About two months ago, I read a silly article and commented on it, as I often do. The article was written about Peter Matthiessen, the hatchet-faced jock who co-founded The Paris Review, as a CIA front, during the Strangeloveian heyday of Cold War 1.0. The article, written by Matthiessen’s nephew, Jeff Wheelwright, struck me as an attempt to rehabilitate Matthiessen’s image in possible preparation for a whitewashing biography. I left a withering comment (Matthiessen’s part in the sociopathic distortion of the West’s Literary Culture, of the mid-20th century and beyond, is one of my bêter [wink] bêtes noires) and moved on.
Jeff, miffed, swung by my site here (the day after, I think) and took a swipe at me (which I always welcome) and then begged me to remove that comment blighting his Unca Pete’s hagiography. Anyway: I go into those details elsewhere. To make a long story shortish, Jeff has been emailing me (emails I never email a response to) and commenting here ever since. Jeff swings from wheedling obsequiousness to bitchy hauteur at bipolar speeds, whereas my responses are uniformly-frank examples of me speaking my mind, which remains of the opinion that Jeff, and writers like Jeff, are intelligent enough but mediocre (if not outright hacks, when need be)… which is fine for Jeff and his ilk, because the market relies on the commercial interplay between average types on both sides of the writing divide: middlebrow content for middlebrow consumers. Jeff can’t wrap his mind around the fact that a Writer might write something finer than that and (here’s the kicker) for free. Yes, kids, it’s true: some of us do it for LOVE. At which, of course, the Ladies of the Night, and their Literary counterparts, will snicker.
Jeff can’t let it go; he’s still hanging around, sniping and cajoling, sniping and cajoling. We had a little exchange (among others) yesterday. After which I decided to go into some detail about my lit credo TWAATM (The Words Are All That Matter) and what makes Uncle Peter a particularly egregious example of Affirmative Action in the Literary World. Affirmative Action meets Cloak ‘n Dagger. Affirmative Action for the deck shoe, wine-and-cheese opening, crowd.
(And how is your wine-and-cheese opening, Jeff…? Don’t answer that.)
Dear Jeff Wheelwright:
I hope your day has been cheerful until this moment. It has come to my attention that I have to go into greater detail, explaining the concept of “The Words Are All That Matter” (TWAATM) to you, in order for you to get a better handle on it. Your comments of yesterday (Sept. 20) indicate that you don’t understand the concept at all.
It is precisely because TWAATM that “who I am” counts not at all, when you judge my Writing as Writing, which is to say, properly. It matters not at all who/what/why or how not-famous I am. The Words do and must speak for themselves. The biographical data may be used to sell the Words, if there is an attempt to do so, but biography can not, will not, validate or invalidate the Work. Neither will the price of the Work, the popularity of the Work, the physical design of the paper artifact that the work may or may not inhabit. TWAATM.
What you are arguing for, without quite understanding or owning it, is the Philistine’s creed that Reputation Is What Counts or what counts most heavily. That’s fine if you have no ear or fine feeling for Lit; it’s fine if you’re the kind of hack who quotes the hack Sammy Johnson (great dictionary-compiler, not quite Cervantes in bed) on the topic of “blockheads” and literary commerce. You think Sammy’s dog-eared quip is a debate-stopper. Perhaps it is a debate stopper for bumpkins, Jeff.
An exquisitely evocative sentence, on a piece of cardboard in an attic, seen only by one person, remains exquisitely evocative, even if it is never published (though it is, perhaps, slightly more precious because it is rare). Likewise, a groaning cliché in a faddy voice (eg, the Riefenstahl-lite nature-mysticism that reigned when your Unca Pete was in full phony spate) remains a groaning cliché, no matter how handsome the volume that smuggles it. Yes: even if the book is bound in leather and the pages are gilt-edged, Jeff. Even if the macho tosh comes with Philboyd Studge Award stickers plastered all over it.
