Månedsarkiv: marts 2019

Eliot, Arnold and Reich-Ranicki

In the last post I did a ‘micro-review’ of Philip Henderson’s wonderful little book ‘Literature’ from 1935. Likewise I hinted at plans to do some more micro-reviews of ‘1.50-dollar-books’, all from the February Dutch book-sale in the Heilig-Geist Church House in downtown Copenhagen.

Here we go then.

By George Watson. Penguin Books, England, 1962, 248p, paper-back in pocket-book format.

Here is another author – an 35-year old Australian lecturing in Cambridge – that entices you with his semingly endless stock of knowledge about literature as well as of acute thinking and common sense.

Like most always I can only bring a few specimens, that popped up more or less arbitrarily. From the first page of Chapter 9, ‘The Early Twentieth Century’ – and T.S.Eliot:

‘The question sounds eminently reasonable, but remains unanswerable: what is revolutionary in the criticism of T.S.Eliot? Everyone – except, apparently, Mr Eliot himself – can see that the critical tradition of the whole English-speaking world has been turned upside down by the trickle of articles and lectures – there has never, strictly, been a critical book – issuing from his pen since the First World War.

‘But the nature of Eliot’s influence as a critic has always been felt to be mysterious and indefinable. E.M.W.Tillyard, in his history of the Cambridge English School, has told how the essays in THE SACRED WOOD (1920), when they first appeared, ‘made me uncomfortable, and I knew they could not be ignored’.

‘Disciples – even enemies – have hardly succeded in identifying what is new and special in Eliot’s criticism, though they have been loud in praise and censure. The most discreet of major English critics, he has practised evasion and reticence with determined skill.

‘In his earliest period, positions are tentatively stated and argument disarmed by a certain irony; in his middle years, argument is openly spurned; and in the later years, since the Second World War, he has elaborately pretended never to have been a major critic at all.

‘Altogether, his critical career might have been planned as a vast hoax to tempt the historian into solemnities for the sport of the Philistines.

‘The key to Eliot’s reticence as a critic surely lies in the relationship betwen his criticism and his poetry. In a sence, his criticism is a smoke-screen to the rest of his career.

‘It misleads as much as it reveals about the quality of his poems, and the smoke-screen grows thicker as the years pass. By the 1950s Eliot’s determination to hide himself from the devotees of his poetry by means of critical red-herrings had grown so obvious as to suggest a motive: the intense love of privacy, perhaps, of a fastidious New Englander whose poetry has led him into the indignity of spiritual self-exposure.

‘We fear something of the kind as early as a Harvard lecture of 1932, where he attempted to disarm analysis of ASH-WEDNESDAY (1930), a poem intimately tracking the path of a religious conversion, by suggesting the addition to the poem of a Byronic motto:

“But the fact is that i have nothing planned,
“Except perhaps to be a moment merry…

‘The mask of the sage slips as such moments of embarrassing whimsy, to reveal the face of injured piety.’

From Eliot we move back in time a bit to Matthew Arnold, who has all of Chapter 7 dedicated to him, twenty pages in all. On page 160f we read:

‘A historical estimate of Arnold must always conclude him to have been the most influential force among the Victorian critics. But there seems no good reason now for accepting his claims to greatness as a critic.

‘Those who see civilization as a cause rather than a condition of mind will always be attracted to this most insistent and eloquent of its advocates. But to enjoin and encourage men to be critical is no more like being a good critic oneself than to urge men to be good is to be a serious contributor to the study of ethics.

‘Those who see in Arnold’s essays evidence of a major critical intelligence should set themselves to consider the following objections. Where, first, in the entire corpus of Arnold’s criticism, do we see ‘the great critical effort’ at work upon any English text – upon a single play of Shakespeare or poem of Milton, Wordsworth, or Keats?

‘The admirers of Johnson, Coleridge, even Hazlitt, can point to demonstrations of critical finesse. The admirer of Arnold’s criticism has to accept the word for the deed. Again, to seek out and advocate the best is not only hopelessly question-begging: it is also hopelessly out of key with Arnold’s own achievement.

‘The ESSAYS IN CRITICISM and the Biblical reinterpretations are not even remotely disinterested. They are works of passionate partisanship by a skilful, urbane, not always candid controversialist with a zest for opposition. Their virtues, which are considerable, are essentially polemical.

‘If Arnold had seriously tried to be ‘disinterested’, his career as a critic would not have happened at all. And it is no defence to argue that Arnold’s passionate partisanship is all in favour of such désintéressement.

