Poem

NASA's SOFIA telescope and the FORCAST instrument captured this color-composite image of the planetary nebula Minkowski 2-9 (M2-9) showing a dying sun-like star.

A star in the sky. How many words and tears,
What promises, what wishes made upon it,
How many heart-cries! For what endless years!
What dashings-off of verse and rhyme and sonnet!

Yet to the clear mind, too, it signs from heaven:
The Magi followed it with reverence;
So did the navigators…Einstein, even,
Could not without some fixed stars make sense.

Ah, to select a theme that once for all
Would captivate all men without exception –
Saint, atheist, hero, coward, freeman, thrall –
And then to realize one’s high conception
On the night’s canvas with a dot, just one.

What artist would not own himself outdone?

Nikolai Morshen (1917-2001)
The Bitter Air of Exile: Russian Writers in the West, 1922-1972

Photo: 29 March 2012: NASA’s SOFIA telescope and the FORCAST instrument captured this color-composite image of the planetary nebula Minkowski 2-9 (M2-9) showing a dying sun-like star.

For Vladimir Nabokov’s Birthday

Photo: Vladimir Nabokov with butterfly doodles by the author (1920s)

That Sunday morning, at half past ten,
Two cars crossed the creek and entered the glen.

In the first was Art Longwood, a local florist,
With his children and wife (now Mrs. Deforest).

In the one that followed, a ranger saw
Art’s father, stepfather and father-in-law.

The three old men walked off to the cove.
Through tinkling weeds Art slowly drove.

Fair was the morning, with bright clouds afar.
Children and comics emerged from the car.

Silent Art, who could stare at a thing all day,
Watched a bug climb a stalk and fly away.

Pauline had asthma, Paul used a crutch.
They were cute little rascals but could not run much.

“I wish,” said his mother to crippled Paul,
“Some man would teach you to pitch that ball.”

Silent Art took the ball and tossed it high.
It stuck in a tree that was passing by.

And the grave green pilgrim turned and stopped.
The children waited, but no ball dropped.

“I never climbed trees in my timid prime,”
Thought Art; and forthwith started to climb.

Now and then his elbow or knee could be seen
In a jigsaw puzzle of blue and green.

Up and up Art Longwood swarmed and shinned,
And the leaves said yes to the questioning wind.

What tiaras of gardens! What torrents of light!
How accessible ether! How easy flight!

His family circled the tree all day.
Pauline concluded: “Dad climbed away.”

None saw the delirious celestial crowds
Greet the hero from earth in the snow of the clouds.

Mrs. Longwood was getting a little concerned.
He never came down. He never returned.

She found some change at the foot of the tree.
The children grew bored. Paul was stung by a bee.

The old men walked over and stood looking up,
Each holding five cards and a paper cup.

Cars on the highway stopped, backed, and then
Up a rutted road waddled into the glen.

And the tree was suddenly full of noise,
Conventioners, fishermen, freckled boys.

Anacondas and pumas were mentioned by some,
And all kinds of humans continued to come:

Tree surgeons, detectives, the fire brigade.
An ambulance parked in the dancing shade.

A drunken rogue with a rope and a gun
Arrived on the scene to see justice done.

Explorers, dendrologists – all were there;
And a strange pale girl with gypsy hair.

And from Cape Fear to Cape Flattery
Every paper had: Man Lost in Tree.

And the sky-bound oak (where owls had perched
And the moon dripped gold) was felled and searched.

They discovered some inchworms, a red-cheeked gall,
And an ancient nest with a new-laid ball.

They varnished the stump, put up railings and signs.
Restrooms nestled in roses and vines.

Mrs. Longwood, retouched, when the children died,
Became a photographer’s dreamy bride.

And now the Deforests, with four old men,
Like regular tourists visit the glen;

Munch their lunches, look up and down,
Wash their hands, and drive back to town.

Vladimir Nabokov
The Ballad of Longwood Glen (1957)
Selected Poems

Click here to hear Nabokov read the work (4:43)

Photo: Vladimir Nabokov with butterfly doodles by the author (1920s)

Atoms and Void and Nothing Else

Road

The Roman historian Titus Livy likened history to a collection of “fine things to take as models” and “base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.” The contemporary American novelist John Crowley carries the thought another two thousand years along the road to who knows where, suggesting that “the past is the new future…its lessons not simple or singular, a big landscape of human possibility, generative, inexhaustible.”

Fortunately so. We have little else with which to build the future except the driftwood of the past, salvaging from the journey across the frontiers of the millennia what mankind has found to be useful or beautiful or true, on scraps of papyrus and bronze coins, in confessions voluntary and coerced, in five-act plays and three-part songs.