Now, here. A little lesson in writing, featuring books from my own library (yes, indeed, Jeff, I bought your Uncle’s fair-to-middling book once, long ago, just as I once bought books by Alvin Toffler)…
Unca Pete’s celebrated The Snow Leopard (1978) begins with:
“IN LATE SEPTEMBER of 1973, I set out with GS on a journey to the Crystal Mountain, walking west under Annapurna and north along the Kali Gandaki River, then west and north again, around the Dhaulagiri peaks and across the Kanjiroba, two hundred and fifty miles or more to the Land of Dolpo, on the Tibetan Plateau.
“GS is the zoologist George Schaller. I knew him first in 1969, in the Serengeti Plain of East Africa, where he was working on his celebrated study of the lion. When I saw him next, in New York City in the spring of 1972, he had started a survey of wild sheep and goats and their near relatives the goat-antelopes. He wondered if I might like to join him the following year on an expedition to northwest Nepal, near the frontier of Tibet, to study the bharal, or Himalayan blue sheep; it was his feeling, which he meant to confirm, that this strange “sheep” of remote ranges was actually less sheep than goat, and perhaps quite close to the archetypal ancestor of both. We would go in the autumn to observe the animals in rut, since the eating and sleeping that occupied them throughout the remainder of the year gave almost no clue to evolution and comparative behavior. Near Shey Gompa, “Crystal Monastery,” where the Buddhist lama had forbidden people to molest them, the bharal were said to be numerous and easily observed.
And where bharal were numerous, there was bound to appear that rarest and most beautiful of the great cats, the snow leopard. GS knew of only two Westerners-he was one-who had laid eyes on the Himalayan snow leopard in the past twenty-five years; the hope of glimpsing this near-mythic beast in the snow mountains was reason enough for the entire journey.”
Compare that to Paul Theroux’s opening for the book that made him, The Great Railway Bazaar (1975):
“EVER SINCE CHILDHOOD, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it. Those whistles sing bewitchment: railways are irresistible bazaars, snaking along perfectly level no matter what the landscape, improving your mood with speed, and never upsetting your drink. The train can reassure you in awful places -a far cry from the anxious sweats of doom aeroplanes inspire, or the nauseating gas-sickness of the long-distance bus, or the paralysis that afflicts the car passenger. If a train is large and comfortable you don’t even need a destination; a corner seat is enough, and you can be one of those travellers who stay in motion, straddling the tracks, and never arrive or feel they ought to – like that lucky man who lives on Italian Railways because he is retired and has a free pass.
“Better to go first class than to arrive, or, as the English novelist Michael Frayn once rephrased McLuhan: ‘the journey is the goal’. But I had chosen Asia, and when I remembered it was half a world away I was only glad.
Then Asia was out the window, and I was carried through it on these eastbound expresses marvelling as much at the bazaar within the train as the ones we whistled past. Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories. It was my intention to board every train that chugged into view from Victoria Station in London to Tokyo Central; to take the branch line to Simla, the spur through the Khyber Pass, and the chord line that links Indian Railways with those in Ceylon; the Mandalay Express, the Malaysian Golden Arrow, the locals in Vietnam, and the trains with bewitching names, the Orient Express, the North Star, the Trans-Siberian. I sought trains; I found passengers.”
And now compare both examples of opening passages to the first few paragraphs of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia (1977):
“In my grandmother’s dining-room there was a glass-fronted cabinet and in the cabinet a piece of skin. It was a small piece only, but thick and leathery, with strands of coarse, reddish hair. It was stuck to a card with a rusty pin. On the card was some writing in faded black ink, but I was too young then to read.
“‘A piece of brontosaurus.’
“My mother knew the names of two prehistoric animals, the brontosaurus and the mammoth. She knew it was not a mammoth. Mammoths came from Siberia.
“The brontosaurus, I learned, was an animal that had drowned in the Flood, being too big for Noah to ship aboard the Ark. I pictured a shaggy lumbering creature with claws and fangs and a malicious green light in its eyes. Sometimes the brontosaurus would crash through the bedroom wall and wake me from my sleep.
“This particular brontosaurus had lived in Patagonia, a country in South America, at the far end of the world. Thousands of years before, it had fallen into a glacier, travelled down a mountain in a prison of blue ice, and arrived in perfect condition at the bottom. Here my grandmother’s cousin, Charley Milward the Sailor, found it.
