Week 100: Silence, Solace and Defiance

untitled (18)On Friday November 13th, Paris, my beautiful Paris, was assaulted. What words are there? What you have no words for, you cannot talk about, Wittgenstein said. Rage, fury and fear can strip us of words, so that like Hamlet we splutter in a cry of outrage and pain. But our silence, as we stand bare-headed to remember and to grieve, is itself a response to the barbarity and cruelty we have witnessed. A tiny handful of people around the world take it upon themselves to play monstrous god with the lives of others. They devastate whoever they touch, but they have no power to corrupt the human spirit. We, the humans of the world, have language that brings us together, shares our sorrows and our joys, and outshines the darkness. ‘Though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.’ Dylan Thomas said that; and he was right.

So this is a moment for us to let words give us solace. Now is the time to hear again Seamus Heaney reminding us that ‘The way we are living,/ timorous or bold,/ will have been our life.’ Now is the moment to be comforted by the Mediaeval poet of Deor, translated into modern English by Simon Armitage: as he recounts episodes of sorrow, his constant refrain is ‘As that passed over   may this pass also.’ The Persian Sufi poets who gave us the phrase ‘all things shall pass’ come to our aid with some perspective; and the aggrandising megolamania of would-be tyrants everywhere is cut properly down to size by Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’: you remember the line, ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ and its immediate absolute rebuttal; ‘Nothing beside remains.’ The history of humankind shows us that it is not possible for evil to hold sway for more than a moment, because we always turn to what is good. I find myself back at John Donne, of course. At a moment when the unwise are rushing to turn away the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free, we need more than ever to calm ourselves with Donne’s affirmation that ‘no man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. […] any man’s death diminishes me …’. Or in other words (those of Charles Kingsley, in fact), do as you would be done by.

Ecco Homo by Mark Wallinger

Ecco Homo by Mark Wallinger

As for defiance: the problem with answering violence with violence is only too drearily obvious. Resistance, yes, and an implacable adherence to the moral values of the Enlightenment – yes, our old and dear friends, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – but let us know, and live by, what we are for rather than enormous lists of what we are against. So the stories of triumph over wickedness are what we need today. How about CS Lewis’s Narnia tales, Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark? But ‘triumph’ is the wrong word here. I don’t want the swaggering and trumpets that it evokes. Rather, let us have the quiet proclamations that the human heart cannot be broken. Remember Galileo – like us, flawed, understandably intimidated by fear, but always and for ever stating ‘and yet it moves.’ Let Antoine Leiris be spokesman for us all in his refusal to dignify his wife’s murderers with ‘the gift of hate.’ ‘Even though that is what you were hoping for,’ he goes on, ‘responding to hatred with anger would be to fall to the same ignorance that made you the people that you are. You want me to be scared, to distrust my fellow citizens, and to sacrifice my liberty for security. I will play on.’

That’s the way to do it.   As Auden says, ‘We must love one another or die.’_86701381_86701380

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Week 46: America

usa_cookiesHappy Independence Day, dear American readers. Almost two hundred and forty years ago, you picked up the ball and ran with it. As the dust settled, you produced the Declaration of Independence, one of the best pieces of aspirational prose ever produced. The lovely, the startling, the truly revolutionary, thing about it is its unqualified commitment to the human right to happiness. If we were only to acknowledge the indivisible relationship between happiness and kindness and have a go at living up to the Dalai Lama’s rigorous instruction to us all, ‘be kind whenever possible. It is always possible’, well, to quote another great American icon, Louis Armstrong, what a wonderful world.

