Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Some thoughts on François de La Rochefoucauld and Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve


Sainte-Beuve writes: “There comes a moment in life when L. pleases us, and in which we think him more true than perhaps he really is.” He is true for the person, the circumstance, the hurt, the special experience or recollection of the experience which inspired the maxim. He is true for a particularity, that particularlity (whatever it is) being something that we have known or had in our own case.



Sainte-Beuve writes: “We cherish the secret insult; we suck the bitterness with pleasure. But this very excess has something reassuring. Enthusiasm for those thoughts is a sign that already we are passing beyond them and beginning a cure.” If we cannot escape amour-propre (self-regard), if self-interest is not only a given but a necessary of all human conduct, then we treat L. as an equal before we begin. But can we ever “pass beyond” in this way, can we ever “begin a cure”? L. gives no answer, he has no philosophy, and no philosophical guide to life – this is not his business.



Sainte-Beuve writes: “Maxims are things that cannot be taught; half a dozen persons before whom to recite them are too many; the maker of them will be admitted to be right only in a tête-à-tête.” It could be argued that that is even too many. A tête-à-tête with L. himself, perhaps. For does L. believe what he is saying? Or is what he is saying meant to shock and so make us think anew about the subject of the maxim – courage, fidelity, possessiveness, &c.? If L. is playing a game of wit with us then who is true and to what degree? How far can we push it? This reading of it as wit comes only with re-reading, when L. has become familiar, even a companion. Yes, we can agree about them with another, but the maxims are finally a matter of agreement or dissension solely between the reader and his understanding of L.’s meaning – its precision.



Sainte-Beuve writes: “His nature, without his then suspecting it, had an arrière-pensée in all enterprises, and that hidden thought was an instinct to reflect upon the enterprise when it was over. All adventures were to finish with him in maxims.” Hard to believe that this was ideal. One feels that L. thought and felt a very much greater world outside that of his maxims, we see it in Madame de Sévigné’s letters and elsewhere in the literature. Just as existentialists would stop writing if they were existentialists, so L. would have written nothing if he was completely bitter and disillusioned. The maxims were an art form, not just the result of his life adventures. However, it is one thing we can say, maxims are the end, the very end of one story, or the beginning, the barely discernible first beginnings of another story.



Sainte-Beuve writes: “The moralist in L. is stern, grand, simple, concise …” Unlike most literature, L. allows for no double meaning in his writing. There is no ambiguity, no space for colour, comparison, allusion. He reminds one of Simone Weil in her strictures to the task of making the point.     



Sainte-Beuve writes: “Segrais and Huet thought he had more sagacity than equity; and the latter even remarked, very acutely, that the author had brought certain accusations against mankind for the sole purpose of not losing some witty or ingenious expression he meant to apply to them.” Until we learn that L.’s practice is a developed game of sayings, we are still only being served leaden cynicism. The maxim is used precisely at the moment when its wit and ingenuity is seen to suit the case.



Sainte-Beuve writes: “L.’s maxims do not in any way contradict Christianity, although they do without it. His man is precisely the fallen man…” Self-regard is not the same as selfishness. But where does one become the other, and in what way are we meant to understand self-regard in L. other than in a perjorative sense?



Sainte-Beuve writes: “Some of the maxims he rewrote thirty times, until he reached the necessary expression; nevertheless, there seems no torturing effort.” The greatest part of the story is imagining him, quicksilver, in his retirement, testing the phraseology. One wonders about his surroundings, his gout. We see his hot face, his wry smile – and we feel the melanchology begin to move in, not the melancholy in the works, only its final, overall effect, which is its secret poetry.



Entry in Notebooks, 13-16th September 1989. These quotes from Sainte-Beuve and my responses were basis for a Reading Group session at the time on the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Some thoughts on the Letters of Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné


Reading the letters of Madame de Sévigné. The anthologies of mother-daughter correspondence that come out today seem precious and strained beside her enormous expressions of love. She can hardly control herself in her excitement to get everything out, while her developed, delightful skill of entertaining exacts a complete control. She can gossip and even get bitchy, but she is never small-minded or cruel. But this is only the start. Madame de Sévigné’s view of the court world is broad. Her Catholicism is devout and needful. Her honesty about her own talents, especially as reflected in that of her very fortunate daughter, endears her increasingly. Her confession that she does not understand some of M. La Rochefoucauld’s new maxims is an almost perfect example of her civilization: she obviously comprehends the rest of them. Her self-analysis, as when she fears that her love for her daughter is idolatry, has about it the sudden back cut of Christina Stead. But it is her spirit – the thing you get in the spry openings, the witty build-ups, the rolling pages of personal descriptions – that can still seduce.