“Charley Milward was captain of a merchant ship that sank at the entrance to the Strait of Magellan. He survived the wreck and settled nearby, at Punta Arenas, where he ran a ship-repairing yard. The Charley Milward of my imagination was a god among men—tall, silent and strong, with black mutton-chop whiskers and fierce blue eyes. He wore his sailor’s cap at an angle and the tops of his sea-boots turned down.
“Directly he saw the brontosaurus poking out of the ice, he knew what to do. He had it jointed, salted, packed in barrels, and shipped to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington.
“I pictured blood and ice, flesh and salt, gangs of Indian workmen and lines of barrels along a shore—a work of giants and all to no purpose; the brontosaurus went rotten on its voyage through the tropics and arrived in London a putrefied mess; which was why you saw brontosaurus bones in the museum, but no skin.
“Fortunately cousin Charley had posted a scrap to my grandmother.
“My grandmother lived in a red-brick house set behind a screen of yellow-spattered laurels. It had tall chimneys, pointed gables and a garden of blood-coloured roses. Inside it smelled of church.
I do not remember much about my grandmother except her size. I would clamber over her wide bosom or watch, slyly, to see if she’d be able to rise from her chair. Above her hung paintings of Dutch burghers, their fat buttery faces nesting in white ruffs. On the mantelpiece were two Japanese homunculi with red and white ivory eyes that popped out on stalks. I would play with these, or with a German articulated monkey, but always I pestered her: Please can I have the piece of brontosaurus.’”
Read closely and compare.
Chatwin, the better of the three writers, starts with a clear, carefully-chosen (and thematically central) image that engages us with its strong material hook. The image of the cabinet in his grandmother’s living room is quickly transmitted; it’s packed, already, with the reader’s own associations from childhood… the formative smells and textures, the mystery of treasured possessions and dear old relatives. A decent Writer could spend a page on all that but Chatwin has done it in a sentence. Borrowing the reader’s own inner-descriptions (hijacking your memories), to particularize a passage, expending a minimum of descriptive effort and therefore keeping the text sleek, is the talented Writer’s key trick.
Theroux, a solid enough Writer (his handling of action is always quite good, his metaphors ingenious: many stick with me after thirty years; but the range of Theroux’s allusions always feel more limited than Chatwin’s, and Theroux’s concision is undermined by his didactic tone and habit… repeating himself lest his slow students miss anything good… because Chatwin was the better poet) starts with something a little more abstract, a little less solid: a feeling. His sense of longing (to escape) as a child. Evocative enough, but, again, a bit more abstract and the sentence itself is mechanically fussy, more dilute in its affect than Chatwin’s first sentence. Compare the rhythms. Chatwin probably revised that first sentence a dozen times. The more likely “In my grandmother’s dining-room there was a glass-fronted cabinet with a piece of skin in it” wouldn’t have been half as powerful: as it is, “skin” is the sting in the tail of that sentence, the bit you land on last, never expecting such a thing. Skin? What’s a piece of skin doing in Granny’s quaint old cabinet? “Skin” is the disorienting punchline. We read it and off we go. The mad gallop of the book has begun.
Theroux catches up quickly by very cleverly giving us a solid sensation in the line after his book’s opening sentence, writing “snaking along perfectly level no matter what the landscape, improving your mood with speed, and never upsetting your drink,” engaging not just the eyes but the body itself, as you can feel the slide and pull of inertia in check, the sensual reality of gravity. But nothing in Theroux’s opener sparks a flash of poetry as beautifully as Chatwin’s throwaway image of that “prison of blue ice”. I relish that. Any sensitive reader will already be a little high on those first pages of Chatwin’s, and Theroux’s, justifiably Big travel books. The reader must be coaxed to enter and inhabit a kind of spirit world with the spirit body of her or his Imagination. This spirit body is skittish as a doe. The coaxer must be subtle but the details must be solid.
(And here’s a pseudo-Newtonian, tongue-in-cheeky, Law of Descriptions for you: Weight Lifted versus Ground Covered. Lifting a vast amount of weight [ie, describing the fuck out of something] while advancing the text not very far at all, is, generally [unless there’s a deeper scheme being served] a Fail).
