1. “Justice? -- You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” I went around quoting the opening line of William Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own before I’d ever read all those that followed. As a homeless outreach worker in Manhattan, I’d have occasion to transport people to shelters and in a 10-minute car ride would often get an earful of their lives and their problems. One particularly gruff man raged about the legal system and all the mess it had made of his life. I didn’t know if he would whack me or the driver in his fulminations, so I threw out the line and that stopped him. He laughed and settled, saying, “Whoever wrote that knew what the fuck I’m talking about.” Last summer, I suggested to my wife, a criminal defense attorney in the Bronx, that we read the book concurrently. We'd both represented and tried to help the most helpless in our society, but we saw the legal system in different ways, though we could both admit it was, of course, skewed toward the rich. She saw her job as maneuvering around district attorneys, judges, and laws that often support the system of mass incarceration in this country. The homeless essentially have no rights, so the legal system is often more of a hindrance for them. I brought more skepticism. The novel is a satire of the legal system, full of frivolous lawsuits, including Szyrk v. Village of Tatamount et al. In the lawsuit, the artist of a huge outdoor public sculpture (Cyclone Seven) sues a small city after a seven-year-old’s dog, Spot, becomes entrapped, leading to rescue operations that damage the work. Then there are protagonist Oscar Crease’s two lawsuits: the smaller suit, ostensibly against himself, springs from trying to hotwire his Japanese car (a Sosumi made by Isuyu), and having it run him over. The main action is against the film company that produced a Civil War epic, The Blood in the Red, White, and Blue, because Oscar finds it resembles an unproduced and unpublished play, Once at Antietam, he wrote some 17 years before. Oscar had once submitted his manuscript to the film’s then Broadway-leaning producer, though he can’t locate the rejection slip. Reading together, my wife and I found ourselves taking the book and its dips -- from narrative, to legal decision, to further dramatic scenes, to a deposition, to play excerpts, to legal opinions, to implosions of hilarious dialogue -- in a certain stride. In the news that summer was a despicable lawsuit taken as seriously as Oscar’s: Manhattanite Jennifer Connell sued her eight-year-old nephew for jumping into her arms because she broke her wrist in the subsequent fall -- on his birthday. It went to a jury but was dismissed. The most recent iteration of this obtuse use of legalese was probably New England Patriots fans suing the NFL over the team losing draft picks in the Deflategate debacle. Thankfully, a judge dismissed that, too. “Why do you think people sue?” I asked my wife. “Because we have been told by society that this is how we solve problems, plus most everyone else wants money,” she answered, putting her in mind of the old commercial from Saturday Night Live where a person in the street asks a law firm advertising their cutthroat tactics, “I’d love to sue somebody, but don’t I need a reason?” Yet in the April issue of Harper’s, Ralph Nader argues that lawsuits, certainly commonsense ones, are good for America. Deregulation reigns as more and more corporations and politicians have become bedfellows, repealing laws protecting “the rights of injured people to recover adequate compensation for harm inflicted.” Nader adds that “multi-million dollar advertising campaigns, heavily funded by the insurance industry, made wild accusations about outlandish jury awards assessed against innocent companies, even clergy and obstetricians, in order to raise the public temper.” Gaddis’s book could be used as propaganda by this corporate/political side, but it would also indict them as having a pioneering spirit of greed, power, and profit. And though Oscar eventually wins, the money awarded is meager because, as Nader points out, multi-million dollar corporate law films are a beast that can rarely lose. When lawyers start suing other lawyers, loopholes are everywhere. The 586-page book (the last published in Gaddis's lifetime) is set in New York City and Long Island, though it takes place mainly in Oscar’s house in the Hamptons. Like all his novels excepting The Recognitions, Frolic is full a neurotic vernacular of Americana that purls and perfectly personifies the sue-happy, media-soaked years during which Gaddis constructed it, 1986 to 1993 -- years of growing cable TV and its obsession with scandal, culminating in the Clintons and one of the first pitiful tabloid “stories” worthy of the national news: John Wayne and Lorena Bobbitt. In a scene from the middle of the book, there is a miniature of the type of satire Gaddis often engages in -- that of the crashing together of people uncomfortable with other people. Christina’s (Oscar's sister) rich friend Trisch comes to visit the Crease house with her dog, Pookie, to Oscar’s chagrin. When Pookie has an accident, Oscar characteristically finds a sinister motive: “Little! It was not an accident Christina, I saw him, he did it deliberately...” Oscar’s high-pitched hysteria typifies how unserious and childish he is in