From the 1979 Travis McGee novel “The Green Ripper” by John D. MacDonald:
“‘How did the conference go?’ I asked.
He shook his weary head. ‘These are bad days for an economist, my friend. We have gone past the frontiers of theory. There is nothing left but one huge, ugly fact.’
‘There is a debt of perhaps two trillion dollars out there, owed by governments to governments, by governments to banks, and there is not one chance in hell it can ever be paid back. There is not enough productive capacity in the world, plus enough raw materials, to provide maintenance of plant plus enough overage even to keep up with the mounting interest.’
‘What happens? It gets written off?’
He looked at me with a pitying expression. ‘All the major world currencies will collapse. Trade will cease. Without trade, without the mechanical-scientific apparatus running, the planet won’t support its four billion people, or perhaps even half that. Agribusiness feeds the world. Hydrocarbon utilization heats and houses and clothes the people. There will be fear , hate, anger, death. The new barbarism. There will be plague and poison. And then the new Dark Ages.’”
Travis McGee, the hero of many MacDonald thrillers, quips: “Should I pack?”
From Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectations”:
“‘Yet a gentleman may not keep a public-house; may he?” said I.
‘Not on any account,’ returned Herbert; ‘but a public-house many keep a gentleman.’”
A zinger is so much more satisfying when it’s not only scathing, but clever.
Take Dorothy Parker as she nearly collided with Clare Boothe Luce as they both tried to get through a doorway. Luce smiled and said, “Age before beauty.”
Not missing a beat, Parker slipped through the door, and said, “Pearls before swine.”
Here are some of my other favorite literary insults that have that certain zip.
Mark Twain on composer Richard Wagner: “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”
William Makepeace Thackeray on Jonathan Swift: “A monster gibbering shrieks, and gnashing imprecations against mankind — tearing down all shreds of modesty, past all sense of manliness and shame; filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene.”
H.G. Wells on Bernard Shaw: “An idiot child screaming in a hospital.”
Virginia Woolf on James Joyce: “The work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.”
Oscar Wilde on Charles Dickens’s “Old Curiosity Shop”: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”
Gertrude Stein on Ezra Pound: ““A village explainer. Excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.”
Vladimir Nabokov on Ernest Hemingway: “As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early ‘forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it.”
Truman Capote on Jack Kerouac: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
Mark Twain on Jane Austen: “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig up Jane Austen and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
Any of your favorites to add?
Hidden behind a pane of smeared
In a messy kitchen,
gazing out over the brick
scattered with pine needles
behind the white picket
Flashes of barefoot daughters
squealing with joy.
kicking a soccer ball.
And a weight of anxiety
Replaced by the lightness of
and bouncing hair.
One of Americas most under appreciated writers – at least by readers – is Richard Yates. None of his novels were ever best sellers and, in fact, none of them sold more than a few thousands copies during his lifetime.
But he was published despite the sorry state of his sales (likely not possible in this day and age).
Yates can write. Take this passage from his 1965 novel “A Special Providence”:
“And it must have been in the same square that he watched two litter bearers come trotting in perfect rhythmic unison through the rubble, using their legs with the skill and delicacy of dancers so that their upper bodies wouldn’t jog the load: from the waist up they could have been men on bicycles. The man on their stretcher rode as smoothly as if he were in a hospital bed, and Prentice thought with envy of how dreamlike and sweet it must be to be borne that way, floating horizontally away to rest and peace and care.
In the middle of the square the bearers came to a halt and eased the stretcher gently to the ground. They rested for a few seconds, standing wide-legged with their hands on their knees, like winded athletes. Then still moving as one, they squatted to take up their load again; but almost as soon as they’d raised it they set it carefully down, and both of them crouched over the wounded man, tenderly lifting his blanket to feel and scrutinize him.
And then, with a terrible abruptness, they tore off the blanket, tipped the stretcher high on its side, and sent the man rolling hideously out into the slush. They didn’t even look down at him as they turned and ran, heading back to wherever they’d come from, one of them hauling the collapsed stretcher on his shoulder and the other humping along at his side. All their unanimity and grace was gone: they ran with the heavy-footed clumsiness of exhausted laborers.”
