Mark Williams: A look at Irish gods and their legacy

WilliamsAgeless fairies inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal elves; W. B. Yeats invoked Irish divinities to reimagine the national condition. Why have Ireland’s mythical beings loomed so large in the world’s imagination? In Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth, Mark Williams weaves together the fascinating stories of some of Ireland’s famous gods and goddesses, from the heroic Lug to the fire goddess Brigit. He explores the religious history in the myths, showing how Ireland’s pagan divinities were transformed into literary characters in the medieval Christian era. Recently, Williams took the time to answer some questions about Irish gods and their stories.


Apparently Ireland has a pantheon of native gods?!

MW: Yes! — though in many ways they are unique, and don’t look all that much like the pantheons of other peoples and places. They’re called the Túatha Dé Danann in Irish, or ‘The Peoples of the Goddess Danu,’ as it’s usually translated. They tend to be imagined as immortal, beautiful aristocrats, sumptuously dressed and eternally young. In many stories from medieval Ireland, they live in a kind of parallel world, which can be accessed via the hills and Neolithic passage-graves which dot the Irish landscape. Some of them have vivid personalities: there’s the Morrígan, a battle-goddess who sometimes takes the form of a crow, for instance, or the young and heroic god Lug of the Long Arm. My favorite is Brigit, the goddess of poetry, medicine and blacksmithing who also moonlights as Ireland’s most important female saint — or at least has been thought to.

What is unusual about the Irish gods?

MW: Across Irish literature, in both Irish and English, their major characteristic is ontological ambiguity: the nature of their nature, so to speak, is never wholly fixed. In the first place, it’s hard to simply identify them as gods, as they have only an uncertain and wavering link to the actual deities worshiped by the pre-Christian Irish. Ireland’s conversion to Christianity saw the jettisoning of the vast majority of deities the Irish had once worshiped, while a small number were ‘reincarnated’ as medieval literary characters. This latter process was in no way inevitable, and the Anglo-Saxons did nothing of the sort, for example: you don’t find versions of Woden and Thunor turning up as literary characters in secular story, whereas the Irish constantly worked former gods into their sagas and tales, often worrying about how to place them in a Christian cosmos. Serious suggestions included the idea that they were merciful angels, ‘half-fallen’ angels, demons, or a race of humans who had somehow escaped the Fall and so retained more-than-human powers.

That the old gods were remembered at all was down to the deep respect for the past, which was characteristic of the medieval Irish. The Anglo-Saxons knew that they had arrived from somewhere else in the relatively recent past, but the Irish — around the conversion period, at least — seem to have thought themselves to be indigenous to their land. They were deeply invested in their own nativeness, so that their landscape, culture, and ancestry were all bound up together. (A new story was developed later which asserted that they hailed from Scythia, via Spain). But literature and shaping of a literate culture were in the hands of a clerical intelligentsia, who felt perfectly at liberty to make major changes in the depiction of ancient, once-divine figures. It is very striking how much the multi-talented god Lug (or Lugh) resembles the biblical King David, for example — both are young, handsome, royal figures, both are skilled musicians and poets, and both kill a giant with a slingshot to the head in single combat. Though there is no question that a god named Lug (or Lugus) was part of Irish paganism, one wonders how much of his ancient character actually persists in the literary Lug. This kind of remodeling might have happened to any number of the divine figures in Irish literature; far from representing the ignorant interference of clerics in ancient traditions, it actually reflects an attitude of deep respect on their part, and underscores their investment in the patterns and personages of their island’s ancient past.

The second peculiarity about the gods is that they are often depicted as ‘fairies’ — the not very satisfactory English term for the Irish áes síde, ‘the people of the hollow hills’. It is the second of these two Irish words which was later anglicised as Shee — a term familiar to all aficionados of nineteenth-century Irish literature. Rather than being gods, in this guise they act as humanity’s idealized twin-race. They are beautiful, immortal, and gifted with magic powers, and their lifestyle is largely characterized by graceful ease. In many ways they are the forerunner of Tolkien’s Elves, but they are less solemn and remote. In this guise they balloon in number: they become an imagined people, not a pantheon.

The third factor is that towards the end of the first millennium AD the Irish developed a complex backstory for their island, and a place for the Túatha Dé Danann was found within this elaborate timeline. They were now imagined as only one of a series of invading races who had ruled Ireland in the deep past. The climax of this kind of ‘synthetic history’ (as it is known) came in the late eleventh century, with the creation of ‘The Book of Invasions.’ In this schema, the gods were imagined as human beings who had simply learned how to supercharge their abilities with magical knowledge. They were (the synthetic history tells us) the third or fourth race to rule over Ireland, before they were in turn defeated by the incoming Gaels, the ethnic Irish. This scenario is transparently a creation of the high Middle Ages, but it became the basic imaginative frame for Ireland’s native gods until the nineteenth century.

The upshot of all these variations on the ontology of the Túatha Dé Danann was that it was actually quite difficult for antiquarian writers in modernity — as they combed through the records of the Irish past —to spot that these literary figures had once been Ireland’s native gods. Considerable preparation of the intellectual ground was necessary, and here the newly developed scholarly disciplines of anthropology, philology, and comparative mythology all played important roles. It wasn’t until the 1870s that the idea really took off, and soon it became a cultural and scholarly commonplace.

Why are the Irish gods less famous than the Graeco-Roman and Norse gods?

MW: The classical gods were the divinities of two cultures which were deeply admired by later ages, and were inseparable from the literature of those cultures; the gods of Greece and Rome therefore became part of the universal intellectual and imaginative patrimony of Europe. In the Middle Ages and on into the Early Modern era, Christian intellectuals felt perfectly at liberty to adopt them as symbols, personifications, allegories, and rhetorical tropes. (Dante calls on Apollo, for example, right at the heart of the greatest Christian poem of the Middle Ages). And later, with the Romantic movement, the impulse emerged to take the classical gods down from their niches in literary rhetoric and reclaim them as images of divine power in the natural world, even as living spiritual forces. So the gods of Greece and Rome have never actually been away, and have been naturalized for centuries in literature in English.

It’s worth noting, however, that the classical gods had no specifically national dimension, precisely because they were so universal. The Norse gods were quite different. Like the Irish gods, they were associated with a vernacular northern European language and had starring roles in a splendid medieval literature. In modernity, they could be claimed as the ‘native’ gods of those areas of Europe in which a Germanic language was spoken. This meant Germany, of course, but also — because of the Anglo-Saxon heritage — England, which gave the Norse gods a ready-made audience and a role as the ‘divine machinery’ in many forms of quasi-nationalist creative expression. The classic example is Wagner, whose monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen brought the Northern pantheon to international attention as a family of archetypal figures on a cosmic scale, explicitly paralleled to the gods of Greece. The Gaelic gods, in contrast, were associated only with Ireland and with the poorest and most remote parts of Scotland, and so seemed vague and outlandish in comparison.

Why did someone like W. B. Yeats take an interest?

MW: Yeats, and his friend the mystic George Russell, are really the essential figures in the late nineteenth century recovery of the Irish gods, though they had important precursors. Yeats was well-placed to take advantage of the new scholarship which had retrieved the Túatha Dé Danann as Ireland’s native pantheon. In his early-career siftings of material, he was able to boldly assert the fundamental identity of the fairies of folklore, the Túatha Dé Danann of the medieval literature, and the gods of the ancient Irish. Here the occult acted as a crucial unifying frame; Yeats was deeply invested in occultism as a system of thought, and he used it to give meaning and context to the Irish pantheon. To use anachronistic language, he came to believe, around the turn of the century, that the native gods were the archetypes of the national

unconscious, and that it might be possible to retrieve and reactivate them, creating a system of hermetic ‘images’ with which to reimagine the national condition. To this end he attempted to establish the so-called ‘Celtic Mysteries’ — a hermetic order on specifically national lines which would invoke and stir into life these figures from the depths of the national psyche, persuading them to intervene in a conflicted present. He certainly didn’t succeed in the way that he expected, but—more than a hundred years later—more people have heard of Lug, and Danu, and Brigit than ever before, and indeed the Irish gods are the focus of several forms of renewed and reimagined modern Paganism. So who knows? They are certainly alive now.

