne’s blunt cluelessness (the foreshowing does come long before the decisive effect of the revealed fact).

More on S&S

— It’s easy to miss, despite her being the center of consciousness in the novel, that S&S really is the story of Elinor and Edward. The story of Marianne and Willoughby (and later, Brandon) plays a contrapuntal role in the overarching structure. Elinor’s story is ‘told’ by and in the telling of Marianne’s, in Elinor’s moments of identification with and distance from Marianne. It’s easy to lose sight of this in part because Elinor’s self-command creates inner stillness, and that inner stillness can seem (and often does to Marianne and to Mrs. Dashwood) like a lack of feeling. But it’s not that at all, as Marianne will come to understand. That inner stillness costs Elinor tremendous exertion.

— The wonderful, subtle similarity between the nasty letter from Willoughby Marianne receives in London and Lucy Steel’s torment of Elinor! We will later discover that Willoughby’s letter was dictated to him by his wife-to-be, making it all-the-more like Elinor’s torment by her rival.

More on Austen.

Much to think about as I finished S&S, but I wanted to note something that carries across the novels I have read — the notion of *tolerable happiness*. Austen uses the term repeatedly (along with a variant, ‘tolerable comfort’) in the novels, and it characterizes the happiness of the novels’ happy endings. I suspect that Austen is doubling meaning here — a not-uncommon feature of her prose. ‘Tolerable’ can describe that which can be borne or endured; it can also describe that which is moderately good or agreeable, that which is not contemptible. (In *Emma*, I believe, we also get the phrases ‘happiness a la mortal’ and ‘finely chequered happiness’, both of which belong to this discussion.) Austen knows that what we often want when we want happiness is moments of transport, of body-leaving joy (there are such moments in the novels) but she also knows that such moments are (grammatically) *moments*: such happiness is intolerable; it cannot be borne, supported, for long: the business of embodied living goes on, a la mortal. The happiness that will satisfy is one that is moderately (another doubling word in Austenian contexts) good, agreeable, supportable. It is happiness compatible with wanting rather better pasturage for one’s cows…But, someone might ask, what of Emma and Knightley’s ‘perfect happiness’? That sounds more than tolerable, at least in the second sense? — True. — Still, I wonder if the ‘perfect’ there is not a bit of deliberate ironic archness, a bit of Emma’s imaginist point of view entering into the narrator’s voice? Not that I mean they were not happy: but rather that their perfect happiness was, after all, perfectly tolerable.

Austen.

— I’ve been accompanying my reading of Austen with sallies into Crabb’s English Synonyms. Crabb, prefacing the work: “Should any object to the introduction of morality into a work of science, I beg them to consider that a writer whose business it was to mark the nice shades of distinction between words closely allied could not do justice to his subject without entering into all the relations of society and showing, from the acknowledged sense of many moral and religious terms, what has been the general sense of mankind on many of the most important questions which have agitated the world.” It seems to me that this captures a deep ambition of Austen’s novels, her writing.

Austen, *Persuasion*.

— While *MP* is my favorite Austen novel, Anne Elliot is my favorite Austen character. — The beautiful handling of Anne’s history with F Wentworth, the proposal, and eventual parting: it is easy to understand even if not to agree with the views of all the interested parties. And the subtle ways Austen shows the reader just how deeply in love Anne was (and, really, still is). Much of the novel’s power is drawn from the continuing strength of her feelings, her constancy.

Austen, *Persuasion*.

— Two observations. (1) In an early paragraph about the mutual affection of Anne and Frederick, Austen’s notes that “the encounter of such lavish recommendations could not fail…they were rapidly and deeply in love.” And so they were, and so they are. Anne, although the least self-deceived of Austen’s central characters (she is certainly less self-deceived than Frederick — but then he was the one rejected, not the one who did the rejecting), is self-deceived about the continuing strength of her feelings for Frederick. Austen shows this to the reader (even before Anne realizes it) in the comments about her loss of ‘bloom’. The return of it later in the novel is not due to Lyme’s sea breezes but to her gradual rehabitation of feelings that have long been treated as alien, abandoned. When Anne first sees Frederick in person, the meeting deeply unsettles her, and she finds that to “retentive feelings” eight years may not be a long time, indeed not much time at all. But despite that acknowledgment, she will continue to resist her feelings, sure that Frederick is no longer for her. (What a wonderful phrase, “retentive feelings” — a ‘conative’ word modified by a ‘cognitive’ one, and their conjunction tells us a great deal about Anne’s mind, in the sense of ‘mind’ that is so important in Austen, the sense that Ryle delineates in his famous essay.)

