Pessimism Transformed (For We Must Go On)

“It’s Johnson, always Johnson, who is with me. And if I follow any tradition it is his.” Beckett. Quoted in Frank Doherty, Samuel Beckett

“If by excluding joy we could shut out grief, the scheme would deserve very serious attention,  but since however we may debar ourselves from happiness, misery will find its way at many inlets and the assaults of pain will force our regard, though we may withhold it from the invitations of pleasure, we may surely endeavour to raise Life above the middle point of apathy at one time, since it will necessarily sink below it at another.” Johnson, Rambler 47

“I am interested in the shape of ideas, even if I do not believe in them. There is a wonderful sentence in Augustine: I do wish I could remember the Latin. It is even finer in Latin than in English. ‘Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.’ That sentence has a wonderful shape.” Beckett. Quoted in Frank Doherty, Samuel Beckett


Inchoate Thoughts

Earlier I commented on Robert’s post entitled On Disdainful Ignorance. As I was reading and responding, I remembered this fragment of Wordsworth that always makes me think of that ‘how’.

”          but that the soul,
Remembering how she felt, but what she felt
Remembering not, retains an obscure sense
Of possible sublimity, to which
With growing faculties she doth aspire,
With faculties still growing, feeling still
That whatsoever point they gain, they yet
Have something to pursue.”

Wordsworth, The Prelude

Not Destined to Dispel the Cloud

This weekend I was fortunate to find, and unable to resist, a two-volume Robert Riviere edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, which I once read, but so long ago that all I recall is an atmosphere. I have a suspicion that Johnson is more read about than read, so I intend to take an opportunity to read my tercentenary edition of The Selected Writings of Samuel Johnson introduced and edited by his most recent biographer Peter Martin. 

It’s likely that I’ll read Martin’s Johnson, which presents Johnson as ‘”one of the most advanced liberals of his time”: a harsh critic of imperialism, a lifelong defender of the poor, a protofeminist and a scourge of aristocratic effrontery.’ Some time ago I read Walter Jackson Bate’s great biography of Johnson, so loved by Beckett that he implored Anne Atik to keep her copy. I’ve read a few of Johnson’s primary texts including his novel Rasseslas, and it takes no time at all to be swept up in the embrace of his wit and keen intelligence.

The following passage is extracted from his essay entitled The necessity and danger of looking into futurity, and should be framed and mounted above the desk of aspirant writers:

It may not be unfit for him who makes a new entrance into the lettered world, so far to suspect his own powers, as to believe that he may possibly deserve neglect; that nature may not have qualified him much to enlarge or embellish knowledge, nor sent him forth entitled by indisputable superiority to regulate the conduct of the rest of mankind; that, though, the world must be granted to be yet in ignorance, he is not destined to dispel the cloud, nor to shine out as one of the luminaries of life. For this suspicion, every catalogue of a library will furnish sufficient reason; as he will find it crowded with names of men who, though now forgotten, were once no less enterprising or confident than himself, equally pleased with their own productions, equally caressed by their patrons, and flattered by their friends.

Comradeship and Silence

Words exist but the pump to bring those words from the bottom of the well to the surface is malfunctioning. Buried in the sand at the bottom of the well is a torrent of words, but if by chance the pump stirs up some sand, by the time it reaches the surface, the words within convey nothing. As Johnson describes the adjective silent: mute, still, quiet, not speaking.

I love, (swoops and loops of love), Ellman’s description: “Beckett was addicted to silences, and so was Joyce; they engaged in conversations which consisted often of silences directed towards each other, both suffused with sadness, Beckett mostly for the world, Joyce mostly for himself.” It is such a precise description, that distinction so clear in the writing of both men.

In a timely intervention, my friend @EstherHawdon mentions the Japanese obsession with silence, and quotes Basho’s poem:

Old pond

frogs jumped in

sound of water

And goes on to say,

We usually use the word “ma (間)” meaning blank or emptiness, so when there is silence in conversation, we call this silence “ma” – “ma 間” is also used to mean blank space – e.g. there is a space between a stone and another in a garden, we call this blank “ma”

This returns me to a book that I’ve returned to again and again this summer, Federico Campagna’s The Last Night: Anti-work, Atheism, Adventure in which I found so much wisdom, particularly on his conception of comradeship (a few unlinked passages):

Comradeship among egoists allows them to further modify the reality in which they exist, thus shaping the landscape of their adventure and taming at least in part the influence that the environment in which they exist has on them.