Is Ireland’s Immortals meant to be funny?

MW: In places, yes, I hope so; the material seemed to demand it, but in two different ways. On one level, the ferocious weirdness of some of the medieval tales can be laugh-out-loud funny in a way that must have been intentional on the part of the saga-authors. My colleague at Oxford, Heather O’Donoghue — who’s written a wonderful history of Norse mythology — has remarked that myth tends to be the most surreal manifestation of a given culture, and I’ve tried to bring this dimension of the literature out. I dwell, for example, on a scene in a ninth-century saga in which the Dagda, the Falstaffian ‘great father’ of the Irish gods — the rough equivalent of Zeus — takes a very long time to relieve his bowels, before being spanked by a woman he is trying to seduce.

On another level, some of the activities of those involved in the gods’ retrieval in modernity — especially in what might be called the late-Victorian New Age — can’t help but raise a smile in a more cynical era. To me it’s fascinating that a connection can be traced between major political movements that affected the fate of nations on the one hand, and the activities of a clique of irrationalizing intellectuals, fired up by some pretty way-out ideas, on the other. That aspect of things seemed to demand a certain respectful wryness, because the idea of ritually awakening the archetypes of the national unconscious is an astonishing and beautiful one, even if the actual execution could be a bit bonkers. The only such person whom I couldn’t write about respectfully — to start with — was William Sharp, the Scottish writer who posed as a Hebridean seeress he named ‘Fiona Macleod.’ He was a plus-fours wearing six-footer with a big, red face, but he wrote all his most successful ‘Celtic’ work in the guise of this wafty, Enya-like figure. He probably reminds me a bit too closely of my own naïve, teenage forays into things Celtic — all mist-shrouded dolmens and dangly druidical tat — and the act of self-exorcism led me to be unfair to Sharp. I was taken to task — quite rightly — for being too nasty by one of the referees of the book, and in revisions I hope I’ve been more even-handed.

Finally, I have to say that writing about Liam O’Flaherty’s 1930 story The Ecstasy of Angus — a steamy bit of erotica involving the hot-to-trot goddess Fand and the love-god Angus Óg — was an absolute hoot. As the couple get down to it, O’Flaherty actually brings on a chorus of fairies who prance about brandishing dildos. It was impossible to analyze with a straight face, though I hope I’ve made the case that the story does have a dark, politically serious dimension to it.

Why did you write the book, and what influenced it?

MW: I had various aims in mind. First, there was a gap in the scholarship: there was no up-to-date guide to the gods in medieval Irish literature, nor to their recuperation in the modern era. In the two parts of the book I’ve tried to tell both stories in a way that makes one dimension illuminate the other. I’d always wanted to do the project: my undergraduate training was in Classics and English, so I cut my intellectual teeth on reception history, meaning the afterlife and reworking of classical texts by later writers. So we would look, for example, at Milton’s reuse of Virgil and Homer, or at Shakespeare’s allusions to Ovid, or at the links between the end of the tradition of epic poetry and the genesis of the novel. One of the things this gave me was a predisposition to read culture in terms of wholeness and continuity, rather than fracture and disjointedness. But the relationship between Irish literature in English and medieval Irish literature is very different to that between later literature and that of Graeco-Roman antiquity. With the Irish material, ‘reception’ of this sort is problematic because everything is charged with the legacy of a contested and traumatic colonial history, so my impulse towards wholeness needed considerable modification. In 1981 Richard Jenkyns — later to be my Oxford tutor — wrote a splendid book called The Victorians and Ancient Greece, which I actually read at school, and that was a big influence: Part Two could have been subtitled ‘The Victorians and Ancient Ireland.’ Another big influence was the Norse expert Heather O’Donoghue, as — of course — were the works of Roy Foster: one of the greatest pleasures of the process was getting to know him. The biggest influence of all is Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol. I read his The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles when I was seventeen, and Part One of the book is in one sense a vast expansion of his chapter in that book on the Celts, ‘The People of the Mist.’ He has also written an elegant few pages about Yeats’s and Russell’s astral adventures in his book The Triumph of the Moon, and Part Two of Ireland’s Immortals handles the same material at book length.

One thing I hope for the book is that it might have the effect of freeing things up a bit for younger scholars in Celtic. Celtic Studies as an academic discipline emerged from various kinds of Romantic nationalism in the nineteenth century, and the legacy of that origin is only now really being assessed by scholars — we’re starting to get superb biographical studies of major figures, for example. But the most obvious consequence has been a massive counter-reaction in scholarship against anything woolly or mystical: Celtic Studies has evolved into a hard-headed and rather inward-looking discipline, focused on the production of critical editions and the analysis of the languages. Unfortunately, the field is currently undergoing a period of contraction: there are fewer places in the world where the languages are taught, and important Professorships—including that at my own institution—are under threat. I hope one thing the book might do is to say, look, as Celticists we can reach out, we can talk to colleagues in English and in intellectual history. People who work on Irish literature in English and those who work on literature in Irish hardly ever seem to talk to one another, with a few noble exceptions such as Declan Kiberd. I hope that one thing the book will do is to underline that there is genuine value in seeing the bigger picture from time to time. (That said — lest any colleagues reading this think me to be encouraging a hermeneutic free-for-all — I must say to any student Celticists out there: make sure you learn your paradigms.) But the literature — extraordinary, uncanny, and beautiful as it is — will languish in neglect until we get in the habit of claiming for ourselves significance and status.

Mark Williams teaches medieval Irish, Welsh and English literature at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, where he is the June Li Fellow in the Humanities and Tutor in English. He has also taught for Cambridge University’s Department of of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, & Celtic. Williams is the author of Fiery Shapes: Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales, 700–1700.

A journey of disease and discovery, a look at scurvy with Jonathan Lamb

lambInternal bleeding, black gums, morbidly sensitive skin, even “scorbutic nostalgia,” in which victims imagined mirages of food, water, or home—these are just some of the symptoms of the disease associated with maritime travel: scurvy. Jonathan Lamb traces the cultural impact of scurvy and details the medical knowledge surrounding the disease, which stems from a vitamin deficiency and is still found today. Drawing on historical accounts from scientists and voyagers as well as major literary works, the book charts a unique eighteenth-century journey of discovery. Jonathan Lamb recently took the time to answer some questions about the book.

 


Why did you write a book about a disease that doesn’t trouble us anymore?

JL: Actually it does. On a trip to Easter Island I met a woman who got scurvy from dieting. A survey of North American college students discovered that 40% had levels of vitamin C below the minimum level required for good health. War veterans, recent widowers, children addicted to food lacking vitamins A, B, C and D, people caught in sieges like the citizens of Aleppo in Syria or Mount Sinjar in Iraq, they are all vulnerable. Like goiter, rickets, pellagra and beriberi, scurvy is a nutritional disease. That is to say, you don’t catch it, like ebola or bubonic plague, it lies in wait for an interruption in the ingestion of fresh food, and then inevitably (if the interruption is long enough) it makes its fatal appearance. True there are no great outbreaks such as those that killed two-thirds of the complement of George Anson’s naval squadron in the 1740s, but it does to remember that it was rife, for instance, in the penal settlements of early Australia, and on Scott’s Discovery expedition to Antarctic, and among the South Asian regiments of the British Army in Iraq during the First World War. Eric Newby got it sailing on a windjammer to South Australia in 1939. The symptoms of scurvy’s cousin pellagra, a staggering walk and a distracted mind, are evident in Primo Levi’s account of the so-called Muselmaenner of Auschwitz in his memoir If this is a Man.

What are the symptoms of scurvy?