many ways, complicating his “creative” character with his tendency to blame others for his mistakes (making a maid who can’t speak or read English look for the rejection slip; continuing to watch TV after his girlfriend asks him to examine a lump in her breast). There is a great laziness to this “artist,” now a history professor at a community college where the value of his “work” constantly gets called into question. The question we kept coming back to while reading was: Did Oscar seriously believe the studio plagiarized his play, or was he after a handout? His impetus is called into question when he staggeringly chides the producers for stealing certain parts, while being disappointed they did not use others. Perhaps our question is best answered when, after Oscar temporarily wins and is granted an injunction, the studio shows the film on television to make money and the main characters watch it together. At first Oscar complains about its crude opening, but the battle (the main thrust of the film) mesmerizes him, and he becomes as bloodthirsty as the producers who insist on gory battle scenes. He celebrates how they pictorially duplicated the century-old skirmish, “...unbelievable, it’s unbelievable look at that! Half the regiment wiped out at thirty feet...” 2. I had been turning into a Gaddis freak since interviewing William H. Gass, the author and friend of Gaddis’s, with whom he was often confused in literary circles. I read my wife snippets of The Recognitions and JR in order to bring her into the fold. A Frolic of His Own is a book that has become a lost classic. Usually an author becomes synonymous with one or two of her titles, while the titans are allowed three to five. It hasn’t taken people so long in years to come around to Gaddis. It started happening in his lifetime, but (despite winning the National Book Award) there has been no new edition of Frolic since the paperback in 1995, and Brooklyn’s main library at Grand Army Plaza doesn’t include it in the stacks. There’s not a chapter or page break in the book, which also might go towards explaining its obscurity compared to the gobs of white space and other breaks de rigueur in many current novels. Gaddis, since 1975’s JR, is one long gush where everything happens on top of something else -- where everything interrupts, including his favorite stage prop, the telephone. The play in Frolic was as much a part of Oscar’s past as Gaddis’s, since he wrote it in the late-'50s after The Recognitions came out, though it was soon abandoned. In his own brooding intensity, he found the right profile to insert himself and exorcise his ghost self -- the failed artist who takes to a Faust-like selling of his soul to earn a living while shirking his morally responsible art, something Gaddis never succumbed to but observed all around him. Gaddis took the book’s title from The Handbook of the Law of Torts, which he found during his voluminous research on the legal system, including obtaining the then-84 volumes of American Jurisprudence (the encyclopedia of U.S. law) while corresponding with lawyers and clerks about the validity of his fictionalized judicial opinions and one long deposition. During that 50-page exchange (in legal transcript form and font), the studio’s lawyer attacks Oscar’s, badgering them just because they made a Civil War movie that shares a few ideas with his play (another lawyer says, “You can’t copyright the Civil War”) and connecting William Shakespeare’s practice of taking his material from familiar sources to Oscar’s own ways of borrowing: Q In other words...it was all just there for the taking, wasn’t it?...Whether you were Shakespeare or Joe Blow, you could turn any of it into a play if you wanted to, couldn’t you? A Well not the, if Joe Blow could write a play? Q Do you mean it would depend on the execution of the idea? A Well, yes. Yes of course. Q Not the idea, but the way it was expressed by the playwright? Isn’t that what makes Shakespeare’s King Lear tower above Joe Blow’s King Lear? Gaddis’s propulsive style of writing blends the chilling admonitions of the great Russian novelists and T.S. Eliot with the evaporating social order seen in the late-20th-century America. He took the detritus of our age (TV and radio commercials, print ads, etc.), churned it about in his outraged mind, and delivered an art as timeless as the ancients, but obeying the oft-quoted dictum: Good artists copy, great artists steal. Yet Gaddis came to the point where he had to steal from himself, as the excerpts of Oscar Crease's play, Once at Antietam, are verbatim bits of Gaddis's unproduced play (same title), written around 1960. Perhaps if Oscar had stolen from Shakespeare, his play might have been produced all those years back. After 40-some years in this world and being all too cognizant of the hype-driven galleons, it’s fully apparent to me that the novel comments on our culture’s incredible jealousy at other people getting what we think they don’t deserve, a truism since Alexis de Tocqueville. Whether it is entitlement in all forms, or simply the result of sticking our nose into other’s people’s business and taking offense where there is none, these very hypocritical acts are the basis for many laughable lawsuits, including Oscar’s pursuit of a handout. Is this how Americans think? We don’t necessarily need a lawyer to intimidate