Try to find a passage that so encapsulates the humanity and the horrors of war more effectively, more vividly than this one. You’d be hard pressed to find it.
I’ve been rediscovering the Beats recently. It has been, after all, 15 years this month since Allen Ginsberg died.
My second going with the Beats (my first when I was in college) has not been as fulfilling. Suddenly, Ginsberg seems more self-absorbed than self-aware.
That feeling hasn’t been as intense with Jack Kerouac, but reading “The Dharma Bums” has been disappointing. Kerouac isn’t that good a writer. There are moments – no doubt – of intense beauty, especially when he’s writing about nature. But most of Kerouac’s dialogue falls flat and his characters are one-dimensional.
And worse, he can be boring.
But there are gems and there’s little doubt that Kerouac captured a movement in America – chronicling the discontent of America in the late 1950s and setting the foundation for the revolution and upheaval of the 1960s – when convention fell apart and American innocence (if there was ever really such a thing) fell apart.
This passage from “The Dharma Bums” captures that spirit:
“Give me another slug of that jug. How! Ho! Hoo!” Japhy leaping up. “I’ve been reading Whitman, know what he says, Cheer up slaves, and horrify foreign despots, he means that’s the attitude for the Bard, the Zen Lunacy bard of old desert paths, see the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn’t really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume, I see a vision of great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of ‘em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everyone and to all living creatures, that’s what I like about you Goldbrook and Smith, you two guys from the East Coast which I thought was dead.”
That’s one hell of long sentence.
It’s everything that’s right and wrong about Kerouac – and the Beats for that matter. The passage starts out stealing, but sails into an intense philosophy that strikes a nerve and then peters out in a vague and disappointing manner.
But the bright and original parts of the passage – about the coming revolution and our consumer society – click. And you can see how the thinking was adopted by future writers from Don Delillo to Douglas Copeland (but not so much the writing itself).
Kerouac had influence on a movement – a way of thinking and approaching life – but he really wasn’t a literary influence.
What do you think of the Beats? Have you read them? Do you think they are still relevant today?
Short Story: “The Vendetta” by Guy de Maupassant
Guy de Maupassant is often considered the French Edgar Allan Poe.
This is unfair to Maupassant, a far superior writer. But the comparisons are inevitable because both writers were fascinated by the macabre. Poe’s was closer to an obsession, but Maupassant held his own. After all, this was a man who – ravaged by insanity caused by syphilis – slashed his own throat at the age of 42.
“The Vendetta” is one of Maupassant’s most popular short stories, but it isn’t one of his best. The story has its strengths, however, and it remains an excellent introduction to Maupassant’s work. “The Vendetta” features the elements of what every good Maupassant story should have: economy of language, flawed characters, smart plotting, and a dash of the supernatural.
The story is about an old widow who resides in a village with her son and his dog. One night the son is murdered by a man named Nicolas Ravolati, who flees after the killing. The old woman swears a vendetta against Ravolati and begins to brood on how she might get her revenge. Finally, she trains the dog how to attack a straw dummy and then takes the beast across the channel and has the dog kill Ravolati.
The most interesting thing about “The Vendetta” (next to the gruesome spectacle of a man being devoured to death by a dog) is the juxtaposition of the widow and her son’s pet dog – a bitch Semillante. After the son’s murder, the widow’s reaction is mostly stoic while the dog is wild with sorrow:
“She would have no one stay with her, and shut herself up with the body, together with the howling dog. The animal howled continuously, standing at the foot of the bed, her head thrust toward her master, her tail held tightly between her legs. She did not stir, nor did the mother, who crouched over the body with her eye fixed steadily upon it, and wept great silent tears.”
The mother and the dog play off of one another through the entire story. Widow and dog; dog and widow. They intertwine and at the end the dog becomes the widow’s instrument of death.
Maupassant, echoing his own troubled psyche, often wrote about characters with mental problems or moral failings. That theme is evident here as the mother becomes obsessed with murdering her son’s killer. She spends long hours staring across the water at the opposite coast – plotting her revenge.