JL: They are divided between purely physical effects and alterations in the nervous structure of the brain. Generally scurvy begins with sensitive gums, aching joints, blood-spots and bruising of the skin that eventually ulcerate. When this happens in the mouth, the gums turn black and swell. Sailors used to call it `bullocks’ liver.’ Teeth fall out, old fractures open up, cartilage disappears from the bones, artery walls weaken, the tendons shrink, and internal bleeding begins. Soon after this breathing becomes stertorous, the heart is under pressure, brain haemorrhages will occur, and death is not far away. While this is happening the mind is affected either with stupor or with powerful hallucinations and dreams. It was generally agreed by close observers of the disease that the imagination of scorbutic patients was desperately signaling to the body to get hold of the right kind of food: chiefly green vegetables, fish and meat. Of course dreams so vivid raised powerful expectations, and when the poor sailors awoke to find none of what they needed, they were prone to weep uncontrollably. The physical symptoms were owing to loss of collagen which the body cannot restore without an adequate supply of vitamin C: basically the scaffold and hydraulic system of the body collapse. The psychological symptoms were the result of free radicals, normally scavenged by the vitamin, clogging the synapses, resulting either in extreme lethargy or a morbid sensitivity to light, texture, smells and sounds.

Since we all know now that scurvy is cured by oranges and lemons, what was going to be new about your book?

JL: The thing is everybody always knew the cure of scurvy. If you could get hold of fresh fruit, kale, onions or potatoes you would soon recover. The problem was that at sea no fresh food was available, only salt meat, flour, dried peas, raisins, oil or butter and oatmeal. You needed a medicine capable of preventing or alleviating the symptoms of eating nothing but preserved food. But of course the medicine itself had to be preserved too. Ever since the days of Hawkins and Drake it was known that the juice of lemons, limes and oranges was a powerful antiscorbutic, the trouble was how to preserve it. Boiling got rid of the vitamin; sometimes the fruit (West Indian limes for instance) was naturally low in ascorbic acid; sometimes extremes of heat and cold ruined what virtue the juice had; and sometimes wicked contractors used imperfect fruit, or blended and diluted the juice to the point where it was useless. Besides these obstacles there was no agreement among surgeons and physicians as to whether a cure for scurvy was the same as a preventive. James Lind, famous for a clinical trial proving beyond doubt that citrus juice cured scurvy, had no faith in its value as a preventive, for like many other naval physicians he believed that scurvy was caused by defective food, not by food deficient in some vital principle. That is to say he thought the disease was caught from the environment, not from a genetic mutation in humans that prevents them from synthesizing a chemical crucial to life.

Well, even if Lind got it wrong, Cook got it right and there was no more serious scurvy after they got rid of it in his voyages of discovery, was there?

JL: That is the story that is generally told, but it is not quite true. On his three voyages to the Pacific scurvy occurred, but never fatally. Cook ran his ships with exemplary care for hygiene, warmth, dry clothes, clean air and regular stops for refreshment, and on top of that he was carrying a host of preserved dietary supplements that he hoped would keep scurvy at bay, including lime juice. He had a low opinion of the juice, privately favouring sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) and spruce beer (fermented malt sharpened with pine needles and bark). But nutritional politics played a large part in his official endorsement of malt wort, the brainchild of a physician called David MacBride who was patronized by powerful people. Malt was easily concentrated, and it was a lot cheaper than citrus juice, and so it received official backing and was used well into the 19th century, even though it had no antiscorbutic value whatsoever. Many historians think Cook contributed to postponing the reforms of Nelson’s navy by forty years. From 1795 onwards Gilbert Blane saw to it that every sailor in the British Fleet drank an ounce of concentrated lime-juice per day, to which was owing the health of British seamen during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Hence `limeys,’ the derogatory name applied by American sailors to their British cousins.

So that was that, end of story?

JL: Not really. You see these were all either theoretical or empirical solutions to the problem of scurvy. MacBride for instance considered that scurvy was a shortage of air in the body, and he believed that malt released carbon dioxide into the organs, ventilating them. Thomas Beddoes had a similar theory about oxygen. Thomas Trotter on the other hand, physician to the Channel Fleet in the early 1790s, said the only treatment of scurvy worthy the name was based on observation and experience, and strongly advocated lime-juice as both a preventive and a cure, although he thought its acidic qualities might corrode the mucus tissue and the stomach lining. But none of these men knew for sure what it was in air or lime-juice that caused them to prevent or cure scurvy. However they were agreed that the body needed more from food than carbohydrates and protein.

They were getting closer to the truth, weren’t they?

JL: Yes, in a way, although the best investigators of scurvy in the 17th century had reached the same conclusion. Those who had a theory of deficient food were on the right track, while those who thought scurvy was caused poisoned by spoilt supplies were wrong. However, it was the latter school that was destined to triumph in the latter part of the 19th century. A series of disastrous expeditions to the Arctic were to blame, beginning with Franklin’s where the evidence pointed to tainted cans of meat as responsible for the first stage of the tragedy. A few years later Nares’s expedition was afflicted with scurvy even though a copious amount of preserved lime juice was distributed among the crew. It was even observed that the symptoms of scurvy worsened as more of the juice was consumed. It was not long before an influential physician, Sir Almoth Wright, instituted a germ theory of scurvy that dominated medical thinking until the discovery of vitamin C in 1933. Captain Scott referred to sealmeat as an `antidote’ to the ptomaine poisoning he believed damaged cans of meat were causing among his men.

And that is the story, right?

JL: I wasn’t sure it was. Scurvy was regarded as a shameful disease, associated with dirt and malingering and horrid to watch and smell. The French historian of smell, Alain Corbin, says that in the catalogue of noisome diseases, scurvy was far and away the worst. The most frequent testimony coming out of the experience of scurvy is that it was hard to say what it was like to have it, and that it was impossible to describe the condition of those suffering from it. So you will often find commanders and doctors trying to cover up its presence, usually by calling it something else, such as rheumatism, dysentery, typhus or erysipelas. It is common to find surgeons reporting that their scorbutic patients recovered nicely after they had been dosed with malt—either a mistake or a lie. In 1834 at the penal settlement of Port Arthur half the convicts were showing signs of the disease, 19 were in the last stages of scorbutic decline in the hospital, yet only a single death from scurvy was reported for the whole year. It is hard to find pictures of scorbutic bodies and with the exception of Thomas Trotter’s books on naval medicine, there are very few closely observed accounts of its progress. Since Jean-Jacques Rousseau had said scurvy was a matter for `shocking calculation’ why were accounts of it so coy or misleading? Here there was truly a `secret history’ to uncover.

You are a professor literature. Has scurvy anything to do with your specialism?

JL: Yes it does. There is a genre of utopian fiction that weaves stories around outbreaks of scurvy. Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis begins with scorbutic English sailors being cured with blood oranges; Diderot’s Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville uses Bougainville’s experience of the same thing at Tahiti as the basis of fantasy about an island of free love, very similar in its outline to Henry Neville’s Isle of Pines. Gabriel Francois Coyer wrote a supplement to Anson’s voyage, turning a tale of a stricken crew landing at a verdant island into the discovery of a civilization devoted to idle forms of artifice, breeding horses too delicate to ride, growing fruits that are beautifully coloured but inedible, and amusing themselves with operas and romances. Bernardin de St Pierre’s famous novel, Paul et Virginie, is an exquisite pastoral tale set on Mauritius which the author first reached when his nerves were so disordered by scurvy he found every shrub, tree, animal and bird on the island repellent. A fascinating story to come out of Cook’s second voyage is called The Travels of Hildebrand Bowman, and tells the story of the alleged eleventh man in the Adventure’s cutter whose crew were cut off by Maori while in search of antiscorbutic herbs, then killed and eaten. Bowman’s travels take him to nations that each cultivate a sense well beyond the degree of gross normality: one whose citizens can see in the dark, another where they enjoy extraordinarily sensitive hearing, and lastly one where responsiveness to touch is so exquisite it has carried sexual pleasure to a new height. There is a unique pattern in this fiction, for each story is fashioned out of two versions of the same story, modeled on the succumbing to scurvy and the recovery from it, where inexpressible pains are transformed into wonderful delights. So there you are, scorbutic fiction—a newly discovered genre.

Jonathan Lamb is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Vanderbilt University. His many books include The Things Things Say (Princeton) and The Evolution of Sympathy in the Long Eighteenth Century. His most recent book is Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery.