Entry in Notebooks, 16th August 1989

Some thoughts on ‘Last Poems’ by Vincent Buckley


The major concerns of Buckley at the end in this collection. Dying. Looking at one life from the point near death. Memory. Honour. Inevitability.

Place. Mood and sensuality of place. Australian cities. Sense of moving into or away from a place. And especially Ireland.

The creation of poetry. How the voice speaks and sounds. The Irish voice (but, notice, not the Australian voice much). And then, music.

Politics of all kinds. Literary politics (his game). Irish politics. War.

Family life. The ancestors. The present generation. What the future holds. Relationships within the family. The fears of women. Privacy.

Civilization. Human interaction. Human respect. The public domain. Ethical questions, discussed with careful passion or with satire or with irony.

Physicality. Uncomfortableness. The restlessness of the body. The coming to terms with materials.

Meaning. Finding “some place in a story.”

The personal concerns. Notice the voice is nearly always his voice, Vin’s voice.

Entry in Notebooks, 17-18th July 1989, after first encounters with this new poetry 

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Some thoughts on ‘The Star Chernobyl’ by Julia Voznesenskaya


Like Thomas Merton’s nuclear weapon poems composed entirely of newspaper quotes, the book works by accretion and irrefutability of the media evidence. The story of the three sisters is helpful – more helpful for non-Russians, who desire to know what the Russians really think (and how) of the Chernobyl accident – yet the story does not tell us anything deeper. How deep do we want to go? Recognisable types, individuals, caught off-guard by the disaster everyone has secretly known was “a matter of time” and which, when it happened, would be “a sign of the times.” The story is there to help the reader reassess the large segments of Pravda &c. quotes set between each chapter, and it is those which anyone literate in the disaster will find more disturbing than the story itself. The dialogue is shoddy (the translator?) yet the force of circumstance around which it revolves gives it an excuse. The conversation at the expense of the Party sounds like a genre unique to the modern Russian condition: imagine what it must be like when the samizdat get satirical. All the time, too. We think of ‘Stalker’ (Andrei Tarkovsky), the three men going into The Zone, and what to find? Although this book has none of the hypnotic character of that film, we can hear the click-click of the train carrier moving inexorably into the unknown as each page is turned.  

Entry in Notebooks, 16th July 1989 

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Some thoughts on ‘Under the Eye of the Clock’ by Christopher Nolan


New research shows that cerebral palsy sufferers have stopped development at the point of learning how to turn over, stand up, &c. Many years later they cannot perform certain actions because their mind has restricted them: they can go back into a fetal position. It does not affect their intelligence or growth in other areas. Nolan’s favourite words – casting, crested, cradled – reveal someone limited by a body that cannot obey the wishes of the mind. The compacting of his sentences is not simply the result of his method of composing with the ‘unicorn’ – dropping the articles, inventing new words, rearranging traditional order; it comes from a great rush to get things said, an intense urgency governed by his disability and by the strains of time (the eye and the clock) to get it all out. So what if his mother edited or added? It seems almost inevitable, considering the method. What is at the core – in the beauty of the descriptions of friendships, family and happiness, and in the unique poetic sentences – could only come from one person out of hardship. It is surprising how little actual hardship is dwelt upon, yet it is the unseen base out of which all of this develops. But we still have it at the very end and are left in no doubt.      

Entry in Notebooks, 6th July 1989 

Some thoughts on ‘Life A User’s Manual’ by Georges Perec


Do the lists always work? Isn’t there an emptiness behind pages of detail? It is a work of immense care and attention, yet are the rooms of the house full of scrappiness? As a fan of inventories this book is a wonder to read – yet the reader is left too often with a disjunction, between the objects of the room and the person, that cannot be solved, cannot be soldered. One imagines the rapidity of the puns, the verbal play, the suggestiveness of styles in the French, which in translation cannot achieve the same effect. Perhaps, as in ‘Ulysses’ or Rabelais, listing and listing has its own momentum and thrill, the only way to say “there is more” is to say more and more. The curiosity of the curiosity shop, the curiosity of the plan Perec set himself in writing each chapter along such restricted lines of play – these things keep the fascination long after the objects and their connotations have started to wear out. Again though, what delight to have someone who makes us aware in a novel way of the hundreds of things that we surround ourselves with and live in common with, daily.

Answer to the first question: what do you mean ‘work’? Answer to the second question: what do you mean ‘behind’? Answer to the third question: only what is on the page.   

Entry in Notebooks, 5th July 1989