(2) The fall of Anne’s sister’s son and the consequent events not only allow Austen to delay the first meeting between Anne and Frederick but they serve to foreshadow the fall of Louisa in Lyme and that fall’s consequent events. That’s obvious enough I suppose, but I am embarrassed to say I never really recognized it before. More on that soon.

Austen, *Persuasion*:

—”Prettier musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy could never have passed along the streets of Bath than Anne was sporting with from Camden Place to Westgate Buildings. It was almost enough to spread purification and perfume along the way.” Beautiful. I love it when Austen lets the prose spring into poetry. Such a paragraph. The play with ‘p’ and ‘sp’s!

— Anne is, in general, clear-sighted, self-commanding. That she is renders the three moments when she completely loses herself and her senses all the more memorable: when Wentworth first sees her again (and she him) at Uppercross, when she first sees Wentworth again in Bath, and when she realizes what his comments and stammering mean at the concert (“He must love her”).There are two other similar moments: one when she finds out that Wentworth is not in love with Louisa (“joy, senseless joy!”) and the other after reading the note Wentworth writes to her while she talks with Captain Harville (“It was an overpowering happiness.”)

Austen, *Persuasion*

—The early scene in which Anne’s nephew, Mary’s son, falls from a tree and breaks his collarbone is crucial to the tale. It establishes Anne’s willingness to help and presence of mind in an emergency. I recall reading once that Tiger Wood’s pulse rate fell when he lined up a put. Something like that, less reductively captured, seems true of Anne. It matters later, of course, in Lyme, in the aftermath of Louisa’s fall, but it also helps to underscore just how in love with Wentworth Anne has been and still is. She loses her senses in various scenes, always because of him, but in (other) emergencies, she exhibits a coolness and readiness that Wentworth himself fails to equal. (The exquisite irony of the ship’s captain failing in a moment of extremity, lapsing into an absence of mind, inability, while this slip of a woman, Anne, remains in control, thoughtful, able!) Wentworth overpowers her in a way nothing else does. So much of the book works only if we come to believe in Anne and the reality and justice of the depth of her love. We know relatively little of Wentworth, and some of it, certainly, *seems* unflattering, but we take Anne’s word for it — and we should.

*Emma*. I was caught today by an opinion of *Emma* held by Mr. and Mrs. James Austen, recorded by Jane Austen. She notes that they liked the book, but that they thought “the language different from the others; not so easily read.” This is perhaps the thing that has stood out to me above everything else in reading the novels this time. The complications of the language of *Emma*: it doubles more, shimmers more, twists more. Although Austen is ever fascinated by self-deception, it is in *Emma* that she makes the very center of the novel’s consciousness the most deeply self-deceived of any of her primary heroines. That requires Austen to do so much more in the writing, to find ways to allow the reader to see the deception and to see past it. Austen’s strategy and tactics for doing so are a study by themselves. To borrow a favorite Austenian term, the language of *Emma* “imposes” on itself, on the reader, but Austen takes care to make the imposition discoverable.

*Northanger Abbey*

Reading the novel this time, what struck me was the feeling of the emergence of a power, of Jane Austen herself. Guy Davenport has a collection of essays entitled *Every Force Evolves a Form*, and *NA* is Austen, an emerging force, evolving her form. To do it, she has to write herself — and her heroine — out of the fantastic, the romantic, call it the metaphysical, and reorient herself — and her heroine — on the probable, the commonplace, call it the ordinary. Most difficult of all, Austen has to demonstrate that her callow heroine’s modest victories over her ignorance, her undisciplined imagination, and her reticence to judge for herself satisfy more deeply than the knowing romantic heroine’s triumph over murderers, black veils and skeletons. And just to make it harder for herself, — because, why not? she is a power — Austen uses her authorial voice to mock, scold and pity Catherine for the modesty of her victories: especially for returning home, evicted and confused, in a hack post-chaise, — worlds away from Cleopatra in a chariot. Austen dares her reader to acknowledge what Austen wants to be acknowledged: the romance of our ordinary lives, the triumph in modest victories over ourselves.

