Thursday, February 4, 2010

The outer life is not violent enough

"Multiply emotions. Not just one life in one isolated body; make your soul the host of several bodies. Feel it vibrate with the emotions of others as well as with your own; it will forget its own griefs when it ceases to think only of itself. The outer life is not violent enough; more poignant tremors result from inner surges of rapture. Let it feed on admiration; then it will be haughtier and its vibrations stronger. Not realities but chimeras, for the poet's imagination brings out more clearly the ideal truth hidden behind the appearance of things.

Let the soul never fall back into inactivity; it must be nurtured anew on surges of rapture."*

--Andre Gide

Gide has been my great good companion for the past two months, taking over when Soseki, who had been with me since August, grew exhausted. I read the Immoralist when one should, as a teen, in a Dover Thrift edition that cost a dollar, but at that time my mind was already ruined with the greatest works of other, more obvious, masters-- Hugo, Dostoevsky, Nabokov-- that anything less than the apex of literary ambition went read but unpondered. In a French Literature course from the beloved, generous, and brilliant Professor Ted Johnson, we read The Counterfeiters, which I was rather amazed by, but we also read Beckett.

Professor Johnson wrote to Beckett once, inviting him to a celebration of his work at the University of Kansas. He told us this story with tremendous humility, amazed still that a lowly professor had invited the great Beckett to Kansas, and produced a plastic bag in which Beckett's short but grateful refusal was handwritten on a postcard from Paris. It was one of Professor Johnson's most treasured possessions. He read it out loud to us, his voice shaken, and then gingerly returned it to the bag.

This dear moment and the fact that I was Beckett's sole advocate in the class, and, it must be said, because the aggressive nature of his genius appealed more to my college mind than Gide's elegance and restraint, caused me to write a lengthy paper on his short play, shown once on the BBC decades ago, '...but the clouds...' which interrogates and ultimately releases Yeats and his poem The Tower. I'll give you the end of the poem because I have it memorized and because it has come to mean a great deal to me.

Now shall I make my soul,
Compelling it to study
In a learned school
Till the wreck of body,
Slow decay of blood,
Testy delirium
Or dull decrepitude,
Or what worse evil come -
The death of friends, or death
Of every brilliant eye
That made a catch in the breath -
Seem but the clouds of the sky
When the horizon fades;
Or a bird's sleepy cry
Among the deepening shades.

So I did not at length study, as it deserved, Gide's singular, in both senses, novel and only came back to him when lingering over the shelves of a (new and)used book store in Santa Cruz. (At that time in college I think I was privately working through the whole of Bulgakov.) I purchased a beautiful British Standard copy of Strait Is the Gate and a charming Vintage copy of the first volume of his journals.

Strait Is the Gate is one of the most perfect and heartbreaking books I have ever read. Gide intended it to be the mirror and compliment of his much more widely read Immoralist, but while the latter has become default reading for the benighted Western Civ. canon (owing to its misreading by the fucking existentialists), the former, though numbering fewer than one hundred and fifty (perfect) pages, is rarely referenced.

But I read it, wept over it, and passed it on to Gayle. Gide's journals are with me now, but in The Fear that has overcome me as the right hand pages become thinner, I ran back to Logos to buy the rest of his work I had previously passed over. Thank you, dead reader, who owned these books before me, dating, as they all do, from the fifties, but why did you die without the second volume of his journals? Did you lend it, poor darling/cad/fool to some book-eating friend? Did some terrible accident befall it-- which would be strange considering the pristine condition of the rest of your collection-- or are you blameless? Did someone buy volume two (for a dollar) but refuse to pony-up for volume one so that I might go a-wondering?, so I guess my point is I bought a couple new books, spending nearly the price of a pack of cigarettes, (vice is dear these days: my sole line to freedom and dignity) both by Gide, who, I think, is a great writer. Well, obviously it is more than that. His style and person appeal to me for distinct and intimate reasons. He is sentimental about animals. Fuck you, that's important. (not you, clearly)

Doubtless more will follow. The passage I quoted is from his first youthful work and simply what I read when opening The White Notebook at random when beginning this post. I copied it because I collect literary references to multiplicity, which should not surprise any readers here.

...Seagram's and Hansen's Root Beer, if anyone is curious.

*rerereading this quote I am struck by how awfully it must be rendered in English. Beauty, for Gide, was nearly truth. I might attempt a new translation.

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