America’s Founding Fathers exploited the resource of history as diligently as their descendants exploited the lands and forests of the Ohio River Valley and the trans-Mississippi frontier. They framed their several envisionings of a republic (Hamilton’s and Franklin’s as well as those of Jefferson and Adams) on blueprints found in their readings of Livy, Cicero, Plutarch, and Seneca.

So in its turn the Italian Renaissance derived from the rediscovery of classical antiquity. The latter progression supplies the scholar Stephen Greenblatt with the premise for last year’s best-selling The Swerve, which accounts for the death and resurrection of On the Nature of Things, 7,400 lines of lyric but unrhymed verse composed by the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus in the first century B.C. Greenblatt subtitles his book How the World Became Modern, attributing the metamorphosis in large part to the recovery of Lucretius’ poem in a German monastery in 1417 by Possio Bracciolini, Italian humanist, Vatican functionary, and apostolic scribe.

Lucretius had infused his poem with the thought of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher teaching his students in Athens in the fourth century B.C. that the purpose of life was the embrace of beauty and pleasure – that the elementary particles of matter (“the seeds of things”) are eternal. Everything that exists – the sun and the moon, waterflies, ziggurats, Mother and the flag – is made of atoms in motion, constantly colliding and combining with one another in an inexhaustible variety of form and substance. The universe consists of “atoms and void and nothing else.” No afterlife, no divine retribution or reward, nothing other than a vast turmoil of creation and destruction, the ceaseless making and remaking of despots and matinee idols.

To the modern mind atomic theory is old news, as it was to the schools of Stoic and Epicurean thought during the reign of Augustus Caesar. Christianity dispatched it to Hell, reconfiguring the pursuit of pleasure as sin, the meaning of life as pain. By recovering De rerum natura to the land of the living, pooling its resources with those dormant in the works of Ovid, Seneca, and Plato, the Renaissance redrafted the contract between man and nature, its embrace of truth as beauty and beauty as truth made manifest in the glory of its painting, sculpture, music, architecture, and literature. Over the course of the next six centuries Lucretius’ poem finds further development and expression in Machiavelli’s political theory, Montaigne’s essays, Shakespeare’s plays, Newton’s mathematics, and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

The circumstances at hand in the early years of the twenty-first century suggest that time is ripe for another redrafting of the contract between man and nature, with any luck of a magnitude comparable to the one that gave birth to the Renaissance. For the past fifty years it has been apparent to the lookouts on the watchtowers of Western civilization that the finite resources of the planet cannot accommodate either the promise or the theory of infinite growth – a.k.a. the American Dream. The simple arithmetic (too many people coming into the world, not enough water, oil, food, phosphorus) underwrites the vast landscape of trouble listed under the headings of worldwide environmental degradation and financial collapse. I read the relevant policy papers – on health, education, debt, poverty, homeland security, climate change, the extinction of species, the wars of all against all – and I notice that they tend toward a common awareness (dimly grasped but distinctly felt) that a global consumer society, if left to its own devices, must devour the earth. Not with malice aforethought, or as a matter of ideology, but because that is its métier – the scorpion that kills the frog on whose back it is crossing the river because it knows not what else to do.

The intimations of mortality lurking in the depths of the policy papers lead in turn to the recognition of the capitalist economy as an historical construct, and therefore, like a college reunion and the Colossus of Rhodes, a collision of atoms en route to recombination or the void. A story with a beginning (in sixteenth-century Holland), a middle (the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century industrial revolutions in England and America), and an end (foreshadowed by the financial convulsions of the past twenty years at all points on the free-market compass). Sensing the approach of maybe something terrible slouching toward Wall Street to be born, the lookouts look for salvation in technologies as yet undreamed of by man or machine. My guess is that they’re looking in the wrong direction. To acknowledge the truth of the old Arab proverb that says we have less reason to fear what might happen tomorrow than to beware what happened yesterday is also to say that we have more reason to look to the past – history as the phoenix in the attic – for the hope of the future.

Lewis Lapham
Ignorance of Things Past
Harper’s Magazine, May 2012

We Do Language

 Photo: Manuscript of first page of J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 (1721)We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

Toni Morrison
Nobel Lecture, 1993

Photo: Page of a handwritten score from Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G (1721)  by J.S. Bach

On Inspiration

Painting by Norman Rockwell: The Connoisseur (1962)

Inspiration

The awakening, quickening, or creative impulse, esp. as manifested in high artistic achievement.

Webster, Second Ed., unabridged, 1957

The enthusiasm that sweeps away (entraine) poets. Also a term of physiology (insufflation): “…wolves and dogs howl only by inspiration; one can easily ascertain this by causing a little dog to howl close to one’s face (Buffon).”