 

Walden’s Epigraph 2: Ode to Dejection?

In Boswell’s Life of Johnson (I think, I haven’t had time to check), an old acquaintance accosts Johnson to tell him that he (the acquaintance) had tried, like Johnson, to be a philosopher. “But,” the man went on to say, “cheerfulness kept breaking in.”

Stanley Cavell, writing of Wittgenstein’s philosophical work, notes that Wittgenstein writes to create change in his readers, to deliver them to self-knowledge. And, Cavell adds, “self-knowledge is bitter.”

I want to address a few words about Thoreau’s worry about Walden being mistaken for an “ode to dejection”. I will not finish with the topic in this post.

Philosophy sounds in a minor key. At least, it does when it undertakes the living of a human life. Its lessons are of the need to change: to rethink, re-look, re-tell: Thoreau’s first chapter is Economy. If we were already leading the life philosophy would tell us to lead it would lack illocutionary space in which to speak. It sounds in the margins, narrow or wide, between what we are and what we should (and might) be.

Thoreau will tell his readers that he writes for “poor students”. He will tell them that most idle in “quiet desperation”. Even without exploring the linguistic densities of these two phrases, two of the densest in all of the book, it is easy enough to see why Thoreau worries that his reader will mistake Walden for an ode to dejection. The reader is a poor student, lives in quiet desperation. Not good news. Not big on uplift. If this is gospel, it is not the Prosperity Gospel.

To read Walden as an ode to dejection is to turn it into a metrical set piece. A bit of lofty sentimentalizing on a grand topic. Kierkegaard somewhere underlines that it served the Athenians to treat Socrates as a genius. Because, as a genius, he was eccentric, not really one of them, and, as such, his life had no claim on their lives: Socrates was a different form of life: his was not the form of Athenian life.

To treat Socrates as a genius was to (functionally) banish him from the city, excommunicate him. Teachers discover their own form of this banishment when they urgently recommend a book to students and the students take the recommendation only to reveal (more of) the eccentricity of the teacher. Thoreau writes Walden because he believes the life he led at Walden makes a claim on his reader’s life, on the discordant lives of the citizens of Concord (Everywhere, USA). That life exerts the pressure of an exemplar.

An effective means for escaping this claim, reducing its pressure, is to recategorize Thoreau’s communicative act (a kind of excommunication). “Ah! I see! An ode to dejection! Isn’t it fine? Highflown, lovely turns of phrase, — fighting ants, — splendid!” The reader aesthetisizes the book, as if its aim were to please by its magniloquent descriptions. Perhaps what it describes displeases, but the focus is not on the object of the description but on the description itself . And so Thoreau’s cannot discomfort his reader — everything has been rendered comfortable. “Write on, Thoreau, write on! Beautiful! Oh, look, a pun,” the reader mutters, reclining. “Write on!”

A strategy for refusing Thoreau’s Walden-life as an exemplar…

More soon

Socratic Discipline?

Socratic Discipline?

(A Tongue-in-Cheek Dialogue)

I was standing in front of the library wishing for the old days, a smoking campus, a campus that had not banished Lady Nicotine, when I saw him approaching: Socrates.  

He had on his usual garb, a dark knit cap, a green flannel shirt under ancient bibbed jeans.  His heavy work boots had soles with peculiar wear — no doubt the product of his awkward duck walk, each foot falling as though pissed with the other and determined to find its separate way.  He grinned when he saw me, a Socratic grin, half-ignorance, half-knowledge, and he waved.  

“Kelly,” he started, the rare cold morning air in Auburn making his exhalations visible against the threatening dark sky, “what are you doing outside the library?  Wouldn’t you be better off inside?”

I eyed him cooly.  He was always asking questions with multiple meanings but he would never own up to it.  He just smiled a Cheshire Cat smile while the question, with its hidden questions, vanished away. I wasn’t sure what question I wanted to answer so I kept my mouth shut and endured the vanishment. 

