Monday, June 29, 2015

Robert Burton and The Anatomy of Melancholy, always relevant

As I headed home from the office Friday evening, feeling momentarily overwhelmed by the events of the day and the week and the fortnight, from the horrors of the shootings in Charleston to the century-late acknowledgment of the reprehensibility of the South's cause to the juxtaposition of the terror killings in Europe and Africa and the celebrations that followed the Supreme Court's ruling on marriage, I found myself thinking of Robert Burton, and the showiest, most memorable passage from his endlessly fecund Anatomy of Melancholy (1621):
I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, etc., daily musters & preparations, & such-like, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies, and sea-fights, peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarums. A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances are daily brought to our ears. New books every day, pamphlets, currantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion, etc. Now come tidings of weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees, embassies, tilts and tournaments, trophies, triumphs, revels, sports, plays: then again, as in a new shifted scene, treasons, cheating tricks, robberies, enormous villainies in all kinds, funerals, burials, deaths of princes, new discoveries, expeditions, now comical, then tragical matters. Today we hear of new lords and officers created, to-morrow of some great men deposed and then again of fresh honours conferred; one is let loose, another imprisoned; one purchaseth, another breaketh; he thrives, his neighbor turns bankrupt; now plenty, then again dearth and famine; one runs, another rides, wrangles, laughs, weeps, etc. Thus I daily hear, and such-like, both private and public news; amidst the gallantry and misery of the world—jollity, pride, perplexities and cares, simplicity and villainy; subtlety, knavery, candour, and integrity mutually mixed and offering themselves—I rub on, privus privatus; as I have still lived, so I now continue, status quo prius, left to a solitary life and mine own domestic discontents.
It's a "wonderful epitome of what life is like," as Anthony Powell put it. Life seen properly as a cascade, so vast as to be almost incomprehensible in the moment, barely less so in in retrospect, mingling the good and the bad, the important and the silly, the lasting and the fugitive. It's enough on the bad days to call to mind a line from Kafka's diaries:
With "Woe!" you greet the night, with "Woe!" the day.
But there's also Charles Lamb, who speaks I think for the odd mixture of--as Burton might have seen it--humors in many of us when he writes,
I cannot divest me of an unseasonable disposition to levity upon the most awful occasions.
Burton's rippling, rivering register of events reminds us that an admixture is all we're ever allowed.

As I read the Anatomy Friday night, I realized something further, and unexpected: surely this, this very passage from Burton, is where Antonin Scalia encountered the archaic word "mummeries" in proximity to "weddings," such that it stuck in his mind and ended up in his blistering dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges? Has Scalia, feeling the tides of history, this week at least, running against him, been seeking consolation in The Anatomy of Melancholy?

Burton offers countless consolations--he is, as Powell puts it, "never a bore," and "one of the first writers to grasp the innate oddness of human nature"--but I'd perhaps recommend that the good Justice, at the end of a long term closeted up with books of law, eager clerks, and crotchety colleagues, instead put the book down and seek some version of Burton's own remedy for melancholy, as related by Powell:
At Oxford, when plagued by melancholy, Burton, who seems always to have enjoyed a joke, used to go down to the bridge over the river, and listen to the bargemen swearing at each other. That would always make him laugh, and at once feel better.
As someone who spent most of his weekend (in, let's note, a much more cheerful and optimistic frame of mind than I'm ascribing to Justice Scalia) sitting on the porch admiring the chuntering nonsense of the local bird population around my feeder, I give such a prescription my heartiest support.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


After a lengthy period of what can only be described as dithering, summer seems finally to have settled on Chicago. So it's appropriate that the mail has brought me correspondence from a vacation getaway: my mysterious Texan correspondent has appeared again, this time with a postcard of the seaside.

The ascription to Calais locates it in place, and the other elements let us locate it in time: somewhere in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, definitely pre-war, when bathing tended to yield to strolling, and the costumes for either were full-coverage and heavy.

But Calais carries insufficient romance for my correspondent, who prefers to imagine it as elsewhere.

Balbec! The name Proust gave to Cabourg, the oceanfront town where he spent every summer from 1907 to 1914, and where his fictional alter ego, Marcel, first sets eyes on Albertine and her set. It is on the way to Balbec that he realizes he has become indifferent to his first love, Gilberte:
There are instances, albeit infrequent, in which, the passing days having been immobilized by a sedentary way of life, the best way to gain time is to change place. My journey to Balbec was like the first outing of a convalescent who has not noticed until that moment that he is completely cured.
To be well in that way, however, is not in Marcel's character, so the freedom from Gilberte only opens the door for his next obsession--one that he would alternately fight and embrace through the rest of his life: Albertine, whom he first sees with her set on the promenade in Balbec.

Balbec plays a part as well in A Dance to the Music of Time, its appearance Anthony Powell's most open acknowledgment (aside, perhaps, from the title) of his debt to Proust. Late in The Military Philosophers, the final volume of the war sequence, Nick Jenkins is traveling through recently liberated France with a contingent of English and foreign military officers, and an officer asks where they are:
"C-A-B-O-U-R-G, sir."