someone. Lionel Trilling writes, in “The Meaning of the Literary Idea,” “We are...the people of ideology.” A furor and gusto similar to the Salem Witch Trials, but without the physicality, is put to use by viral Internet campaigns to bully and shame people -- the hysteria of doctrinal vindictiveness all too easily a click away from actually ruining someone’s life. But this consequence gives few people pause before sallying a reactionary social media “fuck you.” This free play of opposites is played up in Gaddis’s epigraph, care of Henry David Thoreau, the epitome of American individualism, who spoke to Ralph Waldo Emerson thus: “What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you find it you become its prey.” Oscar seeks fame and fortune, but he gets a token payment, and all his other ridiculous lawsuits garner him nothing. The book speaks to our moment, not only in terms of authorship, entitlement, and an oligarchy created by the corporate-political police state, but also because we are still the same people of ideology. However, now that we are armed with the technology to more easily harass and destroy each other, even Gaddis couldn’t anticipate how we easily we would cede our humanity for fame and fortune at other people’s expense.
I once hit Louise Glück after one of her readings, oddly with her own books. Of course, I did so unwittingly. During the post-reading mingle, I kept trying to place my book bag on my shoulder, but it kept bumping against something and wouldn’t stay. That something was her, and when my embarrassment met her surprised eyes, any alarm disappeared. We could see the mistake, and understanding was very clean, almost surgically so, like a line of her verse. About a decade ago, I read Louise Glück with enthusiasm, and, in the end, fatigue at what I recognized. The poems were doses of medication. Her work has always “spoken” to me more than many poets because she examines the concerns I have about being in the world: loneliness and being alone, searching for happiness, and desiring to have my feelings validated, though they often aren’t. Her poetry is both direct and indirect, as she will talk through a feeling, but sometimes dress the speaker of the poem in a mythical mask as she uses many Ancient Greek deities and characters in The Wild Iris, Meadowlands, and Vita Nova. Her one book of essays, Proofs and Theories, published in 1994, provides further insight to her artistic philosophies. The last essay, “On Impoverishment,” has a few tempered lines on Glück’s major theme, despair: Despair in our culture tends to produce wild activity: change the job, change the partner, replace the faltering ambition instantly. We fear passivity and prize action, meaning the action we initiate. But the self cannot be willed back. And flight from despair forfeits whatever benefit may arise in the encounter with despair. There is something therapeutic to her inquiries, and this almost serves as a mantra that she will not be shying away from what most frightens her. So many times I have heard people say, "Poetry doesn’t make anything happen," but I believe they say that out of chagrin at the way poetry is treated by the popular culture. It’s viewed as arcane, difficult, effeminate, and as useless as some humanities people regard geometry. Most poetry makes things happen off-camera. One reads it on a sofa and a line overwhelms and his or her regard for life is colored by a burnishing of the words and sounds. At that distant time in my life I was seeking epiphany and the epiphanies Glück concocted, those ending points and moments of ultimate response, were similar to the ending of many an Ingmar Bergman film -- abrupt, cruel in its truth, but spectacular. Take the “The Silver Lily” from Glück’s most prized collection, The Wild Iris. In it, the speaker of the poem, maybe God or some creator, asks the other presence, a woman, “Will speech disturb you?” Therein that first presence implores her to look at the bounty of nature and the universe, in particular the moon: In spring, when the moon rose, it meant time was endless. Snowdrops opened and closed, the clustered seeds of the maples fell in pale drifts. Finally the being offers: We have come too far together toward the end now to fear the end. These nights, I am no longer even certain I know what the end means. And you, who’ve been with a man— after the first cries, doesn’t joy, like fear, make no sound? Here Glück attacks the normal configurations of despair produced by a life of pain. So she won’t get sad at the end of the connection, which will also be the end of poem, the being reminds her of sex she has had and how joy and fear end in the same silence. The consolation of nature is fractured as the being tells the pained woman all feelings are born in the same stream in which they will also die. There is a good deal of white space on the page, including the gap after the em dash, and there one can imagine the ghosts of words that Glück doesn’t use to fight this force. The ending question cancels out any response from the woman and nature, both devoid of speech -- the world remains mystifying to the humans who depend on it to renew their belief in the life they live. Once I showed my uncle, who had originally piqued my interest in Louise Glück, her poem “Purple Bathing Suit,” where a woman speaks to a man in such a suit. After its sucker