He laughed at me, as he often did, but there was a dollop of frustration in his laugh, since he couldn’t work his magic if I wouldn’t give him words.  He waited for me to speak but I took off my backpack and unzipped it, hunting around in the bottom. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just looking, just hoping he might let his question suffice and move along.

After a moment, the silence seemed to move him to further speech instead of a change of location.  “So, are you writing these days?”

I looked up at him quizzically.  This had always been a sore spot between us.  I wrote. He didn’t. I had tenure. He didn’t.  Never would. He could wipe the floor with me philosophically, but I had a windowed office while he had a darkened carrel in the library, if he was lucky.  I knew he had written a little poetry, but he resisted my one request to see any of it and I never asked again.  

“I am — but mostly fiction.  I have written no philosophy.  Not lately.” I stood up and glanced down at my tennis shoes, “Maybe never again.  Who knows?”

He grinned again at that.  “Not me,” he noted, “I’m not one of those teachers who knows things.  And how goes the fiction? Are you troubled by the thought of writing about what-is-not instead of what-is?”

I groaned and only afterward realized I groaned aloud.  He seemed tempted to smile and then did, and I smiled back.  “Let’s not have that conversation again, Soc, okay? You studied with Elias Stranger at Princeton — and you did that plenum post-doc at the Parmenidean Institute.  You can tie me in knots of what-is-not or knots of what-is, maybe even knots of what-is-and-is-not.”

A flash showed in his eyes.  “Is there anything that is-and-is-not, or is there not?”

I donned my backpack instead of answering.  After a moment, I gave him a teasing glare. “You know, there’s a reason why the other profs hate you.”  

We both laughed at that.  “So,” he added, after the laugh disappeared, “how do you keep yourself at it, fiction writing?  I’ve never been able to get myself to stick to the blank page, to screw my philosophical courage to that sticking-place.  I like conversation — philosophy with no pretensions to draw the limits of things, or to occupy their center, or to have achieved some War Eagle-eye point of view.  I like the on-the-spotness of conversation, the circumscribed, improvisatory exercises of a kind of human wisdom.”

I nodded.  I’d been improvised on often enough, shown to lack a kind of human wisdom, dragged dizzy and dithering from Socrates’ vortex of dialectic.  But even so, I couldn’t help liking the guy, even if he was a pain in the ass.  

I threw caution to the wind— it’s that tendency that made me into a philosopher — and I bit:  “I guess I keep at it because I’m disciplined.”

He smiled and leaned in.  “You know, I have often wondered about discipline…”

I groaned but kept it wholly internal this time.  I set the hook in my own jaw: “And…”

He leaned further, one of his eyes drifting outward as it often did when he concentrated, as though he was focused on me and lost in thought.   It was disconcerting. I braced myself for a beating.

“And I wonder — is discipline just habit or is it more than a habit, or is it habit at all?”

We stood for a moment in low-hanging cumulus clouds of our visible breaths.  

I yielded.  Spoke. “Well, I guess it depends. If you compare my discipline in writing to, I don’t know, a habit like smoking or nail-biting, it seems distant from that, but if you compare it to something like map-reading, it seems closer to that.”

“Yes, but map-reading is a skill, that kind of habit.  Nail-biting, unless it is a tip of the finger form of topiary, isn’t.  Some habits you just have: you can’t be good or bad at them. Others, skills, you can be good or bad at.”

I considered myself.  “But if you are bad enough, can you be said to have the skill?”

His eyes shined — or at least the one focused on me did.  I couldn’t quite describe what happened with the other.  

“Good question.  I think the answer is that only someone with the skill can be said to be bad at it, but that’s a discussion for another day.”

I blew out a breath in relief, hoping that maybe he had to be somewhere else.  I had heard some gossip about him being called to the President’s office — some parent had accused him of uprooting her son’s faith in the God of the Presbyterians.  Maybe I would be spared a long conversation after all. 

He rocked back on his feet.  Then he leaned in again. Shit.  

“But isn’t it true that discipline is required to learn a skill?”

“Um, yeah, I guess, usually.  Unless the skill is really easy.”

