Sunday, August 06, 2017

Life Changing Experience: Speaking of the devil – Mark Vernon

When it comes to mental ill-health, medical science has dramatically failed to uncover agreed explanations for conditions from depression to anxiety, schizophrenia to psychosis. It can be shocking to learn quite how little is known. Research has revealed the causal pathways for only a handful of conditions, such as dementia, when the grey matter demonstrably decays. But stick a melancholic brain in a scanner and compare it with another that leaps out of bed in the morning, and the scan will tell you nothing. It’s a guilty secret for the science that grabs so much public attention, but it simply can’t tell the difference. When it comes to mental ill-health, the hard science can be little better than phrenology.

Latitudes of Poetry: `Profit Was a By-Product of the Pleasure'

“President [Theodore] Roosevelt was an omnivorous reader. The legend holds that he read a book a day, and while that might be an exaggeration, it seems unlikely that any president in the century since he held the office read as much as he, or in such a wide variety of fields, including poetry.”

This comes not from a biography of the twenty-sixth president of the United States but from Scott Donaldson’sEdwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet’s Life (2007). Donaldson is retelling the familiar story of how, in 1904, Kermit Roosevelt, the president’s son, brought Robinson’s second poetry collection, The Children of the Night (1897), to his father’s attention. TR persuaded Charles Scribner’s Sons to republish the volume, and reviewed it himself in Outlookmagazine. Roosevelt got Robinson’s name wrong ("Edwin," not “Edward”), but he rightly detected “an undoubted touch of genius” in the poems. Roosevelt arranged for Robinson to receive a sinecure at the New York Customs House, with a $2,000 annual stipend. In 1910, Robinson repaid the debt by dedicating his next collection of poems, The Town Down the River, to the former president.

Roosevelt wasn’t being strictly altruistic. He was the only American president who, for significant periods, lived as a professional writer, earning much of his living with his pen. He understood the teetering balancing act the writing life might pose for a poet like Robinson. But Roosevelt also had good taste in literature (though he did favor the almost unreadable Jack London), and he had the interests of his country at heart. We might think of him as a literary patriot with an open mind (he loved Gibbon). The president writes about Robinson in a 1905 letter to James Hulme Canfield (Theodore Roosevelt: Letters and Speeches, Library of America, 2004): “. . . –I hunted him up, found he was having a very hard time, and put him in the Treasury Department. I think he will do his work all right, but I am free to say that he was put in less with a view to the good of the government service than with a view to helping American letters.”

In 1903, Roosevelt made his literary tastes explicit in a letterto the president of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler. He fills three pages with a list of the books he has read over the previous two years, including Herodotus, Plutarch, Dante, Shakespeare, Keats, Browning and Carlyle. At the end of his list, Roosevelt writes:

“There! that is the catalogue; about as interesting as Homer’s Catalogue of the Ships, and with about as much method in it as there seems in a superficial glance to be in an Irish stew. The great comfort, old man, is that you need not read it and that you need not answer this!”

Dedicated, unpretentious, pleasure-driven reading remains a theme across Roosevelt’s life, most memorably articulated inTheodore Roosevelt, an Autobiography (1913):  

“Books are almost as individual as friends. There is no earthly use in laying down general laws about them. Some meet the needs of one person, and some of another; and each person should beware of the booklover's besetting sin, of what Mr. Edgar Allan Poe calls `the mad pride of intellectuality,’ taking the shape of arrogant pity for the man who does not like the same kind of books.”

That characterizes nine-tenths of book chat in general and an even greater proportion of the blogosphere’s bookish precincts. Later in the same paragraph Roosevelt writes: “Personally, the books by which I have profited infinitely more than by any others have been those in which profit was a by-product of the pleasure; that is, I read them because I enjoyed them, because I liked reading them, and the profit came in as part of the enjoyment.”

Here he echoes Dr. Johnson, who is quoted by Boswell as saying: “. . . what we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.” And Roosevelt, bless him, found Dickens a confounding irritant. In a letter to his son Kermit in 1908 he writes:

“. . . he had himself a thick streak of maudlin sentimentality of the kind that, as somebody phrased it, `made him wallow naked in the pathetic.’ It always interests me about Dickens to think how much first-class work he did and how almost all of it was mixed up with every kind of cheap, second-rate matter. I am very fond of him. There are innumerable characters that he has created which symbolize vices, virtues, follies, and the like almost as well as the characters in Bunyan; and therefore I think the wise thing to do is simply to skip the bosh and twaddle and vulgarity and untruth, and get the benefit out of the rest.”

[Here is a marvelous portrait of Roosevelt the reader and dog lover, taken in Colorado in 1905.]

 The most valuable service a reader can perform after reading a good book is to share its existence with another likely reader. That’s what Boris Dralyuk did in his Aug. 2 post on the recent death of Igor Golomstock, a writer new to me. Boris describes Golomstock as “one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met.” Go here to read two chapters from his Memoirs of an Old Pessimist (2011) translated by Boris from the Russian. Born in 1929 in Tver, then known as Kalinin, Golomstock lived for four years in Kolyma, the Arctic region in far northeastern Russia used by Stalin to for Gulag labor camps.

With Andrei Sinyavsky, Golomstock co-authored the first book on Picasso to be published in the Soviet Union. He immigrated to England in 1972 and is best known forTotalitarian Art: In the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy and the People’s Republic of China (Collins Harvill, 1990). Translated into English by Robert Chandler, it serves as a nonfiction complement to Vasily Grossman’s great novel Life and Fate (also translated by Chandler), which details the moral and political parity between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. I’m reading Totalitarian Art. The thesis is familiar – tyrants think alike, regardless of ideology -- but Golomstock’s documentation is bold and detailed, with none of the academic gibberish we’ve come to expect from art historians. He makes plain the systematic imposition of high-minded, propagandistic poshlust, to use the Russian word popularized by Nabokov. In the chapter titled “From Word to Action,” Golomstock writes:

“Who knows how many great artists, together with their creations, perished under Stalin without any legal enactments, ratified lists or public spectacles? And on what scales can one compare the burden of crimes of the different hues of totalitarianism? Nadezhda Iakovlevna Mandelstam – the widow of Osip Mandelstam, the great poet who died in one of the camps – passed through many circles of the Soviet Hell and summarized her experience as follows: `One has to live our life in order to learn one truth: while corpses are lying about on the streets and main roads, one can go on living. What is most terrible of all is when you don’t see the corpses.’ It is very possible that inhabitants of Germany who survived Nazism would not agree with this Russian aphorism.”

The Mandelstam passage is drawn from the second volume of her memoirs, Hope Abandoned (trans. Max Hayward, 1973). In Donald Rayfield’s edition of The Garnett Book of Russian Verse: A Treasury of Russian Poets from 1730 to 1996 (2000), he includes a prose translation of an untitled 1931 poem by Mandelstam (who is notoriously difficult, I’m told, to translate):

“Preserve my speech for its aftertaste of unhappiness and smoke, for the pitch of collective patience, for the conscientious tar of labour. Thus water in Novgorod wells has to be black and sweetened so that by Christmas a star’s seven fins are reflected in it.

“And for that, my father, my friend and rough helper, I, an unrecognised brother, a black sheep in the people’s family, promise to make such rough-wood well-timbers for the Tatars to lower princes down them in a bucket.

“As long as these frozen executioner’s blocks loved me – as, aiming to kill, they knock down skittles in an alley, -- for that I’ll spend all my life even in an iron shirt and will find a big axe in the forests for a Petrine execution.”