Littré, éd. intégrale, 1963

The enthusiasm, concentration, and unusual manifestation of the mental faculties (umstvennyh sil).

Dal, Revised Ed., St. Petersburg, 1904

A creative upsurge. [Examples:] Inspired poet. Inspired socialistic work.

Ozhegov, Russian dictionary, Moscow, 1960

A special study, which I do not plan to conduct, would reveal, probably, that inspiration is seldom dwelt upon nowadays even by the worst reviewers of our best prose. I say “our” and I say “prose” because I am thinking of American works of fiction, including my own stuff. It would seem that this reticence is somehow linked up with a sense of decorum. Conformists suspect that to speak of “inspiration” is as tasteless and old-fashioned as to stand up for the Ivory Tower. Yet inspiration exists as do towers and tusks.

One can distinguish several types of inspiration, which intergrade, as all things do in this fluid and interesting world of ours, while yielding gracefully to a semblance of classification. A prefatory glow, not unlike some benign variety of the aura before an epileptic attack, is something the artist learns to perceive very early in life. This feeling of tickly well-being branches through him like the red and the blue in the picture of a skinned man under Circulation. As it spreads, it banishes all awareness of physical discomfort – youth’s toothache as well as the neuralgia of old age. The beauty of it is that, while completely intelligible (as if it were connected with a known gland or led to an expected climax), it has neither source nor object. It expands, glows, and subsides without revealing its secret. In the meantime, however, a window has opened, an auroral wind has blown, every exposed nerve has tingled. Presently all dissolves: the familiar worries are back and the eyebrow redescribes its arc of pain; but the artist knows he is ready.

A few days elapse. The next stage of inspiration is something ardently anticipated – and no longer anonymous. The shape of the new impact is indeed so definite that I am forced to relinquish metaphors and resort to specific terms. The narrator forefeels what he is going to tell. The forefeeling can be defined as an instant vision turning into rapid speech. If some instrument were to render this rare and delightful phenomenon, the image would come as a shimmer of exact details, and the verbal part as a tumble of merging words. The experienced writer immediately takes it down and, in the process of doing so, transforms what is little more than a running blur into gradually dawning sense, with epithets and sentence construction growing as clear and trim as they would be on the printed page:

Sea crashing, retreating with shuffle of pebbles, Juan and beloved young whore – is her name, as they say, Adora? is she Italian, Roumanian, Irish? – asleep in his lap, his opera cloak pulled over her, candle messily burning in its tin cup, next to it a paper-wrapped bunch of long roses, his silk hat on the stone floor near a patch of moonlight, all this in a corner of a decrepit, once palatial whorehouse, Villa Venus, on a rocky Mediterranean coast, a door standing ajar gives on what seems to be a moonlit gallery but is really a half-demolished reception room with a broken outer wall, through a great rip in it the naked sea is heard as a panting space separated from time, it dully booms, dully withdraws dragging its platter of wet pebbles.

This I jotted down one morning at the very end of 1965, a couple of months before the novel began to flow. What I give above is its first throb, the strange nucleus of the book that was to grow around it in the course of the next three years. Much of that growth obviously differs in coloration and lighting from the foreglimpsed scene, whose structural centrality, however, is emphasized, with a kind of pleasing neatness, by the fact that it now exists as an inset scene right in the middle of the novel (which was entitled at first Villa Venus, then The Veens, then Ardor, and finally Ada).

Reverting to a more generalized account, one sees inspiration accompanying the author in his actual work on the new book. She accompanies him (for by now we are in the presence of a nubile muse) by means of successive flashes to which the writer may grow so accustomed that a sudden fizzle in the domestic illumination may strike him as an act of betrayal.

One and the same person can compose parts of one and the same story or poem, either in his head or on paper, pencil or pen in hand (I am told there exist fantastic performers who actually type out their immediate product or, still more incredibly, dictate it, warm and bubbly, to a typist or to a machine!). Some prefer the bathtub to the study and the bed to the windy moor – the place does not matter much, it is the relationship between the brain and the hand that poses some odd problems. As John Shade says somewhere: “I am puzzled byte difference between two methods of composing: A, the kind which goes on solely in the poet’s mind, a testing of performing words, while he is soaping a third time one leg, and B, the other kind, much more decorous, when he’s in his study writing with a pen. In method B the hand supports the thought, the abstract battle is concretely fought. The pen stops in mid-air, then swoops to bar a canceled sunset or restore a star, and thus it physically guides the phrase toward faint daylight through the inky maze. But method A is agony! The brain is soon enclosed in a steel cap of pain. A muse in overalls directs the drill which grinds, and which no effort of the will can interrupt, while the automaton is taking off what he has just put on or walking briskly to the corner store to buy the paper he has read before. Why is it so? Is it, perhaps, because in penless work there is no pen-poised pause…Or is the process deeper, with no desk to prop the false and hoist the picturesque? For there are those mysterious moments when, too weary to delete, I drop my pen; I ambulate – and by some mute command the right word flutes and perches on my hand.”