As I uttered the last letter, scales fell from my eyes. Everything was transformed. It all came back--like the tea-soaked madeleine itself--in a torrent of memory . . . Cabourg . . . We had just driven out of Cabourg . . . out of Proust's Balbec. Only a few minutes before, I had been standing on the esplanade along which, wearing her polo cap and accompanied by the little band of girls he had supposed the mistresses of professional bicyclists, Albertine had strolled into Marcel's life. Through the high windows of the Grand Hotel's dining-room--conveying to those without the sensation of staring into an aquarium, was to be seen Saint-Loup, at the same table Bloch, mendaciously claiming acquaintance with the Swanns. A little further along the promenade was the Casino, its walls still displaying tattered playbills, just like the one Charlus, wearing his black straw hat, had pretended to examine, after an attempt at long range to assess the Narrator's physical attractions and possibilities. Here Elstir had painted; Prince Odoacer played golf. Where was the little railway line that had carried them all to the Verdurin's villa? Perhaps it ran in another direction to that we were taking; more probably it was no more.
Jenkins's colleagues, unaware of the flood of literary memory that has swept over him, continue their practical inquiries, but Proust resurfaces as soon as his thoughts are his own once more:
Proustian musings still hung in the air when we came down to the edge of the water. It had been a notable adventure. True, an actual night passed in one of hte bdrooms of the Grand Hotel itself--especially, like Finn's an appropriately sleepless one--might have crowned the magic of the happening. At the same time, a faint sense of disappointment superimposed on an otherwise absorbing inner experience was in its way suitably Proustian too: a reminder of the eternal failure of human life to respond a hundred per cent; to rise to the greatest heights without allowing at the same time some suggestion, however slight, to take shape in indication that things could have been even better.
Or, as Howard Moss puts it in The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust,
Actuality contends with the haunted coastline of the imagination. . . . Place, then, is one of the first instigators of expectation and, therefore, one of the cornerstones of disenchantment.
In my reading of Dance, that scene also represents something larger: the moment when the strain and fear of war finally begin to ebb, and the possibilities of a normal life returning begin to seem less improbable. The war sequence of Dance is justly praised, but critics rarely note what I think is its most impressive quality: the sense Powell conveys of how disruptive the war was, even for those who came through it with relatively small losses. Even if you don't count the daily strain of the late 1930s, Nick Jenkins essentially lost six years of his life to forces beyond his control. Not only can he not find the time or emotional clarity to write, but he also can barely find anyone who is even slightly sympathetic to the world of books and ideas. The resulting deprivation is thrown into stark relief when he meets Pennistone, and the two talk books like men sharing a canteen while lost in a desert.

Thus, when Balbec breaks upon him, I see it as a release, a reminder that, despite the losses entailed by war, literature--and the whole world of books and culture that it signifies--remains, can be called up. And if it can remains, then it can be re-inhabited. V-E Day is in the offing; after some unquestionably doubtful moments, life, it turns out, will go on.

Monday, June 15, 2015

"Lewis had his enemies, but he had their measure."

One of the many pleasures of Penelope Fitzgerald's biography of Edward Burne-Jones is the thumbnail portraits she offers along the way of the people in Burne-Jones's orbit. In addition to fairly extensive accounts of major figures like William Morris, John Ruskin, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Fitzgerald presents countless quick sketches of fascinating Victorian and early Edwardian figures. This sizing up of the Gladstone family that accompanies Burne-Jones's first encounter with Mary Gladstone is a good example:
The sixth of Gladstone's children, she had been brought up in the huge brilliant rough-and-tumble of Gladstones, Lytteltons and Glynnes at Hawarden, where there were enough people in the family to sing the Messiah straight through, and where everyone was sympathetic, but no one listened to what anyone else was saying. At nearly twenty-eight she was only just beginning to feel that she was not a nonentity--not, in the peculiar language used by the Glynnes, a "phantod" or complete idiot.
The incidental character who most firmly arrested my attention, however, was prominent lawyer George Lewis:
Lewis really was, and chose to give the effect of being, like a character out of Dickens--probably Jagger in Great Expectations. He was born, like Ned, in 1833, but as Jew was not allowed to go to Oxford: he studied at the new University College and was articled at seventeen as his uncle's solicitors' clerk. He liked to recall his first client, a very large woman whose son was accused of robbing the till in a public house. In the years that followed he specialised in fraud and commercial libel, and became the defence solicitor, it seemed, for half the Victorian world. By maintaining a network of underworld contacts he got to know enough about all the adventurers and criminals in London to save many clients from blackmail. He was Parnell's solicitor, and Parnell trusted him; he prepared Whistler's petition in bankruptcy; he acted in the Balham case and was the only man to know who really poisoned Charles Bravo; he handled the difficult Baccarat case and helped to extricate the Prince of Wales. "Oh, he know everything about us all, and forgives us all," said Oscar Wilde, whose real collapse began after Lewis refused to act for him any further .Yet Lewis shared his father's reputation as a reformer and poor man's lawyer. He was proud of his Jewish ancestry and kept on the dark warren-like chambers in Holborn where he and his brothers and sisters had been born. Here visitors were sometimes admitted to the gas-lit strong-room where the great black deed-boxes were turned to the wall so that no names could be seen. Lewis had his enemies, but he had their measure. He committed nothing to paper--all his secrets would die with him--and a man who had no vices except a weakness for a good cigar could not be got at.
Could it be possible to read that paragraph and not want immediately to know more about this man? Fitzgerald's biography is only loosely annotated, offering sources for quotations, but not for general information, so I don't yet know where one might start in a quest to learn more about Lewis. But it has to be possible, no? Investigations will be underway shortly; I'll report back when I know more!

