Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Dictionary of Untranslatables

Philosophers have the habit of using common terms in unorthodox ways. It can make their utterances sound enigmatic, and that quality is easily mistaken for profundity. But to give them credit, they also occasionally turn their attention to those basic concepts—virtue, love, understanding, time, value, and many others—out of which we weave both our self-image and our view of the world without examining overmuch what they really mean.

I have begun to wonder of late whether life's abiding truths are largely to be found in the titles of the popular songs of the 1930s—“Out of Nowhere,” “All the Things You Are,” “My Ideal,” “Body and Soul.”

Yet philosophy has its music, too, and now we have an anthology of its greatest hits, in the very thick book Dictionary of Untranslatables: a Philosophical Lexicon. I would say a few more words in defense of this impressive and readable work of scholarship, but I’ve said it all already in a review that appeared recently in Rain Taxi Magazine. I’m legally bound (and also honor bound) not to reprint it myself, until next Halloween, but if you’re interested you can read it here.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia

It's a remarkable play, much easier to enjoy than to produce, I’m sure.

It isn’t that easy to describe, either.

It’s based on parallel plot-lines both of which involve a lot of talk about mathematics, poetry, and the contrast between classical and romantic temperaments. The stories unfold roughly two centuries apart, but in the same house. The scene shifts back and forth at irregular intervals, though the action usually stays put for a quarter-hour at least. 

When the MC announced at the beginning of the performance that the play ran to two hours and forty minutes, I groaned inwardly in disbelief. We’d been out biking all day through the spectacular autumn leaves on the Root River trails near Lanesboro, and suddenly the idea of capping off the evening at the local Comonwealth Theater seemed like a very bad one.

Never has a play set entirely within a single room flown by so fast.

Two of the protagonists of the modern-day story are literary scholars—though strangers to one another as the play begins. One is intent on discovering exactly what took place in the house several centuries ago, when Byron may have visited and perhaps killed one of the estate’s guests in a duel. 

The other scholar, Hannah, is the fiancee of the house’s current owner, Valentine Coverly, who's hard at work on some equations that will expose arcane relationships that recur repeatedly in the natural world—as recorded, for example, in the estate’s grouse-hunting records. These equations bear an uncanny relationship to notions worked out two hundred years ago by a young woman named Tomasina who lived in the house. Her notebooks survive.

Affinities and antagonisms abound in both worlds, and the play’s appeal also derives from the resolution of questions raised in the course of it: Was Byron there? Did he kill someone? Who was the mad hermit in the garden? But viewers are likely to draw even greater pleasure from the sophisticated conversation and frequent soliloquies that bubble through the production.

For example, the precocious young student Thomasina at one point exclaims, during her Latin lesson, that she hates Cleopatra, because “the Egyptian noodle made carnal embrace with the enemy who burned the great library of Alexandria without so much as a fine for all that is overdue!... How can we sleep for grief?” 
Her tutor comes back with an eloquent defense of how knowledge is preserved:  

“By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?” 

Our mathematical Valentine, a descendant of the family who owned the estate in Byron’s day, has some of the best lines:

“It makes me so happy. To be at the beginning again, knowing almost nothing.... A door like this has cracked open five or six times since we got up on our hind legs. It's the best possible time of being alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.” 


“The ordinary-sized stuff which is our lives, the things people write poetry about—clouds—daffodils—waterfalls—what happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in—these things are full of mystery, as mysterious to us as the heavens were to the Greeks.” 

Valentine bears graciously the crass intrusion of the thoroughly-modern academic Nightingale, who is eager to publish his theory of Byron’s duel. In fact, Valentine even helps the man by pointing out that Byron’s name appears in the game book—thus proving, at least, that he was there at the time of the incident.

But Nightingale is no fool. He can defend his position cogently, and even aggressively, and he can deliver a philosophical salvo with the best of them.   

“If knowledge isn't self-knowledge it isn't doing much, mate. Is the universe expanding? Is it contracting? Is it standing on one leg and singing 'When Father Painted the Parlour'? Leave me out. I can expand my universe without you."

After which he eloquently recites Byron’s celebrated poem—
 'She walks into beauty, like the night
of cloudless climes and starry skies,
and all that's best of dark and bright
meet in her aspect and her eyes…” 
 Nightingale inspires the enduring enmity of Valentine’s fiancée Hannah, not only because he wrote a scathing review of her last book, but also because he’s an arrogant sexist pig. Yet Valentine’s younger sister Chloe, who is no match for Hannah intellectually, takes a fancy to Nightingale immediately, and she gets in a few pithy comments too. For example:

“The universe is deterministic all right, just like Newton said, I mean it's trying to be, but the only thing going wrong is people fancying people who aren't supposed to be in that part of the plan.” 