Mary Jacobus on Cy Twombly, “a poet in paint”

Jacobus What does it mean to call an artist “a poet in paint,” as one of Twombly’s supporters did at the outset of his career? And what does it mean to bring poetry into painting and drawing, as Twombly’s artistic practice does? In Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint, Mary Jacobus — a literary critic — sets out to answer these questions, showing how throughout his life, Twombly turned to poetry as a way to expand abstract painting’s reach. Jacobus recently took the time to answer some questions about Twombly’s relationship to poetry over half a century or more, and his emergence as one of the major painters of the second half of the twentieth century.

What led you to write this book in the first place?

MJ: My first encounter with the work of Cy Twombly was an early drawing that I found fascinating in its use of line. Then I became aware of the extent to which line in the form of writing—abstracted and non-referential—formed part of his work: in his early lyrical series Poems to the Sea (1959), for instance, or in later work of the 1960s ranging from the sequence Letter of Resignation (1967) to the vast “blackboard” paintings at the end of the 1960s. Quite early on, Twombly seems to have been aware of the ways in which rhythm and repetition in handwriting training (the laborious Palmer method), or shorthand annotations or mathematical equations, could become the basis for abstract signs lacking specific reference: as if they were a representation of thinking without thought-content. Twombly’s own handwriting is famously hard to read, but its illegibility becomes part of his inimitable “signature” as an artist. I was delighted that Princeton University Press put Twombly’s handwriting on the dust-jacket.

But that’s writing as formal abstraction. Many people respond to Twombly’s work for its affective charge — how it seems to speak to them directly.

MJ: You’re right. Twombly manages to make his art both cerebral and obscurely charged and personal, as if alternately suggesting and withholding traces of the thoughts and feelings that went into it. One might call him an artist of obliteration as well as writing, since he often paints out or makes hard to read, the words he has included. As a literary critic, I was fascinated by the process of deciphering the words, phrases, sentences, and quotations in his work. I suppose we all look for reference when we read, even if it’s Mallarmé experimenting with the blanks between words and phrases. Twombly famously said he wasn’t entirely an abstractionist. In the post-Abstract Expressionist era, he found a way to make art out of automatic writing that owes something to Dadaist reliance on chance and the “found” object — and perhaps also to his national service training as a cryptographer in the mid-1950s. In the book, I stress the element of secrecy in Twombly’s work that coexists with a Romantic and affective impulse, and even his use of paint — fluid and dripping, like the abstract seascapes of Hero and Leandro (1981-84) or the “pond” or “Green” paintings (1988) — as a form of erasure.

You’ve emphasized writing as such — but what are Twombly’s literary sources? What kind of poetry does he quote in his paintings?

MJ: Art critics have often noted the presence of poetic quotation — not to mention copious mythic and classical allusions — in Twombly’s work. Sometimes they have tended to assimilate him to a continuous classical tradition or to an almost omniscient (not to say “Humanist”) absorption of the literature of the past. I think it’s important to say that Twombly’s “anthology,” if you can call it that, is very much of his time. At Black Mountain College, where he spent a formative period early in the 1950s, the poetry of Rilke jostled with a distinctly Poundian emphasis (channeled through the poet Charles Olson, at that time the dominant presence) on classical poetry and fragments of archaic Greek poets like Sappho and Alkman, both favorites of Twombly’s. Olson’s “glyphomania” had a lot to do with Twombly’s interest in the written sign as such, as well as Motherwell’s promotion of automatic writing. But avant-garde poetry and poetry teaching in the first half of the twentieth century was strongly influenced by Pound’s interest in the archaic. So Twombly was being “modern” rather than nostalgic in the poetry that came to hand — poetry that came to include Mallarmé as well as Rilke, and modern Greek poets like Cavafy and Seferis.

Did Twombly read classical or modern European poetry in the original? What was his relation to translation?

MJ: Twombly almost always uses translation, although just occasionally he quotes Rilke in German. He used translations that were very much part of his twentieth-century literary environment—by Robert Bly (Rilke) or Davenport (Archilochos) and in the case of Greek poets like Cavafy and Seferis, contemporary translations or whatever he could find. For the series, Fifty Days at Iliam (1978) he used Pope’s translation of the Iliad. His library included a great many volume of poetry in translation, and you can see him editing, annotating, and selecting the passages he wanted, just as his archive includes fragmentary quotations and passages that he intended to work up as paintings or drawings. The massive painting, Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor (completed in 1994) reads like a compendium of poetry that Twombly returned to over many decades—Keats, Rilke, Seferis, and one surprise I won’t give away — that suggest how he used quotations to knit together a big painting and also to solve formal problems about space on the canvas.

Do you think your book will make a contribution to “image and text” studies?

MJ: Yes and no. Yes, in that Twombly himself is clearly thinking about the incommensurateness of image and text in the late series, The Rose (2008), where Rilke’s French poems accompany massive panels of multi-foliate roses. No, in that even in his artist’s-book collaboration with Paz, poem and image exist side by side in ways that express affinity without mutual interrogation. Twombly’s texts, whether scribbled or whited-out, don’t “explain” his paintings and drawings, any more than their resonant titles (Untitled is a favorite in any case). Sometimes Twombly draws on well-known narratives, for instance Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis or Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, but he often does so in mischievous or ironic ways, responding to something latent in their sexual content. His “versions” (if you can call them that) contain a kind of swerve, encrypting sexual concerns or commenting indirectly on the artist’s complicated relation to society. This is particularly the case when Twombly draws on Theocritus’s Idylls. Pastoral has always been a mode adapted to different kinds of politics, rather than a form of nostalgia for the past. What I have tried to do in “reading” Cy Twombly is to read against the grain — misread, if you like — and to suggest that on the analogy with experimental translation (which often uses visual means too), Twombly is himself a kind of neo-Dadaist translator who has no compunction about altering his sources.

You mentioned politics. What would you say is the important emphasis of your book besides its focus on the modernity of Twombly’s practice of quotation?

MJ: Twombly has often been seen as a-political, that is as focused on the mythic past rather than the present, and for some critics this has been a problem—Twombly is legitimized if he confirms to the informe but not if he seems to be a mouthpiece for a timeless Humanism. One of my concerns was to bring out the extent to which Twombly not only “outs” himself in the material he quotes and alludes to, but also the ways in which the theme of war runs through his work. His was an era that spanned the Korean War, the Cold War space race, the Vietnam War, and the first and second Gulf Wars. Twombly was always interested in archaeology. He visited archaeological sites in North Africa during his first trip to Europe and later in the Middle East—he loved the phrase “Asia Minor.” He was strongly opposed to war and visited Mesopotamian and Sumerian sites that were later damaged. He read the texts of Greek and Persian adventurism and his house at Gaeta overlooks an American naval harbor. A work like Fifty Days at Iliam coincides with the period of American reckoning with the Vietnam War and the problem of how to memorialize the war-dead. Many of Twombly’s later sculptures, and some of his paintings, are “memorial” or epitaphic works that allude to the period of the Gulf Wars and invasion of Iraq (it’s worth noting that Italy was strongly against the invasion of Iraq).

What difference do you think it made to Twombly’s art, and to the poetry he read, that he moved to Italy in the late 1950s?

MJ: That’s a very interesting question. Twombly was already familiar with the classical tradition before he arrived in Italy for the first time as a young man, with Robert Rauschenberg. Italy meant the Mediterranean, in an expanded sense that included North Africa (on that first trip) and later the Middle East. But living in Rome also oriented Twombly to Europe, even if he returned to New York each year to paint; Italy and New York had considerable links after mid-century. Perhaps one effect of the move to Rome was to cut him off from some of the New York poets of his own generation (O’Hara and Ashbery, for instance) who were keenly interested in modern art. I would say that what Twombly’s move mainly confirmed, in literary ways, was the formative influence of the European high modernists — Mallarmé and Rilke — and Mediterranean poets like Cavafy and Seferis.

To sum up, what do you think a literary critic has to offer when it comes to writing about an artist?