This is, of course, where inspiration comes in. The words which on various occasions, during some fifty years of composing prose, I have put together and then canceled may have formed by now in the Realm of Rejection (a foggy but not quite unlikely land north of nowhere) a huge library of scrapped phrases, characterized and concorded only by their wanting the benison of inspiration.

No wonder, then, that a writer who is not afraid to confess that he has known inspiration and can readily distinguish it from the froth of a fit, as well as from the humdrum comfort of the “right word,” should seek the bright trace of that thrill in the work of fellow authors. The bolt of inspiration strikes invariably: you observe the flash in this or that piece of great writing, be it a stretch of fine verse, or a passage in Joyce or Tolstoy, or a phrase in a short story, or a spurt of genius in the paper of a naturalist, of a scholar, or even in a book reviewer’s article. I have in view, naturally, not the hopeless hacks we all know – but people who are creative artists in their own right, such as, say, Trilling (with his critical opinions I am not concerned), or Thurber (e.g. in Voices of Revolution: “Art does not rush to the barricades”).

In recent years numerous publishers have had the pleasure of sending me their anthologies – homing pigeons really, for all of them contain samples of the recipient’s writings. Amongst the thirty or so of those collections, some flaunt pretentious labels (“Fables of Our Time” or “Themes and Targets”); others are presented more soberly (“Great Tales”) and their blurbs promise the reader that he will meet cranberry pickers and hunkies; but almost in each of them there are at least two or three first-rate stories.

Age is chary, but it is also forgetful, and in order to choose instantly what to reread on a night of Orphic thirst and what to reject for ever, I am careful to put an A, or a C, or a D-minus, against this or that item in the anthology. The profusion of high marks reconfirms me every time in the exhilarating belief that at the present time (say, for the last fifty years) the greatest short stories have been produced not in England, not in Russia, and certainly not in France, but in this country.

Examples are the stained-glass windows of knowledge. From a small number of A-plus stories I have chosen half-a-dozen particular favorites of mine. I list their titles below and parenthesize briefly the passage – or one of the passages – in which genuine afflation appears to be present, no matter how trivial the inspired detail may look to a dull criticule.

John Cheever’s “The Country Husband” (“Jupiter [a black retriever] crashed through the tomato vines with the remains of a felt hat in his mouth.” The story is really a miniature novel beautifully traced, so that the impression of there being a little too many things happening in it is completely redeemed by the satisfying coherence of its thematic interlacings.)

John Updike’s “The Happiest I’ve Been” (“The important thing, rather than the subject, was the conversation itself, the quick agreements, the slow nods, the weave of different memories; it was like one of these Panama baskets shaped underwater around a worthless stone.” I like so many of Updike’s stories that it was difficult to choose one for demonstration and even more difficult to settle upon its most inspired bit.)

J. D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (“Stopping only to sink a foot in a soggy, collapsed castle…” This is a great story, too famous and fragile to be measured here by a casual conchometrist.)

Herbert Gold’s “Death in Miami Beach” (“Finally we die, opposable thumbs and all.” Or to do even better justice to this admirable piece; “Barbados turtles as large as children…crucified like thieves…the tough leather of their skin does not disguise their present helplessness and pain.”)

John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse” (“What is the story’s point? Ambrose is ill. He perspires in the dark passages; candied apples-on-a-stick, delicious-looking, disappointing to eat. Funhouses need men’s and ladies’ rooms at interval.” I had some trouble in pinning down what I needed amidst the lovely swift speckled imagery.)

Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” (“…and the fatal merciless passionate ocean.” Although there are several other divine vibrations in this story that so miraculously blends an old cinema film with a personal past, the quoted phrase wins its citation for power and impeccable rhythm.)

I must add that I would be very pleased if a Professor of Literature to test his students at the start or the close of the term would request them to write a paper discussing the following points:

1. What is so good about those six stories? (Refrain from referring to “commitment,” “ecology,” “realism,” “symbols,” and so forth).

2. What other passages in them bear the mark of inspiration?

3. How exactly was that poor lap dog made to howl in those lace-cuffed hands, close to that periwig?

Vladimir Nabokov
Strong Opinions

Painting by Norman RockwellThe Connoisseur (1962)

Make Your Own Bible

Painting by Auguste Renoir: Reading (c. 1890-95)

Make your own bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Letter to Margaret Fuller, 1849

Painting by Auguste Renoir: Reading (c. 1890-95)