I came into the theater with one advantage over some members of the audience. By sheer coincidence, I had recently been reading a book called Ubiquity: the Science of History or Why the Universe is Simpler than We Think. This book describes precisely the kind of equations that Valentine is working on and that Tomasina intuited, two hundred years ahead of her time, though she lacked the computer technology to test her insights. The book’s analysis of “critical state universality,” as it applies to earthquakes, avalanches, grasshopper populations, stock market crashes, epidemics, and other disasters, is more or less the same as Valentine’s analysis of grouse populations on his ancestral state. (It’s interesting to note that when the book came out in paperback, it carried the shorter but more accurate subtitle, Why Catastrophes Happen.)

Do we need to understand all of this to enjoy the play? I don't think so. Though it does help to know that the theories being bandied about are reputable, and beyond that, perhaps integrate the worlds of Newtonian physics (classically true but generally irrelevant) and that of landscape gardening, poetry, and illicit trysts in the gazebo. 

It strikes me that we probably understand less than half of the things Shakespeare’s characters say. Does it matter?

Am I saying that Stoppard is a sort of Shakespeare update? Yes, I am. The dialogue is complicated, heady, and fast-paced. Also more than occasionally rhapsodic and heart-felt.

Which brings me to the Commonwealth production itself, in which director Leah Cooper emphasizes pacing rather than comprehensibility. That’s a good strategy. Even if we understood everything that was being said, it would be difficult to hear the rapid-fire dialogue about a third of the time. Every member of the cast brought great energy to their roles, though Anna Lee Murray, as the youthful Tomasina, deserves special mention for effectively conveying the precocity of a sweet teenage girl who might also be a genius.

Digging a little deeper into the cast, Nightingale (Scott Dixon) was a whirlwind of bad and good qualities, an entertainment dynamo; Hannah (Adrienne Sweeney) projected a subtle blend of intelligence, accommodation, and fragility (with hints of frigidity, they used to say); and Hodge (Gary Danciu) was acerbic, libidinous, and crisply polite. Lady Croom (Catherine Glynn)? Perfectly hospitable, self-centered, and edgy. And so on.         

When Arcadia was revived in London in 2009, the Guardian ran a story musing whether it might be the greatest play of our age. They describe the plot and underscore the play’s enduring significance a lot better than I can.

It's interesting that Stoppard chose the word Arcadia to serve as his play's title. As you probably know, Arcadia is a province on the west coast of the Peloponnesian Peninsula of Greece, which was taken up during the Renaissance as a rustic paradise. The issues of landscape gardening in the play (which I did not have the time to describe in detail) raise the question of whether classical restraint (Newton) or romantic excess (Byron) are better suited to paradise. But Stoppard would never be as didactic as that, and I get the impression that his notion of paradise is one in which this issue is flamboyantly, conversationally alive and under intense debate, with both points of view delivering some compelling arguments in their defense.  

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The infatuations - Javier Marias

With The infatuations, Spanish novelist Javier Marias sets another worthy effort alongside the long string of novels he’s given us already, the high points of which are perhaps A Heart So White (1992), Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (1994), and the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow (2002-04-07). This new work possesses many of the qualities that have made his earlier ones so engaging: a ruminative yet mesmerizing narrative style, a touch of voyeurism, a crime or suspected crime, extensive analysis of a few lines of Shakespeare or the plot twist in a nineteenth-century novel, and an element of slowly accumulating suspense. It also introduces a new element—a female narrator.

Although the book is 330 pages long, the plot could be related in a few paragraphs. (Anyone who plans to read the book might want to stop right here, though I’m not going to give everything away. Those who don’t mind knowing a  little about “what happens,” read on.)
The narrator, a publishing executive named Maria, enjoys watching a middle-aged couple eat their breakfast every morning across the café from where she sits. They seem to her “the perfect couple,” always attentive to one another, always at ease, always laughing. 

One morning the man (his name, we later learn, is Miguel) is murdered on the street by a homeless man who mistakes him for someone else. Maria reads about it in the papers, and a few weeks later she steps across the café to the widow’s table to convey her condolences, whereupon Luisa greets her cordially and invites her over for a chat. Just as Maria had been observing her, Luisa and Miguel had also been observing Maria during those months they all shared a breakfast spot. They had referred to her as The Prudent Young Woman.

At Luisa’s apartment the two women have a long talk, full of nuances regarding the fact that they seem to know one another well, though they’re almost complete strangers. Maria feels that at any moment the veil will drop, Luisa will return to her state of despondency, and the two will never meet again. Later than night another man arrives—Javier, Miguel’s best friend, whom Miguel had entreated to “look after” Luisa, should any mishap befall him. Maria doesn’t know who he is, but finds it interesting observing his behavior, the familiar tone he adopts with Luisa—and the fact that in introducing Maria to Javier, Luisa can’t remember her name.