MJ: Obviously it depends to some extent on the artist — not to mention the literary critic. I’ve always been interested in art criticism, but one thing I learned in writing this book was that art criticism (like literary criticism) has its own disciplinary formations and protocols. So I learned a lot while writing it, including how to pay attention to the details of texture and line, paint and support, that probably are second nature to a well-trained art historian. But “Art writing,” as such, is a bit different. I deliberately end the book with Baudelaire’s essay on Delacroix (the origin of the phrase “a poet in painting”) because Baudelaire founds a modern art criticism in which the critic tries to do something that Barthes also attempts in his writing about Twombly: create a verbal translation. Art criticism needs language, it needs the literary. So I’m not simply claiming that it helps to know what Twombly’s sources were — one can certainly appreciate his work without knowing anything about his quotations — but that the exchange between literature and art, or literary criticism and art criticism, is ongoing and crucial in ways that extend beyond Twombly’s particular art practice. We can’t do without language. I see Twombly as a painter who recognizes this mutual dependence of art and writing, but at the same time his work offers something altogether more visceral and immediate: the “now” of painting and drawing as a kind of action, a way of knowing, specific to the visual artist.

Mary Jacobus is Professor Emerita of English at the University of Cambridge, England and, before that, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She has written widely on Romanticism, feminism, and visual art. Most recently, she is the author of The Poetics of Psychoanalysis and Romantic Things. Jacobus lives in Ithaca, New York, and Cambridge, UK. Her most recent book is Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint.

Celebrating 203 years of Grimm’s Fairy Tales

On December 20, 1812, the first volume of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Kinder- und Hausmarchen (‘Children’s and Household Tales’) was published. The Grimm’s were the most prominent in a new intellectual interest in folk stories—for them, the stories showed a national German identity. That first edition included 86 tales, with later versions adding and subtracting stories to what became known in English as Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

PUP’s edition, The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, aggregates 156 stories from the 1812 and 1815 editions in English for the first time with beautiful illustrations by award-winning artist Andrea Dezsö. From now until December 31 save 40% when you purchase it on our website. Enjoy the stories that have been inspiring readers for more than 200 years!

Grimm

Emma’s Muslim Counterpart

A Lost Persian Diary from Jane Austen’s England

by Nile Green

December 2015 marks the two hundred year anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Emma. As symbolized in Lord Byron’s introduction to Sir Walter Scott that year in the offices of Emma’s publisher, John Murray, 1815 was one of the most notable years in English literary history.

But there is another important work from the period that has lain forgotten for two centuries. It is the diary of a young Muslim from Iran who spent four years exploring the society from which Austen created Emma’s elegant little world. Written in England, the diary was composed in the Persian language, so while it is not part of ‘English literature,’ it should still be considered part of ‘England’s literature.’ For that reason, the diary of Mirza Salih Shirazi needs setting beside Emma as its forgotten Muslim counterpart.

1811 Coach from the London-Cheltenham Route

Jane (or Salih) Sat Here? 1811 Coach from the London-Cheltenham Route

As a rapidly written diary, Mirza Salih’s text cannot lay claim to the celebrated artistry of Austen writing at the peak of her powers in Emma’s innovative point-of-view prose. But in the spirit of the Persian literary tradition of the su’al va javab, or ‘call and response,’ we might consider the diary as the non-fictional reply to Emma’s, and Austen’s, world.

Along with his five Muslim companions, Mirza Salih had arrived in London in the fall of 1815, a few months before the novel was published. They lodged with their aptly named chaperone, Mr. D’Arcy (though not Darcy), in his splendid Regency bachelor pad overlooking Leicester Square. Jane Austen was also living in London’s West End that season, staying on Sloane Street with her brother, Henry. The Iranians were the first Muslims ever to study in western Europe and they had just wandered right into Jane Austen’s milieu. It was to shape their entire experience of English life.

Many of the themes of Emma find echoes in the Persian diary. Like Emma Woodhouse, Mirza Salih was much concerned with his social standing and recorded many of the slights he experienced. He was no less ambitious than Emma; like her, he was what we would now call a brilliant social networker. And like Austen’s novel, his diary ends with a wedding.

The echoes between the two texts are not only thematic, though. They are also in the more tangible realm of place. In the novel, Emma’s sister Isabella lives with her family on London’s Brunswick Square, whereas a few months after its publication Mirza Salih could be found living with his tutor two minutes’ walk away on neighboring Queen Square. Just as in the novel Mr Elton went to Bath to meet his beloved Augusta, Mirza Salih also journeyed there to take the waters and show off his fashionable pelisse. (An 1814 pelisse is on display at Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton that supposedly belonged to the author).

When Austen wrote of Augusta Elton that “her Bath habits made evening-parties perfectly natural to her, and Maple Grove had given her a taste for dinners,” she might have been writing of Mirza Salih, whose charms at Bath’s dinner parties were still remembered decades later. On one occasion, he dined as the guest of Mrs Hester Piozzi, the celebrated literary hostess and close friend of Dr Johnson. Although Austen had mocked Mrs Piozzi in a letter to her sister Cassandra in June 1799, ironically she never became famous enough in her lifetime to be invited to Piozzi’s salon.

As for Augusta’s background before her rise to respectability that the snobbish Emma disdained, she was “the youngest of the two daughters of a Bristol — merchant, of course, he must be called.” Though Mirza Salih shared some of Emma’s social anxieties, he was fascinated by the merchant industrialists who are usually hidden or slighted in Austen’s novels. And it was in Bristol that he made friends with several of them. He visited the home of the prosperous merchant John Harford, who showed him the glassworks and iron foundries that powered him (and Mrs Elton) to prosperity and (for Emma, false) respectability. Indeed, like Augusta through her marriage to the poor but well-born Mr Elton, Harford likewise secured his family’s admission to the gentry through marriage.

Like many characters in Austen’s novels, Mr Elton was a vicar. As with Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, Austen drew on a class of men she knew well when she created Mr Elton. Her father, brother and many of their friends were clergymen. Like Mr Elton, her father, George, was genteel but far from rich. As a result, George Austen had to open a small private school to make ends meet. It was at another such little ‘Academy for Gentlemen’ — this one run by a provincial vicar called John Bisset — that Mirza Salih learned English (and, like Jane from her father, French). Like George Austen, John Bisset was an Oxford graduate. He passed on the varsity’s lessons to Mirza Salih, who was forbidden to enter Oxford as a Muslim just as the similarly ‘vicarious’ student Jane was forbidden entry as a woman.

As I researched my book about Mirza Salih’s adventures in England, it often seemed as though he was miming scenes out of Emma, whether at study or at play. He even recorded an amorous coach journey through the West Country that mirrored the travels of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax en route to their tryst in Dorset.

While there is every reason to celebrate the bicentenary of Emma this month, it’s also an occasion to resurrect its lost Muslim counterpart. For that forgotten Persian diary is also a part of England’s, if not English, literature.

Nile Green is professor of history at UCLA. His many books include The Love of Strangers and  Sufism: A Global History. He lives in Los Angeles.

Children’s Literature for Grownups #ReadUp

Have you ever found yourself returning to a book considered “children’s literature?” There’s just something about our favorite children’s books that can draw us in. What’s with the magnetism? Children’s books are a part of our literary foundation, and some of the best ones hold a special place in our hearts. Or is it something more?

k10538Remember reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? First published in 1865, PUP is publishing a new edition in honor of the 150th anniversary, illustrated by none other than the famous surrealist, Salvador Dalí.

The whimsical world of Wonderland holds a special charm for both children and adults. You can bet more adults will be purchasing this item for themselves than for their children, both for the sense of nostalgia and for the promise of new things that children’s books inevitably hold. This promise is much more prominent in children’s books than it is in adult books because children’s books are written differently. They are written with the idea that they will likely be revisited, often including multiple layers and facets. Just ask Neil Gaiman. In a recent article, Gaiman notes that “When I’m writing for kids, I’m always assuming that a story, if it is loved, is going to be re-read. So I try and be much more conscious of it than I am with adults.”