“Ah, yes, but if it is easy enough, does it count as a skill?  You can zip your backpack; I just witnessed it. Is that a skill?”

I shrugged.  “No, I don’t think so.  I mean, it is something I know how to do, but not every knowing-how counts as a skill, does it?”

He gaped at me.  “You’re asking me?  Me? Why? You know I don’t know.  I am an ignorant man.”

Jesus, I think, sometimes I want to punch him right in his good eye.  Ignorant! He’s like an X-Man mutant. Doctor Ignorance.  Maybe he could borrow half of Cyclops’ visor!

I realized I was being mean-spirited.  

He believed all that ignorance mumbo-jumbo, I think, as much as he believed anything, or at least as much as anyone could tell he believed anything.  At any rate, it was no overt parrot belief, no mere ventriloquized form of someone else’s words. It meant something to him; it was rooted in him. He said once it had something to do with his mother, but I couldn’t tell if that was some darkling Freudian comment or a was claim about the family business.  

“Can’t we say, at least provisionally,” — and as soon as I used that phrase I sank a little inside, because I knew he had me — “that there are kinds of know-how that are skills, things we do well or poorly, and forms of know-how that are not skills, things we can just do, but where evaluation seems otiose.”

He stared at me for a moment.  “Provisionally? I would rather like to know what you really do believe.”

“Yeah,” I added, and gave him a defensive, one-shoulder shrug, “I’d like to know what I really believe too, but I don’t.  You’re going to have to deal in half-measures. No full-scale, ad hominem, you’ve-refuted-yourself in the offing today, Soc.”  

He let me slide.  “So, operating a zipper doesn’t seem like a skill even though it is a kind of know-how?”

“Yeah, at least around these parts.”

“So, is a skill then a kind of know-how that you need discipline to gain?”

“Let’s say, yes.”

I could tell he wasn’t happy about my flippancy, but, hey, no one — except him, apparently — could spend the day in argument.

“Ookay.  So, could we say that discipline is the habit needed to gain skills?”

“Would that make it the habit habit?”

He chuckled.  “And you complained about my is and is-not.”

“Did-not.”

He gave me a flat look, hard to do with one eye straying toward the heavens.  

“Not-funny.”

I sighed.  This is how it always went, no steps forward, countless steps back, a marathon to the starting line.  

“I dunno,” I murmured, finally, putting all my higher learning to work, “how can there be a habit habit — short of a nunnery?”

“Isn’t discipline taught?  That was what I was taught back in my Marine training.  Oohrah.”

I winced.  I couldn’t seem to keep in mind that he was not always an academic, that he was a military man once, that he somehow tucked that lifetime into his other lifetimes as a bricklayer and as a programmer for Oracle Corporation before he became a professor.  He seemed younger than his seventy years, didn’t seem to be unhappily married, though I knew he was, didn’t seem to be a father, although I knew he was that too.  

“So, if I understand, you mean that my discipline, if I have it, started as someone else’s discipline?”

He shrugged.  “Yes, although when you put it that way it seems more paradoxical than it is.  If you are lucky, your parents were disciplined people and instilled that discipline in you, raised you to be disciplined, rewarding and punishing you when you were too young to be reasoned with concerning the need for discipline, later explaining to you why the brief displeasures of discipline were key to life’s durable pleasures.”

My childhood had been about discipline; I was unconvinced that ‘brief displeasure’ was quite apt as phrases went, but I left it alone.  I got the point, his point, as I got my father’s.

The point was that we have to internalize external discipline — that’s the making yours mine part of it — and all too often, parents didn’t have enough of it to pass it onto their children.  Luckily, there were other sources, but it was still unlucky when that normal source turned out to be empty.  

“This all sounds like Aristotle to me,” I finally said, a non-sequitur of truly non-stunning non-grossness. 

He blinked.  “Aristotle? Must be a new guy.  Should I read him?”

Another shrug, my gesture of the day.  “I don’t know. He’s a student of that student of yours, Plato.”

Socrates shakes his head.  “Don’t blame me for Plato. Like you,” he says, glancing at me and narrowing the eye focused on me, “he can’t decide if he is writing fiction or philosophy.  I tried to beat the fiction out of him, you know, dialectically, but he’s hard to pin down.  Who knows what he actually thinks?”