Maria soon becomes Javier’s lover, they discuss The Perfect Couple, the senseless murder, and a number of other things. But one evening at his apartment Maria eavesdrops on a conversation that seems to implicate Javier in his best friend’s death. Javier suspects that Maria heard the conversation, and he invites her over to “explain” what really happened. Should she go?

I will leave prospective readers the pleasure (or dread) of finding out for themselves what happens to Javier, Luisa, and Maria herself. My thumbnail sketch fails to even hint at (though readers of Marias’s earlier novels have come to expect such things) how much time Maria, and more especially Javier, spend teasing out how various elements of causation, motivation, chance and fate work in the world.

A single line from Macbeth resurfaces throughout the narrative: “She should have died hereafter.”  And perhaps the timing of Miguel’s death was equally inopportune. But for what reason? Meanwhile, elements of a Balzac novella about a soldier who returns from the dead only to find himself unwanted, and a few plot elements from The Three Musketeers, also serve an explanatory or meditative function.

And then there is the element of enamoramiento. It’s Important enough to serve as the title of the book. Javier claims there is no good translation into English, though “infatuation,” he suggests, may come close. Yet infatuation is by definition shallow, or at any rate doomed to be deflated—that’s what the word means—whereas the emotion Javier is describing is anything but.

It’s very rare to have a weakness, a genuine weakness for someone, and for that someone to provoke in us that feeling of weakness. That’s the determining factor, they break down our objectivity and disarm us in perpetuity, so that we cave in over every dispute…Generally speaking…people don’t experience such feelings for another adult, nor do they hope to. They don’t wait, they’re impatient, prosaic, perhaps they don’t even want to experience that feeling because it seems inconceivable, and so they get together with or get married to the first likely person they meet, which is not so very odd, in fact, it’s always been the norm….

Javier has long had such feelings toward Luisa—his best friend’s wife.

Fans of Marias’s earlier works will find much to enjoy in The Infatuations, yet the plot ends up being a little less compelling than it may sound. Maria is not a dynamic character, and Javier, prolix and full of cunning, cynical distain, worldly wisdom, and self-control, exhibits few qualities we can admire. Marias has made it easy for himself by leaving the widow, Luisa, and her dealings with Javier, largely out of the picture. She may provoke weakness in Javier, but we don’t see much of the effect she has on him face to face.

An added difficulty is that most of the book consists in complicated conversations that Maria is remembering. Yet Javier does most of the talking, and in one section running to many pages, she tells us what she remembers of Javier’s long-winded description of what he thinks she is thinking about what he may or may not have done—rather than simply telling her what he actually did do. She admits to us that whenever you hear a story being told, during the time you’re in its grip you believe it to be true. But the question continues to loom: is Javier really a murderer? Should she be sitting across from him late at night, mesmerized by the unending flow of words?

Finally, there is no way for us to know whether Javier and Miguel were good friends or not in the first place. We never actually see them interact. Yet it would appear that it hardly matters, once someone is in the grip of that weakness, that enamoramiento.

Once you've finished a novel," Javier says to Maria several times, "what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel's imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention."

Is this true? Perhaps. But for all its excellent qualities--the exquisite prose, the brooding suspense--the possibilities and ideas explored in The Infatuations remain a little thin, while events are few and far between.

Where is James M. Cain when we need him?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Local Wonders - Ted Kooser

Most books you read are a little bit like some other book you’ve read, but Ted Kooser’s Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps  is a thing apart. Sure, it describes living on a farm, and it follows the seasons. Lots of other books do those things. But no other book I’ve read records the minutia of daily life as economically as does this one, while never oozing out into an environmental harangue or collapsing inward toward a personal meditation, compete with quotes from Thoreau and Hugh of St. Victor. The closest Kooser comes to philosophizing is on those occasions when he repeats an old Bohemian saying such as “The cat makes sure which chin it may lick,” or “He who goes out seeking other people’s sausages often loses his own ham,” or "He who places his ladder too steeply will easily fall backward."   

Local Wonders is, then, an account of what one sees and hears in the course of a year when living in a stretch of hilly country twenty miles north and west of Lincoln, Nebraska. There are lots of cottonwood trees, antique farm machinery, bugs, snakes, weather (good and bad), neighborliness, chain saws, frozen pipes, political commentary, trips to the hardware store, and other rustic stuff.

