Wednesday, July 02, 2008

my haul - 3

[The third of three parts.]

my haul - 1
my haul - 2

Brigid Brophy, Black Ship to Hell (1962). The urgency of Brophy's writing springs essentially from this: she accepts Freud's account of the death wish as a fundamental truth about human nature, at any rate in modern times; then combines that fact with the existence of weapons of mass destruction: we all basically want to destroy everything, and now we can, so we will. This leads to (among other things) a violent assault on religion - based not so much on its claims being untrue (that's merely a given) as on denying that belief can be sincere or morally unreprehensible - these are formidable, in-your-face polemics and I'm shaken and impressed. And yet it isn't difficult to see why her books aren't in print any more. Brophy's passionate admiration for Freud leads to many pages of unparticularized generalities like this, sampled in mid-torrent: "She [the prostitute] has, in fact, improved on the tragic conception of fate by adding to it the numerical idea of chance. The male sex is a lottery, in which the prostitute has bought the highest possible number of tickets. Any one in her holding may be the winning number, the father she is seeking; but since no one knows which is he, it is the series as a whole which becomes the object of her sexual and aggressive desires. For the prostitute, every professional act of intercourse is an act of incest and, at the same time, an attack on her father. In exercising her profession, she gratifies her incestuous wish (and its murderous companion), yet the fact that it is a game of hazard allows her to plead not guilty to incest. Just so, if one member, no one knows which, of the firing squad has drawn a blank cartridge, all may feel innocent of the killing but the execution none the less gets done. The same psychology is manifest in the very usage of modern European languages, where the plural you, vous, sie is a politer way of addressing one person than the singular thou, tu, du. ... " This jostle of ideas is dazzling, but I feel like it was even more dazzling to write than to read. So much seems to be being asserted, (and yet, in some sort of mode that suggests that it isn't really being asserted), and it's so heavily bolstered by impatient logical expressions like "just as", "of course", "in fact", that I keep wanting to say - Hold on there! Just let me get it straight, what (or who) actually are we talking about right now? Are you claiming that every prostitute... ? In what useful sense is this an account of prostitution (or warfare, or education, or artists, or elections..)? This was a fashionable style of its era - displaced at some time in the 1980s by the style of theory (revulsion from the post-Freudian style when I was at university led to me wrongly supposing that this was also how Freud himself must have written, thus putting off discovery of my own passionate admiration for Freud for a further twenty years). The passing of time reveals violently hostile contemporaries to share as much as they disputed - Brophy often reminds me - at any rate, so far as her language strategies are concerned - of C.S. Lewis in his populist defences of Christianity (another blatant misuser of "in fact", "of course", etc). Both made, in passing, exactly the same unanswerable protests about the practice of vivisection - protests that were complete failures and now excite surprise - in our time intellectuals are conspicuously silent about this, it is only the emotive masses who think there is something not quite right about what's euphemistically known as animal testing. (More generally, Brophy also reminds me a lot of Germaine Greer - the same enormous learning and the same admirable assurance of being able to cut through it to what other learned people don't see at all.)

Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, El sombrero de tres picos (1874). I read this in English a long time ago but can't remember anything about it, and my reading of the Spanish is so painfully slow that nothing has yet happened. But this caught my eye in the introduction: "Surprising to say, the Eco de Occidente [magazine started by the young author and a hometown friend] fared far better than most little magazines. In a short time Alarcón found himself with sufficient funds to be able to start out to seek his fortune without any help from home.." This unlikely success, I am sure, is not unconnected with how Alarcón's literary career afterwards went so wrong, declining into persecuted conservatism. It just isn't right that a little magazine should actually make a profit.

A selection from Modern Swedish Poetry translated in the original metres by C.D. Locock (1929). The poets in question are not what we would call modern: the young Karin Boye just sneaks in at the end, but this basically covers the period of her predecessors, Oscar Levertin, Verner von Heidenstam, Anders Österling, and E. A. Karlfeldt, gaily sad, rather portly Prufrocks for the most part, who mildly rebel, or dreamily escape, from the oppressive uprightness of Swedish society.