“But in that,” I say, and somehow felt the gleam in own my eye, “isn’t he a chip off the old brick?  After all, he says he’s your disciple.”

Socrates shook his head more emphatically.  “I don’t have disciples. How could I? I have got nothing to teach.”

I pressed my lips into a line, sealing in a string of curses.  

He seemed to expect a comment.  “Well?”

“Well,” I echo, pausing, “isn’t your sort of ignorance itself a discipline? It’s not like you just don’t know, like a child just doesn’t know — and you know it.” 

He closes his eyes and seems to drift off into existential abstraction, communing with his Unknown God.  I waited, no interest in interrupting his moment, glad for a moment to recollect myself.  

It took a little while, but Socrates returned to where he was.  “I suppose,” he said in a slightly concessive tone, “that you are right.  I know that I’m ignorant, I’m not just ignorant.”

“Yeah,” I added, “but even that’s not enough.  You know it and you…embrace it, or something like that…Anyway, you don’t seem alarmed by it or ashamed of it…Being ignorant the way you are requires discipline, right, is itself a discipline?”

We stood there for a moment.  He shifted his weight from one foot to another, an externalization of some inward motion.  “You can’t learn if you think you know.”

“True,” I say, nodding, “but you won’t learn if you think you can’t.”

He seemed to agree with that, and I fought down a sudden desire to follow-up my remark with, “It must be so, Kelly,” to philosophize with myself in the third-person.  

“But you shouldn’t confuse my ignorance with skepticism; I’m no skeptic.”

“No, you aren’t simply ignorant and you aren’t a skeptic.  You’re in-between.”

He seemed to like that phrase although his quick grin turned down just as quickly.  “Yes, but don’t plot me in two dimensions, I’m both in between them and behind them.”

“Thanks for that, ” I say, thanking him for nothing, “it’s a big help.”

He ducked his head a bit and shrugged and smirked — a mockery turtle.  “I guess I have to go. I have to meet with President Gogue. Some well-meaning parent claims I made her son impious.”

We stood there for a moment, him delaying, me unsure what else to say.  I glanced at him.  

“Do you ever tire of philosophy?”

He scratched his scraggly beard, shaking his head.  “I have to be about my father’s business.”

“Your father?” I asked, confused.

“Apollo.”  It occured to me for the first time in several minutes that I could see his answer and not just hear it.  

“Hell, Socrates.”  I shouldered my backpack into a more comfortable position.  “Good luck with the President. I’d…um…keep the Apollo stuff to myself.”

We parted company.  I headed toward Haley Center.  He headed toward Samford Hall.  

Gogue fired Socrates later that dark, cold day.

KDJ

Henry James on Artistic Difficulty

Now to see deep difficulty braved is at any time, for the really addicted artist, to feel almost even as a pang, the beautiful incentive, and to feel it verily in such sort as to wish the danger intensified.  The difficulty most worth tackling can only be for him, in these conditions, the greatest the case permits of.

O. K. Bouwsma Does the Forms

Imagine, for this purpose, a museum–a museum, deep in calm, fixed in breathlessness, done in silence, clothed in invisibility, awful, laid away in heaven.  And the walls thereof are purest essence, some quint-essence, some tri-essence, but none semi-essence.  If senescence is no wall, for neither is olderness nor youngerness any ness at all, all is evermore and never the less.  And of what essence and what essences are those walls?  Of all heavenlinessences are they and of brightlinessence the beaminest.  Essences participating in essence, like May-girls around May-pole enribboned, and enribboning one another, they ring-round this conjugation of hyper-supers…This is the museum of quiddities, of whatnesses in their highest nest, tucked away, ensconced, waiting for refiners defining, so fine they are.  The museum of none-such such-and-suches.

Let us enter…

John Locke Lectures, “The Flux”,

Paul Ziff on Writing Philosophy

Paul was intensely concerned with the problem of how one should write philosophy. I recall comments on the careless and inattentive reading habits of philosophers. Wondering how long he held that opinion, I peruse his preface to Semantic Analysis (1960), and find: “It seems to me that nowadays hardly anyone pays any attention to what a man says, only to what one thinks he means.”