But Kooser is a poet by trade, and he describes things very well. For example, in the first page he compares the meandering of the River Platte to that of “a man who has lost a hubcap and is looking for it in the high grass on both sides of the road.” The important detail, here, is that the man is looking on both sides. 

Immediately following that little gem, Kooser comes to the river’s quicksand, which contains (he tells us) not the bones of dead pioneers, but “dozens of cautionary tales about toddlers who wandered away from family picnics and were sucked out of sight.”

Once again, the brilliance resides in the fact that it isn’t corpses settling to the bottom of the quicksand, but tales about corpses. The hasty reader might breeze through such a passage, still wondering what the book is really about, oblivious to the wit and descriptive genius already on display.

Anyone who lives in the country is likely to look up into the night sky, largely free of ambient light, and begin to rhapsodize, pondering the meaning of a constellation or the distance to the nearest star. Kooser takes that path only so far:

…following their lesson, I ache all over from being reminded of how small and insignificant I am, that life is as brief as a spark, etc. The universe is always so patronizing, like a high school guidance counselor, like Woodrow Wilson looking down on the world with twinkling glasses, pursing his lips, knowing his history.

Kooser revolts against the rather vacuous astonishment the night sky often produces. He points out—

Compared to the dreary life of any star, flaring up to collapse into nothing, my life is rich in happenings. For example, a bat like a small black rag has been fluttering back and forth through the yard light all evening, harvesting the stars of tiny moths, catching one tiny star in its teeth at each pass.

What Kooser is saying here is true. Anything that lives is both more complex and more interesting than a flaming ball of very distant gas, and Kooser proves that point again and again. Such are the “local wonders” of which the book is constructed.

But whether the book was actually “constructed” seems doubtful to me. There is no pattern to the subjects, other than the overriding and obvious one—spring, summer, fall, winter. And Kooser devotes quite a few sections, regardless of the seasons, to reminiscences about his childhood and his eccentric relatives. He says very little about his wife or his son Jeff, who will soon be leaving home, and to whom the book is dedicated. And it remains unclear whether any genuine farming is being done in the vicinity.

I suppose the book’s dramatic crescendos, such as they are, would be Kooser’s description of the bout of pneumonia he endured at the age of twenty, and when he was diagnosed with cancer a year or two before writing the book. He pulled through the first illness by pouring over a book that didn’t actually exist, though he thought it did at the time. In his hallucinatory state he made the whole thing up, including not only the story-line but the binding and the texture of the paper. On the strength of that experience—a remarkable feat of imagination—he decided to become a writer.

Since those early years Kooser has developed a good deal of sang froid, and it allows him to describe local workmen wantonly spraying chemicals up and down the country roads with equanimity. He doesn't approve of it, but he knows why it happens. More importantly, he draws our attention to life’s seemingly trivial details with calm assurance, confident that a telling detail and a touch of wit will keep us engaged. And it does. 

Kooser devotes more than a page, for example, to describing the dilapidated crèche scene—a family heirloom—that he sets up every Christmas. The hats of the two kings who have arrived at the manager “look a little like foil-wrapped kisses.” The two shepherds have taken off their hats as a sign of respect. “This courtesy has not occurred to the two kings, but they are foreigners,” he points out. One of the lambs, slung over the shoulder of a shepherd, has a very alert look on his face. He is so alert, in fact, that “the shepherd can soon expect a warm trickle down his back.” Joseph is down on both knees, sporting “the brown hair and beard of a man much younger than the Joseph of the Gospels, but perhaps the Gospels were wrong about this.” And so on.

In another passage, he describes a bug that appears night after night on the arm of the couch while he’s reading. Looking it up, he finds it’s called a leaf-footed bug. Kooser gets into the habit of hunting high and low for the bug each day. “I was attracted to his melancholy dreariness. All day he wandered up and down walls, across ceilings, like a cardiac patient walking a shopping mall. If sometimes I felt as if I were wasting my life, well I always had the leaf-footed bug to show me things could be worse.” That isn’t the end of the story, but I wouldn’t want to give too much away.

A friend gives him a bowl turned from a piece of Osage orange. “It takes a fine, high polish,” he writes, “and has a remarkable, mysterious feeling to it, as if it might be radioactive. Just holding it you feel as if you are clinging to something flying through the universe at the speed of light.” This fanciful comparison takes on added meaning when Kooser informs us that the father of the man who made the bowl is a five-star general and commander of the Skylab project.

There is no end to the delights awaiting anyone who takes up this concatenation of  random observations and striking (yet unforced) turns of phrase. Kooser has no staggering wisdom to share, but his world is shaped by kindness, a bemused respect for the sometimes bizarre creatures (human and otherwise) he meets up with at every turn of the path, and a gift for producing precisely the right homespun metaphor the bring it all home to us.