On this your sort-of-birthday, America, I’m not going to say a word about some of the less praiseworthy things you have brought to the party (but that does not mean that I am condoning your really extraordinary continued espousal of killing people as a method of justice). No, today is a day for celebrating what you have done with the English language and how American literature has added to the sum of human happiness.

archy-and-mThank you for your poets. From Walt Whitman to the Beat generation and beyond, they have spun and whooshed into the language store with verve and energy and freedom and fun, and we are all the better for it. I’m choosing just three for this week’s bookshelf. The first is Don Marquis. Journalist, humorist (please note American spelling in honour – can’t go too far – of the occasion), novelist and playwright, Marquis is best remembered in the NorthernReader household as the poet behind Archy the cockroach who had been a vers libre poet in a previous life. Using Marquis’s typewriter (lower case only: it is tough to be a cockroach), Archy writes poems of great humour and poignancy about Mehitabel, the great love of his life who happens to be a cat – as in feline, although jazz culture and argot underpin Archy’s world. And that’s why I love the Archy and Mehitabel poems: they are the voice of NewYork, every bit as distinctive and authentic as Woody Allen, reminding me that the modern era started at least a decade before we tend to think it did (Marquis created Archy in 1916) and that by the end of the First World War the baton had already passed from tired old Europe to up-and-at-‘em America.

My second poet (I’m taking it for granted, by the way, that we already have the usual suspects on the bookshelf: Whitman of course; Longfellow – although a little of that relentless tum-ti-tum-ti rhythm goes a very long way; Pound and Eliot) is Robert Frost. Friend of Edward Thomas, which is accolade enough, surely, Frost was in many ways an old-fashioned poet; perhaps, even, the last of the old-style poets. Long-lived and prolific, his poems use colloquial language and, very often, a New England rural location to set out, scene by scene – he is, I think, a particularly visual poet – a careful exploration of the human condition. To my mind, Frost is second only to Auden as a poet of the twentieth century with the knack of coining perfect phrases. As a taster, let me remind you that Frost gave us ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’ (perfect for us here in the debatable lands of the North) and ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,/ I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.’ Exactly, now I come to think about, what America herself did, and something for us all to check our actions against from time to time.

And my third great American poet (all of the twentieth century this week, you’ll have noticed) is E E Cummings, another celebrant of the typewriter’s lower case (although not for his own name: e e cummings was an orthographic imposition of his publishers later copied by critics). The Fourth of July is the day to remember his sonnet, ‘next to of course god america i’. Fiercely critical, satirical and unswervingly ready to call his country’s failings to account, Cummings is a splendid figurehead for the necessity for free speech (please don’t forget the Al-Jazeera journalists today, by the way: there is an Amnesty International petition here that you might consider signing). Cummings didn’t so much eschew the capital letters and punctuation in his poetry as play fast and loose with them, and one of the pleasing consequences is that you really do have to read his work aloud. His work is free-wheeling, exuberant and musical, and as American as they come.

We must have novelists too. Another trio, then, chosen pretty much at random from another crowded field: how about Henry James, Edith Wharton and Ernest Hemingway? The lives of all three overlap, and James and Wharton were chums. I do  rather long to discover that Hemingway dropped round for tea and gossip with them both, and it would in strictly temporal terms have been possible, as he was sixteen by the time James died and I’ll bet he was precocious. But, whatever the vast chasms of difference between them – and the idea of James wrestling with lions is almost as enchanting as that of Hemingway getting to grips with Upper East Side manners – all three share the distinction of being indispensably great. If you have never got round to reading Henry James, you might not be expecting his dry observational humour. Granted, The Turn of the Screw isn’t terrifically

Correy Stoll as Hemingway in Midnight in Paris

Corey Stoll as Hemingway in Midnight in Paris

comedic, but, by and large, trust me. If Edith Wharton has so far passed you by, you’re going to love her acid and astute analysis of the power of money. Try The Custom of the Country. Think of her as an American, early twentieth-century, Jane Austen. And if you didn’t think Hemingway was your sort of thing, try Across the River and Into the Trees, not least because it made me cry and I don’t see why I should be the only one.

This birthday reflection has thought only of America’s past, dominated by white men. The present and the future are different, gloriously different. The land that said (through Emma Lazarus, a woman from an immigrant family) ‘give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’, has often lived up to such magnificence. America the generous, America the advocate of happiness, happy Independence Day.lady-liberty