Paul’s papers eventually became experiments in writing, designed to hold his readers to a higher standard of attentiveness. He all but ignored the conventional rules of punctuation. Apart from the colon and period, there was little else. It was risky, of course. The outcome might be a defeat of his intentions, or approximate his intentions but find uncomprehending readers, in both cases risking ridicule. It might, also, exemplify philosophy communicating itself more effectively, in a fusion of form and content releasing new energy for the difficult task of reading.  –Robert Vorsteg

Marlowe’s Exit Music (Raymond Chandler’s *Playback*)

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Today I re-read Raymond Chandler’s *Playback*.  Here are a few sort of desultory thoughts.

*Playback* is not widely regarded as Chandler’s best effort, but I believe it is much better than it is given credit for being.  It has relatively few characters and the plot, such as it is, is thin, involves little mystery.  Phillip Marlow’s main problem in the book is one created by simple ignorance (and not by duplicity or double-identity or any other typical device), and the only real mystery concerns the possible disappearance of the body of a possible murder victim.

The book was the last Chandler finished.  He began work on *Poodle Springs* but only finished a few chapters–around 31 pages, I think.  But here’s the thing:  by the standards of the genre that Chandler himself did much to set, *Playback* seems too uncrowded, too uncomplicated, to count for much.  The book also seems to violate a central tenet of Chandler’s fictional world, namely the way in which the detective is supposed to somehow remain fundamentally untouched by the story, above and outside it.  But in *Playback*, Marlowe is very much touched by the story, is very much inside it.  The novel lingers on various encounters that Marlowe has–a series of oblique but increasingly clear encounters with the woman he has been hired to follow, a couple of encounters with the secretary of the lawyer who hires him, and encounters with various of the disenfranchised people who live in or are visiting Esmerelda, California, where most of the action of the book takes place.

It is clear that the book is less a detective novel, less a Phillip Marlowe novel per se, than it is an elegy for the genre, an elegy for Phillip Marlowe.  Chandler allows Marlowe to become part of the story, and the book ends with Marlowe tacitly accepting a telephonic marriage proposal from Linda Loring (a character from *The Long Goodbye*).  –But in Chandler’s fictional world, the detective is not supposed to get the girl, much less be gotten by the girl.  And so the marriage itself seems to be the way in which Marlowe gets retired.  He goes out in a blaze of glory, but not in a blaze of bullets–he goes out in a blaze of romance.   The final paragraphs are Chandler poetry.  Marlowe’s proposal phone call ends, and then:

I reached for my drink.  I looked around the empty room–which was no longer empty.  There was a voice in it, and a tall slim lovely woman.  There was a dark hair on the pillow in the bedroom.  There was that soft gentle perfume of a woman who presses herself tight against you, whose lips are soft and yielding, who eyes are half-blind…The air was full of music.

The novel begins and ends with telephone calls.  Throughout it, Marlowe keeps trying to make human connections, and many of the connections fail, fizzle, short-circuit.  Marlowe sleeps with each of the two women featured in the novel, Betty Mayfield (the woman he is hired to follow) and Miss Vermilyea, the secretary of the man who hires him to follow Mayfield. Each of those nights ends in regretful sadness–and although the reasons for that sadness are not exactly the same, there is a crucial overlap.

In each case the woman seems moved by what happens between them, as does Marlowe, but in neither case does their night with Marlowe result in a permanent connection. The main reason for that is, despite his sleeping with each of the two women, and despite his own view that he has not been faithful to Linda Loring, Marlowe is in love with Loring–and keeping faith with her in his own way.  When Vermilyea arrives at Marlowe’s house, he finds that he cannot sleep with her there, despite that being what both expected.

“Why not here?”

“I guess this will make you walk out on me.  I had a dream here once, a year and a half ago.  There’s still a shred of it around.  I’d like it to stay in charge.”…

“Let’s go,” she said quietly.  “And let’s leave the memory in charge.  I only wish I had one worth remembering.”

With that, they leave for her place, where the expected happens.  That happening is recorded in one of the finest chapters (Ch 13) Chandler ever wrote.  It is heartbreaking in its way, ending with these haunted paragraphs, and featuring the now-highly charged word ‘dream’.