As it always happens with the creation of a bond, unions of egoists necessarily result in something that exceeds a friendship based on shared interests or the simple joint-venture of cooperating forces.

And I make no apology for quoting again I passage I quoted a few weeks ago:

There was always something that allowed me to distinguish between the long list of unmemorable relationships and the few who were to remain. In all my strongest friendships, in all the best relationships I have ever had, an element seemed to constantly recur. It was the feeling of a movement together with the other person, a tension towards something or somewhere, a common action, a sense of solidarity within the frame of a shared intent. The people I have ever felt closest to have been something more than friends: they have been comrades.

Of course, I accept the political connotations of the word. But with a difference. Like political comrades, we were bound by a common desire and a common tension. Differently from them, however, our desires and tensions could not be limited by the dogma of some abstract ideals, let alone pre-existing ideologies. Between us, there was something that originated from us alone.

Silence as Esther describes so beautifully is neither a vacuüm to be feared, nor pure emptiness. As in Beckett’s Unnamable, referring to language and silence as distinct entities ends up conveying nothing as both merge into one. The Unnamable is silence.

A Life With the Greeks

My first encounter with the story of Troy happened as a child while reading one of those juvenile collected tales of Ancient Greek and Rome. It kindled an enchantment for that vanished golden age that has never waned. Those gods, goddesses, and heroes have accompanied me as proxy siblings, with that admixture of fierce love and gentle hostility typical to such relationships. Achilles, the truculent and distant older brother, admired and loathed in equal measure. Paris, the craven cousin, who gossips behind closed doors. Beautiful, unpredictable Cassandra who became the model for at least one of the important women in my life.

Although I own Homer in the original Greek I cannot claim to know Homer that way, though, from time to time, I crudely decode stretches, word by word, like a detective. Any classical scholar in his first year possesses more competence in Greek than I’ve achieved. As a teenager I learnt to write the first line of Homer’s Iliad in Greek from memory, but it was artifice, a party trick. Classical Greek studies remain an ambition, to sit beside my formal training in Latin. As Joyce once wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver, “I [..] have spent a great deal of time with Greeks of all kinds from noblemen down to onionsellers, chiefly the latter. I am superstitious about them. They bring me luck.”

Without classical Greek I am compelled to rely on translations into English, though at school we dabbled a bit with a Latin translation of Homer. Pope’s translation was my first, of which Robert Fagles, while acknowledging its greatness, said, “Pope’s Homer is really an English poem.” Of Pope’s translation (hat-tip to Douglas Robertson), Samuel Johnson wrote:

I suppose many readers of the English “Iliad,” when they have been touched with some unexpected beauty of the lighter kind, have tried to enjoy it in the original, where, alas! it was not to be found. Homer doubtless owes to his translator many Ovidian graces not exactly suitable to his character; but to have added can be no great crime, if nothing be taken away. Elegance is surely to be desired, if it be not gained at the expense of dignity. A hero would wish to be loved, as well as to be reverenced.

To a thousand cavils one answer is sufficient; the purpose of a writer is to be read, and the criticism which would destroy the power of pleasing must be blown aside. Pope wrote for his own age and his own nation: he knew that it was necessary to colour the images and point the sentiments of his author; he therefore made him graceful, but lost him some of his sublimity.

Besides Pope, I’ve read translations of the Iliad by Richard Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald and William Cowper, as well as much of Stephen Mitchell’s truncated version. I’m reading Robert Fagles admirably lucid translation. Each of these translations tackle the Iliad differently, and I struggle to recommend one over the other, though Mitchell’s version impressed me least.

I do urge those interested in Homer to read Simone Weil’s essay, The Iliad, or The Poem of Force [PDF]. For the nerdy I also recommend Malcolm M. Willcock’s A Companion to the Iliad (based on Richard Lattimore’s translation).