‘There are Arnoldian values clearly implicit in his preference for French civilization over English, Joubert over Coleridge, Renan over St Paul, Wordsworth over Shelley, and Goethe over both. Those who cannot see such values as especially and distinctively Arnoldian disqualify themselves by their very discipleship from the task of judicious appraisal.

‘More than that, there is no coherent theory of poetry in Arnold’s criticism. This might not matter very much if, as in Johnson, a certain incoherence of ideas were compensated for by vigorous critical demonstration. As it is, Arnold’s notion of a poetry purged, like religion, of fact and dealing in analogical truths is explored in vacuous and tautological language.

‘For a critc who enjoyed the benefits of a public career, and who spent a dozen years in writing essays on religious and social questions, arnold is culpably vague concerning the proper subject of poetry. The 1853 preface is free with advice to poets to be ‘particular, precise, and firm’ – about what?

‘Arnolds own answer, in this first of his critical essays, is as ‘general, indeterminate, and faint’ as could well be. The true subject of poetry, he claims, is ‘an excellent action’ appealing to ‘the great primary human affections’.

‘This account, surprisingly, is never enlarged upon in the religious essays, though an image of perfection emerges in the ‘sweetly reasonable’ Jesus of LITERATURE AND DOGMA (1873), a figure that combines the virtues of a liberal Protestantism with the Hellenist ethos of Rugby School.

‘It may be – and reference to the poems would, on the whole, support this claim – that an action is ‘excellent’ to the extent that it recommends such values as loyalty and openmindedness. But, given Arnold’s generous use of such terms as ‘good’, ‘true’, ‘sound’, and ‘sweet’, it is hardly fairminded of him to leave us so profoundly in the dark concerning the nature of light.

‘The deep voids and gaping incongruities of Arnoldian criticism are so evident that they call for explanation rather than analysis. It is well worth asking how it happened: Arnold remains in most respects the most seductive of the great Victorian pundits, more variously and wittily intelligent than those great juggernauts Ruskin and Carlyle. He is almost never dull. And the vast contradictions that underlie his programme for the poetry and the civilization of England do not in any way dimish its fascination’.

Finally a few samples from

2. ÜBER RUHESTÖRER – JUDEN IN DER DEUTSCHEN LITERATUR. By Marcel Reich-Ranicki. 1973, Piper, München. 103 p., paper-back in pocket-book format.

First a bit about the author (p.99):

‘Marcel Reich-Ranicki wurde am 2. Juni 1920 in Wloclawek an der Weichsel geboren. Sein Vater stammte aus Polen, seine Mutter aus Deutschland. Ab 1929 wohnte die Familie in Berlin. Im Herbst 1938, kurz nach dem Abitur am Berliner Fichte-Gymnasium, wurde Reich-Ranicki nach Polen deportiert. Von 1940 bis 1943 lebte er im Warschauer Getto, spaeter – nach der Flucht aus dem Getto – illegal ebenfals in Warschau.

‘Seine literarische Arbeit begann nach dem Krieg in Polen. Zunaechst als Verlagslektor taetig, war er ab 1951 freier Schriftsteller in Warschau. Anfang 1953 wurde gegen ihn aus politischen Gruenden ein generelles Publikationsverbot erlassen, das bis Mitte 1954 in Kraft blieb….

‘Im Jahre 1958 siedelte Reich-Ranicki nach der Bundesrepublik um. Er wohnt seit 1959 in Hamburg. Nachdem er zuerst fuer die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung und Die Welt gearbeitet hatte, ist er seit 1960 staendiger Literaturkritiker der Wochenzeitung Die Zeit.

‘Ausserdem veroeffentlichte er Essays in den Zeitschiften Neue Rundschau, Der Monat, Merkur und Neue Deutsche Hefte sowie in zahlreichen Sammelbanden. Seine Arbeiten sind auch in englischer, franzoesicher, italienischer, daenischer, japanischer und hebraeischer Uebersetzung erschienen. Er war von 1965 bis 1972 Mitarbeiter der Encyclopaedia Britannica.’

Here are two small specimens from Kapitel 1. ‘AUSSENSEITER UND PROVOKATEURE’ (p.13f/p.15):

‘Von Heine stammt das Bonmot: “Die Juden, wenn sie gut, sind sie besser als die Christen, wenn sie schlecht, sind sie schlimmer -“. Das mag eine hoechst fragfuerdige Verallgemeinerung sein; worauf sie aber letzlich abzielt, ist so abwegig nicht.