Re-reading a children’s book as an adult brings the gift of new perspective. Would you read A Wrinkle in Time or The Hobbit the same way now as you did when you were 10? We might find and identify common themes, or develop sympathies for characters we formerly loved to hate. When we revisit these stories later in life, we read them with a new lens, one altered by experience and time, often picking up on new and interesting tidbits that we never knew existed. This is particularly true of fairy tales. If these Disney-esque stories are meant for children, why do we, as adults, enjoy them so much? The answer probably lies in their adult origins. One of PUP’s most popular recent books is The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition. The first edition. Take note.k10300

AndreaDezso_BrothersGrimm3As David Barnett states in The Guardian in a piece titled, Adult content warning: beware fairy stories, “Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm . . . did not set out to collect the stories that bear their name in order to entertain children. They were primarily collectors and philologists, who assembled their tales as part of a life’s work. . . . And they were surprised when the adults who bought their collections of fairy tales to read to their children began to complain about the adult nature of the content.”

These stories were not polished and sanitized until much later. Originally, they were filled with violence and other adult content. (As evidenced by the picture on the above left, by Andrea Dezsö, featured in PUP’s The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm). This image is from a tale entitled Herr Fix-It-Up. Herr Fix-It-Up must complete tasks denoted by a lord and king in order to win the lord his princess bride. One of the tasks is to kill a unicorn that’s been “causing a great deal of damage.” By today’s standards, beheading of unicorns is hardly the stuff of children’s tales, but these tales are more sociological accounts than children’s stories, reflecting the sensibilities of the time period and place in which they were written.

UntitledOthk10312er “children’s” books expand on this very aspect of fairy tales, including The Fourth Pig by Naomi Mitchison. Mitchison takes many of the classic tales of our childhood including Hansel and Gretel and The Little Mermaid and re-imagines them for an older audience.

As a fairly new member of the press, it never occurred to me that some titles on our list would include some of my old favorites. What children’s books do you love more as an adult?

 

You can take a tour of the gorgeous interior of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland here:

 

 

Feature image by Steve Czajka – https://www.flickr.com/photos/steveczajka/11392783794

Frontispiece designed by Gertrude Hermes

 

Jeff Nunokawa on Mothers

In Note Book, Princeton Professor Jeff Nunokawa writes frequently (and beautifully) about his mother, from her approach to moles to her aversion to fiction. It’s a perfect day for these choice excerpts from Note Book. Happy Mother’s Day!

1340. The Afterlife of Moles

My mother just hated them—moles, I mean—and if you were a child of hers, your earliest premonition of Ahab had to be the sight of her, out in the backyard, smoking, frowning, and plotting to destroy her own version of the White Whale. It was trench warfare: the moles would dig up the yard, pissing my mother off, big time, and my mother would stick garden hoses into the underground passages through which they, the moles, would go about their business, and whose upward and visible signs were the mounds of dirt that would drive her, my mother, to a state of more than domestic Fury. And then, having set out the means of flushing out her enemy, she would sit back, shovel in hand, watching and waiting, waiting and watching. She got one once. My brother, four or five at the time, overheard her describe her gruesome triumph to a neighbor.

“Mommy, do Moles go to Heaven?”

“I hope not!” she replied with confusing candor. “Why did you say that to him?” I asked.

“I had to tell the truth!” she answered.

And she does. Always—have to tell what she regards as the truth, no matter what.
Note: What’s there to add to the Truth?


1388. “The Unteachable Monkey,” “The Fables of
Panchatantra,” “Indian Humor”

The Wisdom of China and India, ed. Lin Yutang (1942)

Inspecting my mother’s primary bookshelf, one last time, before my second sleep and flight home, I realize with a mild start that I perform this ritual whenever I am about to leave her. And that’s right: these books, a small community library, are the bibliographic correlative and component of her moral competence. Of course I open these books almost never. Most are very old and unpleasant in appearance, and by the looks of them, to my impatient eye at least, not at all “my bag”—Pearl Buck novels; heroic accounts of Andrew Jackson, depicting “Old Hickory” as a paradigm populist; atavistic exposés of power elites, et cetera. In a rare impulse, I take one of these books down from the place where it has rested unnoticed for decades—Professor Lin Yutang’s tome, cited above. A smooth and surprising volume, filled with all manner of familiar and unfamiliar satire and solemnity.

Reading along, I come across the story whose title forms the title of this note. The story is amusing and enlightening enough—all about a monkey whose resistance to helpful instruction becomes sufficiently violent to murder the emissary of enlightenment. I am struck more, though, by the wilderness of teachable monkeys the title of this anecdote obliquely surveys.

I hope I am one of the teachable ones. My mother, I suppose, thinks that I am, but mothers often give their children the benefit of the doubt.

Note: In fairness to her, she is hardly uncritical on the subject of Andrew Jackson.


3027. “What the hell can you learn from Las Vegas?”

The Author’s Mother: A Play in Eleven Lines
The Author’s Mother: What do you want for your birthday? Jeff: I’m glad you asked. Two books by
Bob Venturi, preferably early editions …
The Author’s Mother: You’ll get whatever edition is cheapest. …
Jeff: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.
The Author’s Mother: Hold on, I have to write this down … “Complexity and what?”
Jeff: Contradiction!
The Author’s Mother: Complexity and Continuation in Architecture would have been a better title.
Jeff: Yes, but that would have been a different book, now wouldn’t it?
The Author’s Mother: Yeah. A better book! Jeff: Also, Learning from Las Vegas.
The Author’s Mother: What the hell can you learn from Las Vegas?!

Note: You see my problem.


3302. Tradition and the Individual Eavesdropper

Kafka eavesdropped on tradition. … The main reason why this eavesdropping demands such effort is that only the most indistinct sounds reach the listener.

(W. Benjamin to G. Scholem, June 12, 1938)

—which doesn’t mean that you can’t transmit a little, the Tradition you only half hear, pass it on in bits and pieces—the defense of the truth, and of those who would extend it, even by evading it; the opposition to war and the devotion to peace; the styles of elegance and expertise in art and science; the beauty of the plain and simple (and the cryptic and the complicated); the methods for coping with the unbearable, and caring for that which makes it less so; the ways of loving what is, and laboring to bring about what should be.

My mom likes to tell the story about how once, when she and my dad were first married (this must have been sometime during the second Eisenhower administration), they were out somewhere in the woods with some other newlyweds, staying in some kind of log cabin (somewhere in eastern Washington State, I suppose—I can’t recall the details) without electricity or running water. One morning, my dad came back from the well with an empty bucket. (“Your father didn’t know anything about priming the pump!” my mother reports with gleeful and affectionate condescension.) Well, as little as he knew, I know less, and my ears glaze over whenever my mother seeks to explain with methodical clarity the practice and principle of this hydraulic feat for drawing water where all seems dry. I have never delved to consider the literal ground of what is best known as a popularizing metaphor for a central element of Keynesian economics, and certainly have no interest in disturbing the perfect record of my ignorance. But I like to think about how much my mother likes to tell me all about it.

Note: “(a sort of theology passed on by whispers dealing with matters discredited and obsolete)”
(Benjamin to Scholem).


4004. “a love stronger than any impulse that could have marred it”

She never repented that she had given up position and fortune to marry Will Ladislaw. … They were bound to each other by a love stronger than any impulse which could have marred it.

(George Eliot, Middlemarch)

My mother likes to remind me regularly of her aversion to fiction and, in particular, the kind of “fancy” fiction I have spent a good portion of my life studying and teaching. I was thus surprised this morning, in my semi-annual survey of her strange library—manuals for Hikers, Self-Helpers, and Chinese Communists; a celebratory biography of Andrew Jack- son; memoirs of Native American Warriors and dictionaries of Ancient Hawaiian Chants; histories of the Middle East and the Wild West; old (very old) field guides to flora and fauna, near and far; textbooks on Organic Chemistry and the like— to discover, nearly hidden in the thickets of this old curiosity shop, one of “my” books—a novel I am not alone in regarding as one of the greatest stories ever told. More surprising, still: the volume is, throughout, underlined and annotated by what could only be her hand.