Now let’s have a look, again, at the opening sentence in Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard:
“IN LATE SEPTEMBER of 1973, I set out with GS on a journey to the Crystal Mountain, walking west under Annapurna and north along the Kali Gandaki River, then west and north again, around the Dhaulagiri peaks and across the Kanjiroba, two hundred and fifty miles or more to the Land of Dolpo, on the Tibetan Plateau.”
What is it, this sentence? A complex and evocative montage of images? A subliminal sense-print to hook our virtual senses? No. It’s a string of facts or “facts” . How evocative is that? How evocative is “walking west”? How evocative is “two hundred and fifty miles”? Not at all. No, not at all. The sentence relies entirely on the exotic sound of its proper nouns to carry us along: transpose the sentence to a more familiar setting in Ohio or Kansas and it would lose quite a bit of its meretricious glitter. The image conjured is that of a map and the animation of a dotted line snaking across that map in the style of a Pathé Newsreel of the Thirties and Forties. In other words: a cliché, a charming cliché at best. At worst, the opening passage of Matthiessen’s book is a poorly-modulated blast of name-dropping braggadocio. Chatwin was a name-dropper, too, but he’d strike a bargain with the reader, early in the book (as detailed above) parceling out aesthetic treats in exchange for the reader’s forbearance.
Matthiessen was a basically-competent writer, unremarkable among the thousands of equivalent talents of his era, who got his boost, into the public eye, via the extra-literary means of Cold War pseudo-exigencies. One close read of his most touted work (Far Tortuga ties with Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King to win the Gilligan’s Island Award for slapsticking the Other) and the reputation crumbles. Very luckily for you, Jeff, and for your Uncle Peter, too, Close Reading is as common among your readers as the amateur photography of alpha-particle tracks, in homemade kitchen cloud chambers, is common in the suburbs. Books are no longer promoted on the ethereal backs of such niceties, if they ever were. Your secret is safe.
But what is Matthiessen doing, in The Snow Leopard, but writing a glorified book report that should be called “What I did on my summer vacation”?
Because Peter Matthiessen was “upper class” and secretly supported by the Industrial Military Entertainment complex, his summer vacations had more vicarious entertainment value than the summer vacations of a guy who works in a bicycle repair shop. The middlebrow audience will invariably mistake flat descriptions of the Himalayas, or of monks, exotic animals, ancient temples, et al, as deep by default. That’s what the middlebrow does (or did in the 20th century; now it’s thinly-veiled psycho-Corporatese, a la Gladwell, that they take, like the dupes they are, for Substance).
A gifted and serious reader knows that the depths are not in the setting, they are in the ectoplasm-dripping spook-machine of the Writing Itself (a similar argument was advanced by Wally Shawn, in the seminal upper-crust demystification of the frivolous upper crust in My Dinner with Andre). The depths are just as likely to reveal themselves in the description of the eating of a Snickers bar, in front of a magazine shop in Omaha, Nebraska as on a sleet-lashed slope of Pandimin Sikkim, in a real Writer’s hands. Enlightenment (the Literary version, not the faddy version your silly Uncle chased all his life, as though it were an intramural competition) tells us that.
Nicholson Baker, for example, shows us worlds-within-worlds, in the deceptive banality of a young man’s office job, in The Mezzanine. Baker’s Literary ability towers over Matthiessen’s, who needed to use Tibet (et al) as a crutch to give his writing gravitas or the appearance of talent. What Nicholson Baker couldn’t afford to feed his Muse with (flying off to Tibet, and everywhere else “picturesque,” for decades, in the collecting of marketably picturesque and “amazing” experiences) he compensated for with a powerfully obsessive, and very fine, toolkit he was able to rig to his blessed imagination. At the level of the sentence, Matthiessen was a plodder who was generally wise enough to avoid overextending himself in a revealing way. Take out the exotica of those glitteringly name-dropped proper nouns, from an average sentence in The Snow Leopard, however, and what are you left with? Well, for example:
“In the frozen air, the whole mountain is taut; the silence rings. The sheep’s flanks quake, and the wolves are panting; otherwise, all is still, as if the arrangement of pale shapes held the world together. Then I breathe, and the mountain breathes, setting the world in motion once again.”