‘Denn Heine duerfte nichts anderes gemeint haben als die beruehmte und beruechtigte Intensitaet der juden, ihre bisweilen verblueffende und sogar als erschreckend empfundene Radikalitaet, ihre Neigung zur Kompromisslosigkeit und ihren gelegentlich bewunderten und haeufig missbilligten Hang zum Extremismus. Nur dass alle diese Eigenheiten und Tendenzen wohl eher im Intellektuellen und im Aesthetischen zum Vorschein kamen und kommen als in dem Bereich des Moralischen, auf den Heine offenbar anspielte.’

And from page 21:

“In den Jugendjahren eines jeden deutschen Juden gibt es einen schmerzlichen Augenblick, an den er sich zeitlebens erinnert: wenn im zum ersten Male voll bewusst wird, dass er als Buerger zweiter Klasse in die Welt getreten ist, und dass keine Tuechtigkeit und kein Verdienst ihn aus dieser Lage befreien kann”

‘Auch wenn der deutsche Jude, der diese Worte schrieb, mitnichten ein Buerger zweiter Klasse geblieben ist – es handelt sich um Walther Rathenau, den Reichsaussenminister, der freilich 1922, wenige Monate nach seiner Ernennung, ermordet wurde -, scheint mir seine Aeusserung hoechst aufschlussreich, denn sie akzentuert ohne Umschweife die psychischen Voraussetzungen, die in einem grossen Teil der von Juden stammenden deutschen Literatur ihre direkte und, haeufiger noch, indirekte Widerspiegelung gefunden haben.’

It’s a pleasure to read the crystal clear german of Mr Reich-Ranicki. Only a modern reader might perhaps have wished for a slightly less lopsided treatment of difficulties of the Jews in Europe through the ages; it generally seems that Mr Reich-Ranicki honestly believes these difficulties emanates solely from the Europeans and never from the Jews themselves?

In the next post I’ll endeavour to manage a few more micro-reviews (or micro-micro-reviews) of the books/booklets acquired at the February-sale.


Crossposted on www.gamleboeger.dk and http://blocnotesimma.wordpress.com

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Wiking Seafarer, Saxon Chieftain and Charles Dickens.

Tonight my dreams were rather helter-skelter and obviously mostly relating to activities the day and evening before. But in the early a.m. I had a clairvoyant vision, or rather a flash-vision. Someone said: ‘I (or we) will send one to kill you’.

Well – great, thanks for telling. But it’s ofcourse really nothing new, as this has been on the agenda for the last decade, and then some.

But evidently I am very heedful of warnings like that – nocturnal or not. After all the mob are real clever, they are doing gods work and can walk on water. Surely not to be trifled with?

However it ofcourse makes me real happy to realize that Danish citizens now have a thoroughly competent, rightful and honourable – perhaps even honest? – M.O.J, – and not just bums hopping from one pub to another?

But it’s now late in the p.m., and it’s a very nice day here in downtown Copenhagen. Bright and sunny, although a bit windy and chilly.

In a recent post (link 1) I told a little bit about some of the ‘1.50-dollar-books’ found in the most recent dutch book-sale in the Heilig-Geist Church House here in central Copenhagen.

I only managed to mention a minor part of the acquisitions that day. Hence a few more are comming up:

1. LITERATURE AND A CHANGING CIVILISATION. By Philip Henderson. London, 1935, John Lane, 180 p. Original cloth.

This small book is really quite unassuming. In fact so much that I almost passed it by – which however would have been a bloody shame. Because Mr. Henderson seems to be a very sensible guy indeed.

He appears to be replete with common sense and also an ability and a desire to think fairly and squarely and independently?

Ofcourse I can only give a few small specimens of this brilliant little book. But in fact, almost no matter what page you happen to open on you are surprised by the authors common sense and acute observations.

Chapter II ‘Feudalism and the Church’ (page 18) begins like this:

‘By the end of the seventh century the Anglo-Saxon pirates had been settled in Britain for about two hundred years.

‘The legends that they had brought with them were of the same order as the legends brought by the Greeks into Aegean, telling of the exploits of supermen and heroes against giants and monsters.

‘Like the Greek legends they were sung to the harp in the hall of the chief, or baron, by wandering bards called scops. They differed from the Greek legends, however, by the heavy grey skies, the bogs and fens of their northern landscape, and by the prevalent mist through which shapes of horror loom and seem to cloud and confuse their very language.

‘But after the Christianisation of the Anglo-Saxons at the end of the sixth century, latin became the language of learning among them, and such men as Bede of Northumbria wrote with a clear and noble simplicity that is free from the heavy weather of their poetry, though the terror of the harsh northern landscape is still there.