punch, “your back is my favorite part of you, / the part furthest away from your mouth,” my uncle said, “Boy, she really hates men.” And men can hate women, because the book is a documentation of both, the complete war. But I think after most Glück poems there is insight and disturbance, and to some, maybe the majority of people who seek poetry, disturbance is as alluring as sunset, because that sensation is what drove them to read poetry and often what drove poets to write it. In Glück’s world, to be ultra-conscious is to be conscious of pain and the words that delineate that indelicacy are the simplest. Ideas and questions that act as deep pools are inhabited by everyday words and often in short lines, like Emily Dickinson before her. When, in “The Silver Lily,” she says, “doesn’t joy, like fear, make no sound?” she brings basic words together. Two of them, “joy” and “fear,” are very hot. The others, “doesn’t,” “like,” “make,” “no,” and “sound,” we use to get through most days. Like T.S. Eliot, she reorders the familiar musically (that last line is iambic) to train the reader to trust her words and isolate them and so to slow down life. One night last winter, while I read again each book of Louise Glück’s in the original slim hardbacks, I sat in a car taking an hour break from my homeless outreach job in Manhattan. My co-worker and I were parked just off 41st Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, near a hotspot of homeless activity. It’s a dirty street, one of the many garbage dumping areas in Hell’s Kitchen, where men set up lean-to’s and shanties out of industrial cardboard boxes to sleep among rats crawling about for food. While my co-worker sat napping, I reread Glück’s 1988 collection Ararat. When my co-worker couldn’t sleep she thumbed through the scrolling Instagram feed on her phone. "Can I read you a poem?" I asked and she quickly agreed, almost as if she longed for a reason to quit the endless stream of information, welcoming any distraction from distraction. I read the last poem, “First Memory,” because it was short and powerful, the way I remember it from when I carried Ararat like a bible, with its final lines, “...from the beginning of time, / in childhood, I thought/that pain meant / I was not loved. / It meant I loved.” An apt summary to a book of such dredging and loosening, all those years ago it seemed I didn’t read poems but readouts from a heart cooked by memories and impatient to re-season them into an idea of some order and clarity. The message still held, though the word “loved” carried very different meanings from its first use to the next, beyond the passive and active tenses. It meant in 10 years I had loved and had been loved and I now loved differently because of time. The speaker of the poem can only come to her sweet conclusion from a distance of years, and only with 10 more years of experience, of loves lost and gained, could the startling already past tense of “love” trigger a charge and a recognition of the beauty of responsibility. I read it to her slowly, in a voice that I thought the speaker of the poem would adopt if the speaker’s voice could be heard. After I finished my co-worker immediately popped up, turned the car light on, and told me to hold the book still. She took a picture of “First Memory” with her phone and then shared it.
The world in Hugh Sheehy’s short story collection, The Invisibles, is a distinct one. It constitutes the American nightmare of the last 30 or so years, including lax gun control, increased dependence on drugs, and more extreme episodes of neurosis about the ability to love ourselves and others. It shows a time when Reagan, Bush, and Clinton became less proper nouns and more belts of alternating plasticity and cheap heavy metal used to persecute the poor, entertain and quell the middle class, and fatten the accounts of the rich. The stories portray a scurvy, jumbled, and faintly resolute country reminiscent of Robert Frank’s photographs in The Americans. People drink, swear, tease, addle, enrage, but mostly drink, getting jacked enough to not be able to watch the only good thing about their life walk away as they stay in a stupor: wordless, detached, and only full of nostalgia for the fists their old friends raised at the people who dared to hurt them. As the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award winner for short fiction, Sheehy’s stories perfectly fit in the vein of that Southern writer whose characters hold similar hardened, messy lives bordering on Messianic in her attuned symbolism. Often taking place in the burnt-out, brutal Midwest of small towns with a bar on every corner, these stories throw a documentary-type lens on the reckless youth who grow up to sputter through life -- shirking responsibility and unable to imagine a world in which their existence might make a difference. Besides the travails of addiction, there are good reasons for this apathy. A Lake Erie killer haunts the story “The Invisibles,” in which a motherless teenager loses her two best friends to a mysterious menace that goes unsolved. In “Meat and Mouth,” the two eponymous marauders take a teaching assistant and a student staying after school hostage on a snowy Friday when everyone else has left. And fate again intervenes in “Whiteout,” in which the protagonist, a cocaine addict and general ne’er-do-well, is on his way