I was less surprised to discover that amongst the passages she has marked for note are the lines that begin this report. Decades after their divorce, my parents remain bound together by an unfaded, though now hardly mentioned, belief that risking anything short of everything to marry each other (they are of different races; that was a different time) would have been a cowardice they would have both repented till the day they died. I like to think that my mother took some satisfaction when she came across a bare statement of the fact of the faith that determined the direction of her life—“a feeling that,

Note: in gaining the man she loved, she would gain something for the whole world” (E. M. Forster, A Room with a View).


4047. “Several people on the trip told me that I was an
inspiration, which made me feel good” (The Author’s
Mother)

And now you will no longer wonder that the recollection of this incident on the Acropolis should have troubled me so often since I myself have grown old and stand in need of forbearance and can travel no more.

(Freud, “A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis”)

Many years ago, in the middle of the hardest defeat of my life, my mother came to visit me in New York. My apartment there is small; I, especially in my compromised state, smaller still, and my powers to accommodate her sizable stock of certitudes and self-doubts—their aggregate volume sufficient to fill any proscenium worth its salt—powers of forbearance that hardly amount to the armor of Hercules even in the best of times, reduced to the tattered thinness of a single fig leaf. She couldn’t have come at a worse time, I thought—until I realized that she couldn’t have come at a better one.

Seeing that I was in no shape to chaperone her, she struck out on her own. (She is, after all, according to her own Ancient History, of “pioneer stock.”) One morning, she left before I was awake and called me later from the viewing platform at the top of what was then the City’s tallest building, while I was still in bed. From this height, she felt called upon to tell me something about herself that she instructed me not to repeat, and I will not disobey her. What I can tell you is that what she conveyed to me when I was troubled, and in need of forbearance, was a memory of falling down and getting up again that dissipated the disturbance that left me thinking I could travel no more.

And now I no longer wonder that my sorrow at the thought of the day that she will pass beyond me is matched by the strength with which she has prepared me to meet it.

Note: “The two days in Athens were great but tiring. I actually made all of the excursions (one exception: a Venetian castle in Crete, but went everywhere else). Some people did not climb up the Acropolis, but I did. Why come to Greece and not go up? Was worth it. I was glad that I had both walking sticks. It really made it possible. Several people on the trip told me that I was an inspiration, which made me feel good. I will tell you all more about the trip later, and show you the pictures when I get them done” (extracted from my mother’s report on her most recent travels; her destination this time was the Mediterranean rather than Manhattan).

Jeff Nunokawa on Poetry

Small-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-LogoJeff Nunokawa, author of Note Book, has woken up and written a brief essay in the Notes section of his Facebook page every morning since 2007. Note Book is the compilation of 250 of these essays. A topic that Nunokawa is particularly articulate about is poetry, and as we are currently celebrating National Poetry Month, we thought it would be fun to highlight five of Nunokawa’s best poetry notes. (Quite a few of the notes listed below are prompted from poems written by W.H. Auden. If you want to read more of W.H. Auden’s poems, check out The Complete Works of W.H. Auden.) Without further ado, enjoy the following excerpts from Note Book and sample the first chapter, here.

3505. “Telephone Directory,” “Heaven”

W. H. Auden

One could conceive of Heaven having
a Telephone Directory (“Postscript …”).

We mostly don’t call each other anymore. Not like we used to, anyway. And when we do, we mostly
don’t pick up. That’s cool, though. It just makes us appreciate more the times we do get through.
Now, when we answer, it’s like the reverse charge of the bye, which always sounds like the
beginning of the big one; it’s like a hello from here, all the way to Heaven. That’s why our
hope goes way beyond the bounds of all area codes when we hear the ring at the other end of the
line—
Note: “Stardust in negative, between the rings” (Merrill, “Mirabell”).


3313. “Money is a kind of poetry”

Wallace Stevens

Yesterday, after my annual visit, I left my accountant’s office with tears in my eyes. I don’t
think I’ve ever left my accountant’s office actually weeping. Maybe I have and just forgot-
ten. I cry a lot, and I have a terrible memory.

Once a year, I see him about my taxes. My brother thinks I’m wasting my money. I think I’m
saving my soul. Also, a lot of time and peace of mind: I’m terrible with numbers.
Especially numbers that are symbols for money. Or maybe those numbers are bad with me—hell,
either way, it’s an ugly relationship, and I’ve basically given up on it. (Don’t tell them
that—the numbers, I mean: they know exactly where I live, and they’ll come after me six ways to
Sunday.)

On the other hand, like you, I hope, I’m involved in a lot of relationships—close encounters,
lifelong romances, or some- thing simpler (like a good neighbor)—that just get better every
year. With each passing year, for example, my appreciation for the kinds of words that help
people get through a dark night or a long day just grows and grows. With each passing year, the
kinds of words that help people get brave or loving, or help them know that they can become
so—their interest compounds like nobody’s business.

Appreciating words like that, and helping others do so, too: well, that’s the better part of my
business. Of course, I lack the instruments to quantify the rescuing resonances of the
kinds of words that are the stock in trade for retail outfits like mine—like I say, unlike my
accountant, I’m not a numbers man. But let me tell you something: every year, I leave his
office a little less worried than I was when I walked in, and numbers or no numbers, I have to
figure that the better part of both our businesses is pretty much the same.

Note: “All these forms, familiar to all the arts, place us at a distance from the substance of
things; they speak to us ‘as from afar’; reality is touched not with direct confidence but with
fingertips that are immediately withdrawn” (Georg Simmel, The Philosophy of Money).


4301. “an extraordinary mildness”

Towards the end he sailed into an extraordinary mildness,

Auden, “Herman Melville” (for Lincoln Kirstein)

I’ve never met a mildness that didn’t seem extraordinary, and something toward the end: the
smoothing something of a final act of forgiveness after a long, jagged drama of anger and anguish
and being out at sea: some compassionate writing (don’t worry: it’s all right) that coaxes
something upset to right its balance long enough to make its way back to port; some signal sent
straight to a wayward heart that it’s safe to come home; some memory of wholeness that recalls the
amputated adventurer to the going grace of the last dance, just this side of the closing
curtain.

Lately, I’ve been meeting with another mildness as well, twin of the first, I think, and no less
extraordinary. It stretches toward a new start rather than the last rest—the one that comes
after the big fall, but well before the final flight.

Note: “so tender and mild” (“Silent Night”).


4304. “Mine would, sir, were I human”

Ariel: … if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.

Prospero: Dost thou think so, spirit?

Ariel: Mine would, sir, were I human.

Shakespeare, The Tempest

Not being a human being himself, the spirit settles instead for making someone who is a better
one. He’s like a poem or a page or a play or a pool that prepares its pupil to navigate the sea
of tears that surrounds us. He’s like the first song you heard about someone breaking up—the one
you go back to whenever you’re breaking up, yourself, to learn again some basic lessons in
tenderness and decency under duress. He’s like the strokes you were taught in your first swim
lessons when, later, you suddenly find yourself really over your head and very far from shore.
That’s what he’s like, and all you have to do is to remember what those like him have to teach
you, and then, no matter how dark and stormy, you’ll always make it back to where you have to be.

Note: “lessons at love’s pain and heartache school” (Jackson
Browne, “Fountain of Sorrow”).

Nunokawa Blog on Poetry


4349. “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to
each”

T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

—oh, I’ve heard a lot of amazing creatures sing and say a lot of amazing things. And I still
do—every day of the week, and sometimes twice on Sundays. I want to tell you the secret of
my continuing hearing, because someday (maybe not today,
but maybe someday, ten years or fifty years from today), it may come in handy for you: I don’t
worry, like I used to worry, whether what I’m hearing is meant for my ears. Now, when I listen
to people talk about what or who or how they love, I don’t care as much as I once did, if
they’re talking about me, or even to me. I’m just glad that the waves of sound are so pitched
with devotion.