‘Thus in Bede’s account of the conversion of Northumbria to Christianity, one of the nobles at Aedwin’s court speaks as follows:

“So, O king, does the present life of man on earth seem to me, in comparison with the time which is unknown to us, as though a sparrow flew swiftly through the hall, coming in by one door and going out by the other, and you, the while, sat at meat with your captains and liegemen, in wintry weather, with a fire burning in your midst and heating the room, the storm raging out of doors and driving snow and rain before it.

“For the time for which he is within, the bird is sheltered from the storm, but after this short while of calm he flies out again into the cold and is seen no more.

“Thus the life of man is visible for a moment, but we know not what comes before it or follows after it. If, then, this new doctrine brings something more of certainty, it deserves to be followed.”

‘It should be mentioned, perhaps, that though Bede wrote in Latin, he was the disciple of the Irish monks settled in Jarrow, and his early training was partly Celtic.

‘But while cloistered scholars were leading lives of extreme simplicity in grey stone monasteries by the sea and in the greenest and most delightful parts of the country, writing ecclesiastical histories, lives of the saints and epics of part wars and marvels, the working population of Britain continued man’s eternal struggle with the earth and the sea.

‘Familiar as we are with the idealisation of the sea in English poetry, there are few poems which give us the stark reality as well as the strange lure of sea-life so well as the Anglo-Saxon SEAFARER.

With a bitter breast-care I have been abiding:
Many seats of sorrow in my ship have known!
Frightful was the whirl of waves when it was my part
Narrow watch at night to keep on my vessel’s prow
When it rushed the rock along. By the rigid cold
Fast my feet were pinched, fettered by the frost,
By the chains of cold. Care was sighing then
Hot my heart around; hunger rent to shreds within
Courage in me, me sea-wearied! This the man knows not,
He to whom it happens happiest on earth,
How I, carked with care, in the ice-cold sea,
Overwent the winter on my wander-ways,
All forlorn of happiness, all bereft of loving kinsmen,
Hung about with icicles; flew the hail in showers.
Nothing heard I there save the howling of the sea,
And the ice-chilled billow, ‘whiles the crying of the swan!
All the glee I got me was the gannet’s scream,
And the swoughing of the seal, ‘stead of mirth of men;
‘Stead of the mead-drinking, moaning of the sea-mew.
(Stopford Brooke’s translaltion)

‘But while another monk in another Northumbrian monastery was celebrating the deeds of the Danish heroes of Gothland in THE LAY OF BEOWULF, whick tells of the victory of the Franks over the Goths between 512 and 520, the Danes themselves came down on the north-east coast of Britain in one of their terrible raids, burning, killing and destroying and rudely breaking in upon the quiet cloistral life that had sheltered Bede, Alcuin and the author of BEOWULF.

‘But these wars in their turn produced a crop of epics of which the fragment of THE BATTLE OF MALDON that has survived, celebtaring the defeat of the East Saxons by the Danes in 993, can be described as part of a rough ILIAD.

‘The poem, record of defeat though it is, is full of gaiety and a wild joy in battle, for when the Saxon chief is mortally wounded he breaks into a laugh and thanks God that he has been allowed to strike great blows before his end.’

To another age entirely, that of the industrial revolution, the following observations pertains (page 83):

‘The novels of Charles Dickens, good bourgeois though he was, partially revealed the appalling squalor in which the lower stratas of the population were sunk.

‘Having himself known what poverty could mean, the terror of once more relapsing into that state became the mainspring of his enormous creative industry, though the root causes of that poverty, buried in the viciousness of the whole enonomic system, are largely obscured in his novels by the sticky mess of sentimental ‘cosiness’ and raucous humour which recommended him to the vast middle-class reading public of his day.

‘Though one can recognise Dickens as an extremely powerful writer, he is, for a generation nurtured on Bernard Shaw, D.H.Lawrence and Aldous Huxley, of all the Victorians the most difficult to read.’

Would have liked to bring a few more samples, but this has to suffice for today.

I was planning to likewise tell a bit about two more, small books:

2. ÜBER RUHESTÖRER – JUDEN IN DER DEUTSCHEN LITERATUR. By Marcel Reich-Ranicki. München, Piper, 1973. 103 p. Pocket-book format.

3. THE LITERARY CRITICS. A STUDY OF ENGLISH DESCRIPTIVE CRITICISM. By George Watson, Penguin Books, England, 1962. 248 p. Pocket-book format.

Both of these titles, incidentally, seem to be of much the same quality-stock as the before mentioned. But due to an appointment I have to leave them to next time.

Thanks for your time and be safe!

Link 1.

La Chanson de Roland des Normands?