She disappeared.  I got up and put my clothes on and listened before I went out.  I heard nothing.  I called out, but there was no answer.  When I reached the sidewalk in front of the house the taxi was just pulling up.  I looked back.  The house seemed completely dark.

No one lived there.  It was all a dream.  Except that someone had called the taxi.  I got into it and was driven home.

In the following chapter, Marlowe is once again back at the hotel he had been staying at in Esmeralda.  He ends up in conversation with Jack and Lucille, who work there, and whose romance Marlowe has observed, and, in his own way, furthered.  Lucille is wearing a small diamond engagement ring.  Jack says that he was ashamed to give it to her.  Lucille holds up her hand, waves it around so that the small diamond will glint:

“I hate it, ” she said.  “I hate it like I hate the sunshine and the summer and the bright stars and the full moon.  That’s how I hate it.”

Jack and Lucille’s happy commitment strikes Marlowe hard, especially after his time with Miss Vermilyea.

I picked up the key and my suitcase and left them.  A little more of that and I’d be falling in love with myself.  I might even give myself a small unpretentious diamond ring.

Marlowe is in love, but not with himself–with his dream girl, Linda Loring.  But Marlowe doesn’t realize this clearly.  He does know that encounters that might have left him untouched in the past are now striking deeps chords in him.  He has been close to ending up where Vermilyea has ended up, so dreamless as to seem to be herself a dream.  But Marlowe turns out though to be a resilient dreamer, capable of remembering his dream.  Marlowe is both a hard man and a gentle man.  When Betty Mayfield expresses her surprise that he can be both, Marlowe responds:

“If I wasn’t hard, I wouldn’t be alive.  If I couldn’t ever be gentle, I wouldn’t deserve to be alive.”

And it is the gentle Marlowe that is most often on display in *Playback*, and it is clearly Chandler’s intention to display him.  That is why the emphasis is on connection, encounter–on character (and characters), instead of on plot. The man Marlowe is on display more than the detective, even as both make their exit.  *Playback* is, to borrow one of the book’s own most lovely lines, Phillip Marlowe walking softly, going away.

“I’m Good Here” (Chuck)

I love when writers so arrange words or events or characters that a line that would ordinarily be clichéd or hackneyed, conversational jetsam that means little, if anything at all, becomes truly weighty, deep.  Jane Austen was a master of this; so too was Shakespeare.  A nice example crops up on the final pages of James Gould Cozzens’ By Love Possessed, when Arthur Winner–having demonstrated throughout the novel his deep constancy and his capacities for different forms of suffering–answers his mother, who calls for him from upstairs:  “Here I am.”  Cozzens’ art is such that the line skyrockets to first among quotable lines from the novel–but of course it is in effect unquotable, since to quote it in isolation from its place at the end of the novel renders it paltry, some kind of truism:  “Of course, Arthur Winner, you are here; no matter where you are, here is it.”  To appreciate the line, you need to know Arthur Winner, and it, of course, helps if you know Samuel and Isaiah.

Chuck manages to do this sort thing often.  Lines in the show gain in meaning or begin to take on additional meaning across episodes.  The one I want to consider now is my favorite of these, Sarah’s comment about being in Burbank (broadly) and about being with Chuck (particularly): “I’m good here.”  When she first says this, it means what it means primus visus.  “I like being here; it’s working for me.”  But as the show unfolds, it becomes more clear that the word ‘good’ puns. (Is Sarah punning with the word? Later, and surely by the time of her vows to Chuck, she must hear the pun, even intend it? But she may hear it all along, intend it all along.)  The claim still means what it meant primus visus, but it also means more:  “I am good (as opposed to bad) when I am here.  This place, this guy, makes me better, a better person.  I like who I am here.”  Sarah, recall, more or less puts it this way when dancing with her father (in vs. The Wedding Planner).  To appreciate Sarah’s line, you have to know her and what has been happening to her.

By the way, the Arthur Winner line is more or less Chuck’s too.  Think of his vows to Sarah.  “You can count on me.”  It is his way of telling Sarah “Here I am.”

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