If this sounds too good to be true, all I can say is that it seems like all the truest goods
sound too good to be true—something as good as clearing (slow or swift) from deafness to delight,
or a change in the mood of a verb, or a vision, that gives a new form of life to the most
tried and tired drab directions.

“You can’t hear God speak to someone else, you can hear him only if you are being
addressed.”—That is a grammati- cal remark (Wittgenstein). But grammar can be transformed at the
speed of a dream or the shift of a continent, and before you know it, you could wind up at a
case where you can only hear what you might call God speaking to someone else; never when you are being addressed, alone.

In any case, that’s all I have to say to you. And I’ll leave you in peace now, since I
know you have plenty to talk about amongst yourselves.
Note: “poetry is overheard” (John Stuart Mill, “What Is
Poetry?”).

Celebrate National Poetry Month with Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop

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Author photo by Phoebe

Author photo by Phoebe Ling

In the first entry in this month’s National Poetry Month (#npm15) blog series, we are proud to feature Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop, the latest title in the Writers on Writers series. Irish novelist, critic, and playwright Tóibín is both a fan of and known as a master of subtle language (as evidenced by his selection of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl as current host of The Wall Street Journal Book Club), so it is apt that he considers the famously enigmatic American poet Bishop among one of his lasting literary influences.

Tóibín discovered Bishop in his teens and brought her Selected Poems in his suitcase to Barcelona (the setting of his first novels The South and Homage to Barcelona). He offers a personal and incisive introduction to Bishop’s life and work. Spanning her poetry, biography, letters, and prose works, Tóibín creates a beautiful and complex picture of Bishop while also revealing how her work has shaped his sensibility as a writer and how her experiences of loss and exile resonate with his own relationships to place, memory, and language.

Tampa Bay TiToibin_OnElizabethBishopmes book editor Colette Bancroft recently selected On Elizabeth Bishop as one of her notable prose books on poetry. Kirkus Reviews writes that Tóibín’s book is “[a]n admiring critical portrait of a great American poet and a master of subtlety….An inspiring appreciation from one writer to another.” A Starred Review in Publishers Weekly reads, “Novelist Tóibín gives an intimate and engaging look at Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and its influence on his own work. . . . Whether one is familiar with Bishop’s life and work or is looking to Tóibín to learn more, this book will appeal to many readers.” At the Arts Fuse, Lloyd Schwartz calls it “a particularly welcome addition to the Princeton University Press Writers on Writers series. . . . [F]ew critics have dealt more revealingly than Tóibin with Bishop’s habitual illusion of ‘spontaneous’ self-correction, her process of thinking aloud on the page.” Across the pond, poet Eavan Boland writes in the Irish Times:

[C]ritical method at its best….Unorthodox, original and deeply effective….The close mesh between Tóibín’s growth as a writer and Bishop’s journey as a poet, the eloquent mirroring of place and displacement, and above all the openness to a poet’s language, a poet’s truth put this among the best books on poetry I have read in years. I have no doubt it will become an essential text on her work.

Read the first chapter of On Elizabeth Bishop on the PUP site. You can also read eleven of Bishop’s poems, including “One Art” and “The Fish,” at the Academy of American Poets site.

Don’t forget that this year’s Poem in Your Pocket Day is coming up at the end of the month (April 30; #pocketpoem). Which of Bishop’s poems would you want to carry around in your pocket to share with friends and family?

Books in literature in 2015

Be among the first to browse and download our new literature catalog!

Of particular interest is The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition. When Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published their Children’s and Household Tales in 1812, followed by a second volume in 1815, they had no idea that such stories as “Rapunzel,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “Cinderella” would become the most celebrated in the world. Yet few people today are familiar with the majority of tales from the two early volumes, since in the next four decades the Grimms would publish six other editions, each extensively revised in content and style. For the very first time, The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm makes available in English all 156 stories from the 1812 and 1815 editions. These narrative gems, newly translated and brought together in one beautiful book, are accompanied by sumptuous new illustrations from award-winning artist Andrea Dezsö.

More of our leading titles in literature can be found in the catalog. You may also sign up with ease to be notified of forthcoming titles at http://press.princeton.edu/subscribe/. (Your e-mail address will remain confidential!)

If you’re heading to the Modern Language Association annual convention in Vancouver, BC January 8th–11th, come visit us at booth 217. See you there!

Wizards, Aliens, and Starships and Einstein and the Quantum named Top 10 Physics Books of 2014 by Physics Today magazine

Charles L. Adler’s Wizards, Aliens, and Starships: Physics and Math in Fantasy and Science Fiction and A. Douglas Stone’s Einstein and the Quantum: The Quest of the Valiant Swabian were each named to Physics World‘s 2014 “Top 10 Books of the Year” list. The ten books on the list “are all well written, novel and scientifically interesting for a physics audience.”

On their blog, Physics World writes of Wizards, Aliens, and Starships,

“Books about the science of science fiction aren’t uncommon, but it’s rare to see the subject treated with as much flair and rigour as it is here. Throughout this book, author Charles Adler uses ‘Fermi problems’ – challenging exercises in reasoning and back-of-the-envelope calculation – to evaluate the plausibility of various concepts from SF and fantasy. It’s an approach that should endear his book to physicist readers, and it’s particularly pleasing to see the world of fantasy (not just “hard” science fiction) get some scientific scrutiny.”

Further praise was given to Einstein and the Quantum:

“Sparkling writing and crystal-clear physics make this account of Einstein’s quantum work stand out on the overcrowded shelf of books devoted to the world’s most famous physicist. Unlike many other Einstein authors, A. Douglas Stone is neither a cosmologist nor a historian. Instead, he’s a solid-state physicist, and the parts of Einstein’s work that most intrigue him concern thermodynamics and the behaviour of quantum ideal gases, rather than well-known gedankenexperiments about beams of light on trains. Reading about this other side of Einstein is a real (and unexpected) pleasure.”

According to Physics World, “2014 has been a fantastic year for science books, and for physics books in particular,” and the same can be said for all our PUP titles!

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Wizards, Aliens, and Starships:
Physics and Math in Fantasy and Science Fiction
Charles L. Adler 

 

bookjacket

Einstein and the Quantum:
The Quest of the Valiant Swabian
A. Douglas Stone

Cowardice: A Brief History, the song

Walsh_CowardiceCowardice: A Brief History explores a subject that is as important as it has been overlooked. The book shows that over the course of modern western history, the idea of cowardice has faded–a welcome trend because the fear of being judged cowardly has led to much recklessness and violence. Yet when this trend goes too far, when cowardice is dismissed as an absurd or irrelevant idea, we lose an essential part of our ethical vocabulary. So while the book condemns specious and harmful invocations of cowardice, it also argues that a rigorous and nuanced conception of cowardice–one that condemns failures of duty born of excessive fear, to give a quick definition–is worth keeping.

The book focuses on the archetypal home of cowardice, the battlefield. Sometimes I felt like I was in a battle (mostly with myself) in writing it. It took me a long time–almost twenty years--to finish. But the last part of the book escapes from war to explore cowardice in everyday life, in religion and crime and in love (another kind of battlefield). As I was writing this part I was actually able to have some fun–even to the point that I wrote lyrics and sent them to the amazing Chandler Travis who put them to music and recorded a demo you can listen to here. We titled the tune… “Cowardice: A Brief History.”

This is probably the only scholarly book to have its own eponymous song released with it. This is probably the only song that alludes to The Temptations and the Russian General Georgy Zhukov (1896-1974) in the same verse. And this is probably not the sort of thing a writer should do if he wants to maintain any sense of dignity, gravitas, etc.

But one of the things Cowardice advocates is not giving in to the cowardice of fearing excessively what people might think. The book argues that fear of cowardice can–sometimes–actually be useful in battling against other fears, more useful even than the aspiration to courage. The existence of the book itself is a modest example of this usefulness. It didn’t require me to be courageous, but once I decided that it was my duty to write it, to start a conversation that would not take place without a book called Cowardice, the fear of being cowardly helped me finish it.


This is a guest post by Chris Walsh, associate director of the College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program at Boston University.

Cowardice: A Brief History  

Chris Walsh