That’s the kind of Readers Digestitude that was popular with the mass market, then, and probably still is now. But it’s hard to separate the grandiloquence from the breathless cliché-slinging there and even harder to make actual sense of its presiding metaphors, which are more about sound than sense (like too much “modern” poetry, for which we can also thank the so-called Paris, or Langley, Review). That’s exactly the kind of prose my grandfather would hire me (25-50 cents per) to read for him while he ate his four-course breakfasts. He wore cowboy hats and kept and rode horses (at a stable in Ohio he visited for a few weeks every Autumn), my granddad, and he liked to be read stories of ranching and outlaws and squaws and thundering bison and slavering wolf pack attacks, and what have you, while he ate. The prose style in those pulp Westerns and outdoorsy magazines was nearly identical to Matthiessen’s (minus the ivy league pseudo-Zen of breathing mountains etc), who had probably read a bit of Louis L’Amour himself. In fact, compare this bit of Louis L’Amour to Matthiessen’s above-cited attempt at lyricism:
“There was a lonely place where the trail ran up to the sky, turning sharply away at the rimrock where a man could see all the valley below, a splendid green of forest and meadow fading into the purple of the farther mountains. It was a place where a man could look down upon eagles, soaring far below, yet thousands of feet above the valley’s floor. Here at sundown a man came riding.”
If you are not a veteran close-reader, perhaps you won’t detect the absolute difference in levels of skill and crafty refinement between L’Amour/ Matthiessen boilerplate… and something like this, from Chatwin, from In Patagionia (I had to choose between half-a-dozen randomly paged-to, and great, passages):
“Next day hotter and windier than before. The hot blasts knocked you back, sucked at your legs, pressed on your shoulders. The road beginning and ending in a grey mirage. You’d see a dust-devil behind and, though you knew now never to hope for a truck, you thought it was a truck. Or there’d be black specks coming closer, and you stopped, sat down and waited, but the specks walked off sideways and you realized they were sheep.”
Note the absence of tacky chocolate-box grandiloquence; the poetry of the largely-left out; the sudden change of scale the last clause of the fifth sentence gives you. Well, part of the Aesthetic advantage there is in Chatwin’s English inclination toward the circumspect. But That is Writing. It’s not a pulp Western in Exotic Drag a la Matthiessen.
More poetry from Chatwin:
“Undeterred by the dust-storm, the polymath sat in a grove of tamarisks, immersed in a North American manual of applied engineering. He wore a blue beret and a baggy grey suit. The tortoise folds of his neck craned from a celluloid collar. He offered me his footstool and begged me sit at his feet. He waved his colleague to a chair that someone had rescued too late from a bonfire, and consulted a silver watch.”
Now, Chatwin, Theroux and Matthiessen certainly each needed enough basic skill, for starters, to organize the material for their respective travel books (with how much editorial assistance, in each respective case, we’ll never likely know)… I wouldn’t take that from Matthiessen. Though, of course, being able to organize the material that goes into such a book is a skill that’s taught in better High Schools and colleges. It is a useful skill but not a remarkable one and being able to do it well enough to produce a popular travel book was a trick turned by quite a few writers (dozens, at the very least), in the 1970s, alone. Why did Matthiessen appear to stand apart? We know quite well that it wasn’t about Talent.
Matthiessen’s secret weapon, The CIA (aka “The Mighty Wurlitzer”), was one hell of an “agency,” no, Jeff? They had the reach and intimidation-potential that a William Morris could only dream of. Unless the joke, of a secret overlap between the two, is on us there as well. And you know what? I wouldn’t doubt it.