The story is so straight forward that the reader sides with the widow, but there is evidence that the widow and her son may be the evil characters here. Perhaps the son deserved to be murdered by Nicolas Ravolati. We’re never told why the son was killed; and the widow never thinks about it nor ponders her son’s innocence.
The evidence of her flawed character can be found in her hermit like ways. She appears to have had no real friends or family – other than her son and his dog. After he dies “there was no more talk of him” in their village and he also had no close friends.
The old woman even goes to church to pray for vengeance (This is another of Maupassant’s favorite topics – the hypocrisy of organized religion). And when the widow finally tracks down Nicolas – he is working a steady job as a joiner – so he’s not a criminal.
The story must have been shocking when it was published in the late 19th century because it still packs a wallop. Here is Nicolas’s death told in graphic detail:
“The maddened beast dashed forward and seized his throat. The man put out his arms, clasped the dog, and rolled upon the ground. For a few minutes he writhed, beating the ground with his feet; then he remained motionless while Semillante nuzzled at his throat and tore it out in ribbons.”
The story ends with the widow returning home. “That night she slept well.”
That about says it all…
God created everything, according to the Bible. The first sentence tells us so:
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)
Genesis goes on to describe how God created the heavens and the earth. Water, sunlight and darkness, and then all living creatures, including plants, insects, mammals and human beings.
This is an impressive resume.
So why after creating everything in the universe are the Godly miracles in the Bible so underwhelming? In fact, many of the miracles are parlor tricks compared to what God is supposedly capable of. Aren’t we talking about an omnipotent, omnipresent God – a being that has no limits to his power and who is everywhere and in everything?
Yet one of miracles in the Bible is God making a donkey talk. (Numbers 22:28)
And more strangely, the Old Testament miracles outshine the New Testament. Based on miracles alone, Moses clearly out does Jesus. After all, Moses brought the wrath of God down on the Egyptians with 10 horrible plagues – turning the Nile into bubbling cauldron of blood and having the Angel of Death murder the first-born male in every Egyptian household.
In turn, Jesus walks on water (is it too much to expect that the Son of Man would be able to perform miracles that can’t be duplicated by Las Vegas magicians – see video below?).
The miracles of Jesus – the Son of God, no less – are rather meager considering the magnitude of the power at his disposal. They can be summed up as follows:
- Healing the sick including those with leprosy. (Matthew 12:9–14)
- Bringing the dead to life. (Matthew 9:18–26; Luke 7:11–17; John 11:1–45)
- Feeding a large crowd from a few morsels of food. (Matthew 14:13–21; 15:29–38)
- Dispersing a storm. (Mark 4:35–41)
- Walking on water. (Matthew 14:22–33)
In fact, Jesus was no stranger to the parlor trick as one of his miracles was having Peter catch a fish with a coin in its mouth in order to pay-off a tax fee. (Matthew 17:24-27)
But it’s clear that the Bible miracles lack magnitude, never mind creativity. When Michael Bay clearly out-classes both Jesus and Moses using special effects in the Transformer movies.
The reason is simple. The ancient authors of the Bible had a small perspective – thinking the world was confined to the Middle East. To these writers – ignorant of science and technology – walking on water was an impressive feat. Curing the sick – disease being the bane of ancient populations when the life expectancy was about 28 years – was miraculous (and also wishful thinking).
But it also shows that the Bible is a product of its time. If it was written by God wouldn’t the miracles be a more modern? Impressive not just to ancient people, but to modern ones as well?
Criss Angel walks across a hotel swimming pool (video)
Life expectancy via Wikipedia
President George W. Bush committed war crimes during his presidency.
How do we know this? One way is because Bush boasted about violating the Geneva Conventions and sanctioning waterboarding of terrorism suspects it in his memoir “Decision Points.”
(For the record, waterboarding has been a crime under U.S. law for more than 90 years.)
We also have the public record (Bush memos and documents released by the Obama administration, acknowledgement by Bush’s executive team, and even excellent investigative journalism such as Jane Mayer in “The Dark Side.”)