Our Lund is conquered - hath no choice at all:
Off bubbles Winter through the sluices brimming,
And Easter brings - alive! - in Persian shawl
Ghosts of quite unexpected little women!
(Österling, from "Spring comes to Lund")

Vainly now in grey October pryest thou mid rocks and islands:
No new Venus, bridal-vested, craves thine escort o'er the sea:
Thou art God of the dumb fishes - through thy realms of gloomy silence
No sea Flora passes scattering sunny blue anemones.

Goodly storehouses thou ownest, halls beneath the deep waves sunken,
Gorging priceless roe and draining many a shipwrecked flask of rum;
And that figurehead thou bearest, ruddy, shaggy-haired and drunken,
Smiles contented thro' thy dreams of pleasures past - and yet to come?

(Karlfeldt, from "Ode to the Autumnal Neptune")

Richard Borshay Lee, The !Kung San: men, women and work in a foraging society (1979).

This is a detailed study of the last days of one of the last groups of hunter-gatherers, - nearly detailed enough to use as a survival manual - and I think the reference library is impoverished for not still having it on its shelves. In truth, I don't think many people use the reference library for books unless they are on local subjects. It seems to be mainly visited for its computers - (by the way, the South West Grid for Learning bars access to all sites ending in "", thus preventing public library users from encountering many of the most best sites about modern poetry, among much else. Probably the users couldn't care less about that, but it seems wrong). Anyway, back to the !Kung San. One abiding impression of Lee's book is that the hunter-gatherers are very like us; they are about as superstitious as we are, no more. Because his study covered several stays that were years apart, it usefully points up how life changed quite dynamically, and at roughly our kind of pace: for example, plants that were widely eaten in one season were never seen to be eaten again - most earlier anthropological studies were too short to generalize safely from, they just recorded a snapshot. I liked this exchange - the !Kung preferred boiled meat to roasted meat, so Lee asked: '"How did you !Kung live long ago before you got the iron cooking pots from the white man?" /Twi!gum regarded me with a twinkle in his eye amd replied, "It is well-known that people can't live without iron cooking pots, so we must have died!"' (Those apparently diacritical marks refer to various kinds of click produced with an ingressive air stream - there are four, / is a dental click, ! is alveopalatal - try it... )

Lope de Vega, El Castigo sin Venganza (1631)

Curious that in Spanish stage directions salir means to come onto the stage, not to leave it. But then (I've never thought about this before), why do we say e.g. "Enter Macbeth" and not "Enters Macbeth"? As you might gather, I haven't got very far with this one yet...

The Poem of the Cid, trans. W.S. Merwin, 1959.

According to Ron Silliman the best translation is Paul Blackburn's, but Merwin's pleased me. As for The Cid itself, I'm not so sure. The image of the poem is laid before us in the first cantar, and everything then is fascinating, the war-lord in enemy country, the fierceness, the bare narrative with its sudden ellipses; but I didn't think much of the story about the heirs of Carrión marrying and disgracing the Cid's daughters - it seemed only on about the level of an episode in a Robin Hood ballad. I suppose I was expecting something with a bit more epic stature, and perhaps this was wrong. Nevertheless, the poem intrigues at the micro-level. Here is the Cid in Valencia, after the arrival of his family, welcoming a Moorish invasion:

Delight has come to me
                          from the lands beyond the sea,
I shall arm myself
                    I cannot evade it,
my wife and my daughters
                    will see me in battle,
they will see in these foreign lands
                              how it is that houses are made,
and how we earn our bread
                         their eyes will be filled with the sight.

Mistrusting my own response I tried to find some decent criticism on the poem, but it's a curiosity of how Google works that the better-known a literary work is, the harder it is to track down any detailed writing about it; you are completely swamped by encyclopaedia summaries written for the very ignorant and school essays written by the very ignorant, interspersed with the usual tantalizing hints of stuff in Jstor and Project Muse that we're not allowed to read and that probably aren't half as exciting as they look when you can only see a few broken phrases.

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