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Edward Burne-Jones and the associations and shared enthusiasms of youth

As a sidebar to my nascent efforts to see whether Penelope Fitzgerald's notebooks hold enough riches that a selected volume might be extracted, I'm finally reading the last couple of her books I'd not previously gotten to. This week, I began the final one, her biography of late Pre-Raphaelite artist and designer Edward Burne-Jones.

From the pages and pages of notes and letters and reference inquiries I found in her papers at the Harry Ransom Center, I know that the book is built on a huge amount of research and thought--it felt like she had gathered enough material that she could also have written a biography of Burne-Jones's friend William Morris, and possibly of John Ruskin as well. Part of Fitzgerald's genius, both as a novelist and as a biographer, is her ability to synthesize mountains of research and present it in a way that makes the story flow almost effortlessly. We know there's a supporting structure beneath the prose, but its presence is never distracting.

Edward Burne-Jones has that quality: it feels almost like a book we are being told, rather than reading. It's conversational and straightforward, with just the right amount of perceptive authorial interjection, like this one, which closes a paragraph on Ruskin:
Ned told Frances Graham [of the adult, but odd Ruskin], "He was a most difficult child." But this mattered nothing in comparison with the warmth of meeting another "scorner of the world." This was Ruskin's message as well as Newman's. It is to the credit of humanity that whenever it has been clearly put, there have always been people to attend to it.
I'm still in the early years of Burne-Jones's life, when he and Morris, at the edge of the successful circles that Ruskin inhabits, are trying to figure out what they're going to do with their futures. Whatever is is, they know they want to do it in tandem, and initially they consider founding a monastery. But they are young, and their sights shift to founding a magazine:
While the magazine was in the planning stages, Burne-Jones found, at Cornish's shop in New Street, the book which was to mean more to him than any other--Malory's Morte d'Arthur. It was the Southey edition, and since it was expensive he read a little every day and bought cheap books "to pacify the bookseller." But Morris, when he heard of it, bought it at once, and generously lent it to his friend while he dashed off on family visits.
What could be more enchanting than the image of Burne-Jones buying books he's not that interested in solely so he can continue with his discoveries in the one he is? This was at a time when, as Fitzgerald points out, "Arthurian legends were so little known that they formed a kind of secret bond." She continues:
It was, therefore, in the two-up, two-down house in Bristol Road that Burne-Jones confirmed his idea of life as a quest for something too sacred to be found, and ending with the death of a king and a friend betrayed, which would be the ultimate sadness (Morte Arthur saunz guerdon). In the city beyond, Joseph Chamberlain was just beginning operations in the firm which was to produce twice as many steel screws as the whole of the rest of Britain. Crom and Ned walked round the back-garden, reading in particular the story of Perceval's sister, who died giving her life-blood to heal another woman, and asked that her body should be put on a ship which departed without sail to the city of Sarras. Without the concept of the book as hero, Victorian idealism can hardly be understood. Morris returned, was enchanted immediately, and had the book bound in white vellum. It was the Quest without Tennyson, and it seems that at first they were embarrassed to speak about it to anyone but Crom, so deeply did they feel the spell of this lost world and its names and places. Yet Burne-Jones must also have noticed that Guinevere and the Haut Prince laughed so loudly that they might not sit at table, that Sir Lancelot went into a room as hot as any stew and found a lady naked as a needle, that the Queen, through Sir Ector, sharply demanded her money back from him, and that a gluttonous giant raped the Duchess of Brittany and slit her unto the navel. In fact Burne- Jones's letters show that he did notice this and that he could overlook in the Morte what he could not stomach in Chaucer. Malory's wandering landscape became in its entirety "the strange land that is more true than real," but not just as an escape, the refuge of the romantic without choice. He found what is of much more importance to the artist, a reflection of personal experience in the fixed world of images.
Fitzgerald accomplishes so much in that paragraph. She shows us the seductive romance of valorous medieval world these friends were conjuring into being among themselves. She draws from that an image of the late Victorian imagination itself--"the concept of the book as hero" an unforgettable way to put it. And she traces the ways Burne-Jones was influenced by, and drew on, the Morte in his art.

The Arts and Crafts and Pre-Raphaelite movements are the artistic moments that I find most personally enticing. I'm not one for utopias, and I don't believe there ever was a golden age anyone living in it would have recognized as such, but the combination of skill, hard work, attention to detail, care for craftsmanship, and brotherhood and idealism of that era are nonetheless powerfully compelling.