Bush’s actions in kidnapping terrorism suspects, whisking them to secret prisons, and subjecting them to torture are in violation of not only international law, but of U.S. laws (most notably the Convention Against Torture ratified by President Ronald Reagan).
Now we also have Glenn Greenwald’s superb “With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful.” Greenwald, a former Constitutional lawyer, is now a liberal pundit and columnist for Slate.
Greenwald’s slim, but powerful volume makes a strong case that George W. Bush is a war criminal, albeit one that will never be indicted for his crimes.
Because he’s being protected by President Barack Obama. Unfortunately for Obama refusing to investigate allegations of torture is a war crime, according to both the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture. Instead of steering the nation toward the rule of law, Obama has announced “This is a time for reflection, not retribution.”
From Greenwald’s book:
“Rendering Obama’s reluctance to prosecute yet more problematic is that the United States is legally required to investigate allegations of torture and to bring the torturers to justice. Not doing so is itself a criminal act. The Third Geneva Convention, which was enacted in the wake of severe detainee abuse during World War II, obliges each participating country to ‘search for persons alleged to have committed, or to have ordered to be committed, such grave breaches, and… bring such persons, regardless of their nationality, before its own courts.’”
The Bush documents released by Obama make it clear that Bush authorized torture, including waterboarding. In fact, the U.S. government prosecuted Japanese soldiers in World War II for torture because they waterboarded prisoners and the U.S. government even prosecuted U.S. soldiers in Vietnam for doing the same thing.
As Greenwald notes, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, appointed by Obama, made it even clearer when he took office by stating: “Waterboarding is torture.”
Yet Obama has steadfastly refused to investigate the mounting evidence that Bush authorized torture.
Worse yet, the Obama administration has even pressured other countries from investigating cases that involved their own citizens being kidnapped and tortured by the CIA – many of them who were later released without any charges ever being filed. Greenwald illustrates some of the more egregious cases in his book.
“With Liberty and Justice for Some” is a difficult read – one that has the reader of the verge of outrage at every revelation. But Greenwald paints a grim, but compelling picture of an executive branch that defies the law and then is protected by a culture that has decided that the rich and powerful should be exempt from the rule of law.
This month – February 8 specifically – beloved novelist and writer Charles Dickens would have celebrated his 200th birthday – if he had not, you know, died back in 1870. In honor of that distinction, I’m republishing an interview about Old Boz that I conducted with Boston College English Professor Judith Wilt back in 2007. Judith joined the teaching staff at BC in 1978 and specializes in 19th and 20th century British and Victorian literature. She’s an unabashed admirer of Mr. Dickens.
Artful Hatter: Dickens allegedly burned most of his important letters and correspondence when he was nearing the end of his writing career. What do we really know about the life of the creator of Scrooge and David Copperfield?
Judith Wilt: Whoa! That would have been a conflagration indeed, for this obsessed writer of private and public documents! Dickens did, in one of his periodic attempts to resist his past, burn baskets and baskets of correspondence in the late summer of 1860, mostly letters from others and copies of his own, but the Dickens letters we do have run to twelve volumes in the most recent Oxford UP edition.
Even more important, we have from Dickens’ friend and first biographer John Forster an account of the ‘autobiographical fragment’ Dickens himself wrote about his early years as a neglected and abandoned (by his own lights anyway) child, those months put to work in a London blacking factory while his father was in debtor’s prison, when he feared that he would be sunk forever in menial and unimaginative work – an experience which haunted him with images of his own futility, solitariness and inadequacy even at the height of his success, and which he put directly into “David Copperfield” (1850).
We have a long defensive letter he wrote and showed to friends about the reasons for the breakdown of his marriage to Catherine Hogarth, and a follow-up statement about his formal separation from her that he actually insisted on publishing in the “Times”; and from others’ letters and diaries and from hints in his letters, we know he maintained a clandestine and probably erotic, if not necessarily adulterous, correspondence with the actress Ellen Ternan for some years after that separation.
Artful Hatter: Is Dickens still an important author today? If so, why?