[Editor’s Note: The Woman on the right, in the old photograph, is my great grandmother, a Writer]
This essay should not be misinterpreted as having anything to do with the jejune, triumphalist and ultimately absurd attitude, regarding Art, expressed in William Faulkner’s viral and crypto-eugenic tweet (Faulkner often tweeted drunk) “‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”
No it’s not; that’s not what TWAATM means (and please note that Faulkner wasn’t a little old lady, yet, when he tweeted that bullshit about the Grecian Urn). Art itself, Lit itself, is the cornerstone of a civilized existence, of an existence that transcends what would otherwise be the doomed hourly contemplation of the ever-present chore, we put off for as long as possible, of Non-Existence; Art and Lit help us hover above the ugly facts (eg, how beautiful gift boxes of fairy-fine chocolates exist only to be converted into lumplets of shit) and to redeem us against the horrors of self-reflection as we are washed all under, after youth’s great smooth flaring, by wave after deepening wave of fucking wrinkles you could stick a nickle in. But no particular work of Art or Lit is worth anyone’s Life on either side of the performative line. Are you kidding? I would trade the existence of any one of Faulkner’s books (even the one with anal sex in it) for Waffles. But I don’t have to, luckily. (But I would).
When I wrote, at the beginning of this essay, “An exquisitely evocative sentence, on a piece of cardboard in an attic, seen only by one person, remains exquisitely evocative, even if it is never published (though it is, perhaps, slightly more precious because it is rare),” it presupposed the existence of a civilization, beyond that hypothetical attic, to give the hypothetical sentence meaning. No civilization (imagine tribes of dog-fur-wearing scavengers camping out in gutted buildings under the stars) no meaning. Or, at best, the Literary “meaning,” of the collected works of Emily Dickinson, would become a savagely unbearable irony, in the minds of anyone still capable of reading, in an era of dog-fur tribes. Try reading Willam Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow poem aloud, with perfectly-judged caesuras, while dog-fur-wearing zombie-tweens are roasting rats on spits and tying a naked lady to a fence.
In other words, there is no Objective Eternal value called “Lit”. Art is a little more durable (classical paintings of people will mean something as long as the human form remains recognizably what it was when the paintings were made), but Lit is fragile and nothing, in the end, but a magnificent side-product (or the pinnacle) of (a) civilization. First we build a civilization, then we get to enjoy or worship Lit. No civilization = good luck with your poetry reading. (And it goes without saying that the progress bar monitoring the installation of Civilization has never, yet, gotten any further than the 73% mark, though, considering the fact that it hovered around 14% for most of recorded history, that’s pretty good).
So a sense of proportion is always required. Lit is not Life, it enhances it. Life comes first, fucking comes first, babies come first, little old ladies come first. Post-Wagnerite pronouncements regarding Art as the ultimate playground of flat-affect Supermen says more about the sick culture that popularized these pronouncement (howdy Ayn Rand, you pulp-fiction-writing huckster-twat) than it does about Art. If the notion, that the little old ladies of the poor are worth no less than those of the rich, was only a very recent ethical leap forward for civilization, it’s rather retrograde to suggest, in turn, that neither type of old lady is worth as much as a poem. No?
If the 19th century was about Europe’s massive jackpot (the convergence of revolutionary industrial technology with the unfettered nationalist will to Third World Rape and Pillage), the early 20th century was about The Apex Industrialized Nations licking their chops, in the aftermath, and thinking, fatly, “Hmmmmm… what’s next?” The tweets that went viral, during that phase, were the tweets that served that ugly new pre-Hitlerian arrogance best.
Modernism, sadly, was fed that adolescent arrogance with mother’s milk, though the Head Modernist, Mr. Jimmy Joyce, would have whapped the shit out of that arrogance with his high-grade ha if it came to ask his daughter for a date. Mr. Jimmy sacrificed not one old lady in the making of Ulysses or Dubliners or Portrait of the Artist or even Finnegans Wake. The man had a drinking problem, for sure, and his Art barely helped him to cope with it. He had Stephen D. utter all manner of Olympian sophistries (that’s what young men do, especially when they can’t get laid) but do you think, for a moment, JJ wouldn’t have traded Finnegans for Lucia’s health and happiness, or his own eyesight, whatever masterstroke of showmanship or épater le bourgeois he tweeted, at the time, notwithstanding?
“The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”
Is that supposed to be inspiring, Willie?