home for Christmas for the first time in 13 years. Getting there during a snowstorm, he sees an overturned minivan on the highway. His decision to help will dictate whether he will make it to his family, an encounter too painful to have for so long. It might be said, possibly correctly, that trouble seeks the troublemakers or lost souls who have knowingly abused their lives, without knowing how they’ve hurt someone else’s. A fitting karma is a lesson to be learned. A hallmark of these stories is a certain type of slacker behavior grounded in drinks and friends. In “A Difficult Age,” the main characters, Francis (the narrator) and Lionel, sit with Brooke on a riverbank getting away from it all: We sit together, painless, sharing a pipe, and drum our legs on the bank. Brooke calls us idiots, but more importantly, the autumn is its naked self, bold and inelegant, and hard like a new tooth driven through a baby’s gums. We laugh hard and cry and get scared and laugh hard, and Brooke stares at the pond and shakes her head, drinking wine and being pregnant. People want to have fun together, and screwing around, as handed down by their parents, getting drunk, and getting stupid are how these characters unwind. But Sheehy couples the desperation with a powerful metaphor, placing the scattershot behavior of the characters against the world they still have to inhabit, as everything, including their choices and any “new tooth...through a baby’s gums” turns and changes. If they don’t grow up, their careless philosophy will infect others. The characters in The Invisibles might not exactly be asking for their gloomy fate, but often it is the best thing that can happen. In the exemplary “Smiling Down at Ellie Pardo,” Sheehy builds a twisting narrative stretching from a young man’s (Nolan’s) deleterious adulthood to his more hopeful teenage years as he returns home to be again paired with Henry, an old friend from the neighborhood, after a single woman they knew from their high school days has been killed. In one swooping sentence the reader gets the mysterious Ellie described in a flashback: A feisty Italian who always had a tray of lasagna in the oven or red sauce bubbling on the stove, she jogged back and forth on our street each day, exposing her beautiful legs even to the wicked cold of our winters on the lake. The alliteration of “wicked” and “winters”, as well as “of,” “our,” and “on” at the end of the sentence makes this evocation full of sound and substance by showing how she lived her life and where it played out. Each of the two men had a different relationship with her back then, and when Henry reveals that he once dated Ellie, it sends the story into another quadrant of psychological ramifications that Nolan tries to reconcile as their grief eventually leads them into a dark woods and an unforeseen but apt confrontation. Though many of the stories have an element of mystery, Sheehy isn’t interested in finding out who did what -- he knows the dramatic cornucopia lies elsewhere, with the living and the mistakes they have to examine in light of the dead. There is a unique sadness to this book. Sometimes there’s a touch of Raymond Carver, whose spirit is reminiscent in the broken down characters who are often missing a parent and pouring another glass. Sometimes early Paul Auster is evident as in a unique variation on the Memento-type story where a classics professor unwinds himself with the help of Ovid in “Translation.” Things are happening faster than ever, but Sheehy slows down and looks to see where and how our innocence was lost. The most important thing to be said of this book is that it’s true, presenting a reality of deteriorating values many face and foster in our country, equally unwelcoming for young men or old.
What is a sentence? That just was. There are simple and complex sentences. Some hold words remote, some ideas off key. Some lightly kiss your cheek like a European friend and some incense with their grandeur or insouciance. Recently, two elderly statesmen of letters released books of non-fiction, though some of their best known works are novels and novellas penned decades earlier. William H. Gass, now 87, has written his most personal book, Life Sentences, with essays touching on his father’s minor league baseball career, his early days as a PhD student, the first Fourth of July following 9/11 as compared to the first following Pearl Harbor, and the crown jewel of the book's opening section, “Retrospection.” No one has written a better introduction to Gass’s fiction than he does here, laying out why he wrote his magnum opus in one stark sentence: “I wrote The Tunnel out of the conviction that no race or nation is better than any other, and no nation or race is worse...” Gass, a former philosophy professor, but more appropriately a philosopher of the word and an esthete, concludes the book with the short section "Theoretic." In recent years he has taken to developing spindle diagrams of sentences, diagrams that he first debuted when speaking of the work of Gertrude Stein in the 1970s. In the essay “Narrative Sentences,” Gass examines a dozen sentences from some of the greatest English prose writers, including Henry James, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett. As Gass lays out some of these sentences in diagrams, scrolls, and bullet points, one sees their