Judith Wilt: I’d certainly take his books with me to a desert island; they’re so filled with life at the extremes of joy and despair, so vividly pictorial, so rhetorically unique and memorable. Then too, the Victorians are unmistakably our contemporaries in the attempt to access the human consequences of everything we think of as “modern” – individualism, industrialism, urbanism, science, and so on. And more even than Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot, Dickens wrote into his characterizations those communications of mind and body, those strange and intimate connections between behavior and thought, which Freud later codified as the beginnings of the science of psychology.
Judith Wilt: Two, I think: one emotional and one literary. In the early decades of his career what impressed readers was the vitality, comedy, and consoling durability of Dickens’s people and his attitude towards life, and lots of people still think of his work as some sort of “Christmas Carol,” coming round to “cheer” every year. But there’s a darker Dickens right from the start, a haunted consciousness, and in his later novels he explored with great acuity the sorts of human and social obsessions and mistakes which we can diagnose but can’t seem to cure.
Then too, people understand him as a “popular” writer, one who wrote for money by the inch in the magazines and serializations of his first publishing years, one who addressed, and to some degree created, the “mass market.” True enough, but he was also a man of gigantic ambition and that includes artistic ambition – what may seem at first glance the proverbial “loose baggy monster” of swollen narrative in his 800 pagers actually turns out to be unified around images and themes and paced according to both suspense and thought in ways which we associate, on a different scale, with Browning, and which certainly caught the eye and influenced the likes of Henry James and T. S. Eliot.
Artful Hatter: In your opinion, what are Dickens’s three greatest works and why?
Judith Wilt: “Bleak House” (1853): it has the best balance of private and public concerns in the story of a lost little girl and of a national system of government, medicine and law which fails its people. It’s a narrative tour de force through its creation of two written “speaking” voices – an epic sardonic kind of investigative journalist looking over the whole picture and the lost little girl turned hyper-orderly woman; and it’s got at least two scenes which make me tear up even when I’m reading it in the classroom.
“Our Mutual Friend” (1865): it’s a treasure trove of strange and wonderful character (Mr. Venus, articulator of bones and melancholy artiste!), beautifully turned images (a dull old business house in the gloomy metropolis reflects “a sobbing gaslight in the counting-house window and a burglarious stream of fog creeping in the keyhole”), and a heartbreaking competition for one of the heroines between a languidly handsome dandy and an obsessed upwardly mobile young teacher.
“A Tale of Two Cities” (1859): we know the story in advance, both the male doubles who desire the heroine and the causes and consequences of the French Revolution, and yet this warhorse of a historical novel is still supreme for compulsive pace and quaint Dickensian touches.
Artful Hatter: Which three Dickens characters are your favorites and what do you find most compelling about them?
Judith Wilt: Oh, hard to keep to three. Well then…. Estella in “Great Expectations” (1861): a frightening example of a story Dickens often tells – a parent (figure) who wishes to reconstruct a malleable child into a weapon against the word, in this case, the masculine world which betrayed Miss Havisham is to have its heart eaten out, over and over, by the “femme fatale” she creates Estella to be. The process is so far advanced by the time Estella becomes conscious of this that she can do nothing but warn the innocent men, or try to destroy her guilty self in a car-crash of a marriage to a brute.
Sidney Carton in “A Tale of Two Cities”: “it is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done”… a cliché of a character, and yet Dickens draws us powerfully, and anxiously, into the story of a man of talent and intelligence whose “will” is, for reasons we can only guess at, somehow broken by the conditions of modern professional life, so that he is mysteriously unable to comment cynically on the passing show: he can only take an action when it is for someone else. A male version, in some ways, of Estella’s problem.
And finally, Harold Skimpole of “Bleak House,” the comic figure of a minor artist blithely assuming that the universe, and more specifically his long-suffering friends, will support him. A half conscious Dickensian critique of his own art – and yet, Skimpole makes us all sit up and take notice as he argues that we active and virtuous people would be nowhere without someone of his disabilities and inadequacies to be the object of our charity and our competence. A character worthy of G. B. Shaw.