structure, harmonics, and meaning much better. His project is to notate sentences like a composer writing music, but notating in reverse -- the music is already evident as Gass leads the reader from the balcony into opening of the oboe in the orchestra pit. In a lifetime of showing how the world is within the word and how a sentence is its own story, the final essay, “The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence,” is both valedictory and a commanding compliment to his parsing of language, in which he recalls an English teacher who “regarded [him] with scornful indifference [his] claim the news, “David slew Goliath,” was seriously not the same as, “Goliath was slain by David,” but that each registered joy or woe depending on whose side you are on.” In “Kafka: Half a Man, Half a Metaphor,” Gass’s review of a recent biography of the famous man turned adjective, Gass fictionalizes Kafka’s voice by starting in a familiar enough first-person, a nod to what in Prague the famous recluse once created, “I awoke one morning to find myself transformed.” The reverence imbibes its own subject and Gass creates a book review like few others -- a creative non-fiction fictionalization of a real person’s artistic creation. Here Kafka/Gass muses on the over 100 passionate letters written to Felice Bauer in 1912 -- letters “requir[ing] that postal distance the letters can then complain of. Their words make love of the kind the mind makes when the mind fears its body may not measure up.” The music of the last sentence, the “kind” against the “minds,” the m-consonance mid-stream to be doubly compounded in its last beats -- thrusts its measuring synecdoche of separation forward with the panache of a Renaissance sonneteer. Like Gass, Alexander Theroux is also a celebrator of fine words and creator of ornate sentences, but with a few more inches of fury to his hat size. Estonia is as much about Theroux and his own country as that “collapsing tiny box-set of a republic that is dark as a cave in winter, shit-cold for most of the year, a strange ignored dorp with no ice-free ports, a queer language, curious laws, rummy food, eccentric people, funny money, and a veritable forest of unreadable signs.” The subtitle, A Ramble Through the Periphery, especially seems to speak not so much of boundary lines, but the bumptious, vertiginous, and at times vengeful mind of its littérateur. His periscope is many-focaled and what one gets in Estonia, along with a wonderful working knowledge of the country, is his many years of erudite commentaries and factoids (Cervantes began writing Don Quixote in a debtor’s prison; Estonians created Skype) on civilizations, culture, and arts, but especially literature and the shortcomings, politics, and pock marks of the superpower currently occupying the world. Such an approach is apropos -- don’t we see foreign lands through the lens of our own experiences and our own homeland? Sometimes his literary and pop immersions are expertly placed, as when Theroux, lonely and left cold by a foreign land and people, finds solace in Judy Garland’s “Lose that Long Face” -- reportedly singing it to himself and providing the reader with the lyrics. Yet the divagations into marginalia and widespread panic (the amount of annual U.S. aid to Israel) both crystallize and corrode this “travel” book. The episodes with less than kind people he met in his time there -- many being Fulbright scholars (as was his painter wife) enjoying or enduring their research year -- are still hot on the surface of his skin, continually stinging like some Inferno-like torment, and at times they override the richly wrought compendia of such a learned soul. The relentless use of “smug” to describe people Theroux viewed less than sympathetically stains the enterprise. How could so many appear smug? I’m not calling Theroux’s veracity into question but I am calling foul. As much as I admire his writing, it is hard to stay in his stream of sentences that might soon spit another spiteful judgment at someone who has crossed him -- sometimes the water is magical and sometimes the pen goes awry, squid-mad, and suddenly one is afloat in toxins.
The Englishman Sir Thomas Browne lived in an era rich in destruction, including constant European wars, plagues, fires and the regicide of Charles the First, as Browne himself witnessed. It is no wonder death and the processes of burial should be the subject of his most celebrated work, Urn Burial—a sometimes archeological, sometimes metaphysical treatise on not only burial customs but what the human race hopes to gain from living regardless of what it leaves behind when dying. Now in our era of natural and financial disaster, where death is often exploited but also hidden more and more, Urn Burial has been reissued as part of the New Directions Pearl Series, which celebrates favorite authors in affordable, easy to carry pocket editions. Their minimalist covers progressively show a rhombus expanding in shape and growing in color—perhaps a nod to the company’s rich catalogue. His life spanning three-quarters of the 17th Century, Browne, a physician, but also a scientist of sorts with his fingers in philosophy and spirituality, filled his writings with rigorous erudition, footnotes in many languages and references to classical literature and the historical leanings of such peoples as the Chaldeans, the Persians and the Scythians. These referents are sprinkled in the sentences of a stylist whose ornamental language and prose rhythms have caused such literary titans as Emerson, Melville, Woolf, Joyce, Borges, Gass and Sebald to praise him enthusiastically. Of the contents of the Roman urns found in Norfolk, England, Browne says: In sundry Graves and Sepulchres, we meet with Rings, Coynes, and Chalices; Ancient frugality was so severe, that they allowed no gold to attend the Corps, but only that which served to fasten their teeth. Whether the Opaline stone in this Urne were burnt upon the finger of the dead, or cast into the fire by some affectionate friend, it will consist with either custome. But other incinerable substances were found so fresh, that they could feel no sindge from fire. The consonance of the c- and f-sounds in the last two sentences sends the stirring suppositions of how the ancients might have acted in light of what was left in the urns careening into the reader’s mind. No archeologist ever took such care to construct such luxurious lines for his readership. Browne, on the level of language as well as inquiry, is not that strict, exacting, stereotypically staunch fusspot of science. With wonderment at the last resting place of the Opaline before its reappearance eons later, this excerpt is a poetic pull at assembling history, not a scientific one. Whether his poetic language rubbed his thought less astringent or not, Browne presents himself as more an interlocutor, a foil reflecting the given light of the sun so others many feel a little less dark in their darkness. Browne’s inquiries at first range around the text without hope of answer, as his reports on the findings are often terminated with the knowledge of no certain knowledge: “…we hold but a wavering conjecture” and “we hold no authentick account.” Yet from this uncertainty Browne is able to later anchor his treatise with an extravagant philosophy of carpe diem: It is the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man, to tell him he is at the end of his nature; or that there is no further state to come, unto which this seems progressionall, and otherwise made in vaine; Without this accomplishment the naturall expectation and desire of such a state, were but a fallacy in nature. As Browne details the expedition and the history of our forebears he also steams his looking glass with his own breath. As he curiously contemplates death, more thoughts on death are produced. And yet after asking is there “no further state to come?” Browne finds there is something for the living. His charting of a feeling deep and rich in himself reaches full flavor in the infamous fifth chapter, where the prose bounds and jostles with rhythms, inversions and alliteration. The seer fuels his thought with a faintly Buddhist fatefulness: Darknesse and light divide the course of time, and oblivion snares with memory, a great part even of our living beings; we slightly remember our felicities, and the smartest stroaks of affliction leave but short smart upon us. Sense endureth no extremities, and sorrows destroy us or themselves. To weep into stones are fables. Afflictions induce callosities, miseries are slippery, or fall like snow upon us, which notwithstanding is no unhappy stupidity. To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetfull of evils past, is a mercifull provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil days, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting rememberances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions. We can’t know what is coming but if we can forget what misery may have accompanied our past we can fly into our future a little lighter with only a slight sorrow at time weighing us down. In contrast to the earlier questioning, Browne is very sure-voiced, speaking as the god who might have created the whole enterprise called “existence” that so troubles and entertains indiscriminately. No matter the custom, no matter the “Coynes” stowed in the urns for the ferryman Charon to give them safe passage across the rivers separating living from the dead, the “precious pyres” for the recently departed bodies—Browne seems to say it is what comes before the last breath that holds the most meaning as the words, “Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us. A small fire sufficeth for life, great flames seemed too little after death,” seem to subscribe to. As the sentences accumulate in the fifth chapter, (George Saintsbury in A History of English Prose Rhythm called it “the longest piece, perhaps, of absolutely sublime rhetoric to be found in the prose literature of the world” and W.G. Sebald in his introduction from his own notable novel The Rings of Saturn, described the sentences as “resembl[ing] processions or a funeral cortege in their sheer ceremonial lavishness”) one can feel how Browne himself lived or burned “always with this hard gem-like flame,” as Walter Pater, in his book The Renaissance, would write as an echo of Browne’s fiery phrase above two hundred years later. The unearthing of the Roman urns fanned those flames for Browne and sent him to construct a response to his bloody era in a style later called “baroque.” If life ends with death and that is all we know and all we can ever know, Browne knew to breathe in life fully and in the breathing to make it beautiful.