Saturday, May 27, 2017

Blood Meridian II

This isn't a particularly long novel, and I would have finished it by now if I had been more excited by it. Thematically it is similar to The Road: it is another road trip in desperate times, but with a different set of circumstances and characters. As in The Road, the language and atmosphere have an archaic, almost biblical quality, suggesting that humans are brutal, inscrutable creatures struggling to survive in an inhospitable world which may or may not be watched over by a God whose intentions, if any, remain unclear. McCarthy's linguistic abilities strangely remind me of Proust, because the strength of both is in the use of language more than in observation. Proust chose to document the lives of the Parisian bourgeoisie of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and McCarthy chose, in his later works, to document the lives of soldiers, cowboys, Indians and Mexicans of the Old, Early and recent West. In my view, neither author is particularly good at capturing the essence of his subjects, and their skill resides in the expert depictions of the surfaces that interest them. While Proust luxuriates in describing the material circumstances of the social climbers within his milieu, and his linguistic excesses mirror the material excesses of their daily lives, McCarthy's terse descriptions labor to capture the material conditions of crude, simple people who are attempting to survive in brutal environments.

A reader of fiction is probably better off maintaining a higher level of credulity than I am able to sustain at this stage in my life. I think much of the following that certain authors generate can be ascribed to the social environments of their readers. If an author "speaks to you," he or she is probably speaking to you and your friends. Proust, I think, speaks to multiple generations of critically deficient aesthetes. McCarthy, I think, speaks to laconic male Americans who like the outdoors and read the Bible while they were growing up. When I become sufficiently bored with an author, my mind wanders, and their motivation for writing the book becomes my primary interest. In McCarthy's case, we have a person with exceptional abilities, but, because he is introverted and somewhat misogynistic, he can't write a standard bestseller; he hasn't lived a normal life with a family and he spends most of his time alone. He has found a subject matter that requires little social knowledge and can be presented as something exotic to a narrow group of avid readers. You can probably rule out blacks and women, because he uses the word "nigger" unsparingly, and the women in his fiction tend to die off quickly without expressing themselves. In The Road, the principal female character dies by suicide before the story begins. In Blood Meridian, one of the first women to appear is an old squaw who is shot in the head and scalped by a white man without ever uttering a word. To me, McCarthy is somewhat justified in employing such techniques, because they were probably a necessary part of his development as a writer. Similarly, though I am not enthusiastic about his penchant for gratuitous violence, it may have been the only way that he was able to express his linguistic talent. As it is, in the current literary environment his success is limited by his masculine emphasis, his indifference to female sentiments and his general political incorrectness regarding Native Americans and other minorities. He seems to have a low opinion of mankind in general, which cancels out some of the political incorrectness, but he still loses points for not being upbeat about women and minorities.

The only other Cormac McCarthy work I know is No Country for Old Men. I saw the film, didn't particularly like it, and won't read the book. Thematically it seems similar to the books discussed, with the added twist of a drug deal. Though the Coen brothers tend to ham up their films, I think McCarthy's works are ill-suited to film in general, because the medium doesn't capture McCarthy's strongest skill, language. For the same reason, I felt that the film version of The Road was a failure. In my view, well-written novels shouldn't have film adaptations, because the results are always unsatisfactory, in the sense that film doesn't capture literature and only results in a perverse visual representation of it.

I am going to plug away at Blood Meridian and make a final comment when I finish it.

Monday, May 22, 2017


I'm still not reading much but will continue on Blood Meridian and comment on it later. I seem to be experiencing a slight malaise whose origin I am attempting to identify. This isn't anything like depression and manifests itself as a temporary slowdown that shifts me away from my customary focus. First, there is spring, which diverts my attention to outdoor maintenance and growing plants. Second, there is William, who has come to be somewhat demanding. Third, there is the reading of fiction, which, in a predictable, cyclical fashion, gradually pushes me to a saturation point. And fourth there is what you might call Trump dysphoria: the feeling that something is terribly wrong in your environment that needs to be addressed.

The spring part is the most familiar and the least disruptive. As I've written, I enjoy the increased isolation that accompanies winter and regret its loss when warm weather arrives. Winter is a time of year when I can happily be preoccupied with my thoughts with the least amount of distraction. On the other hand, there is something to be said for seasonal changes, because they force you to make adaptations in the absence of which you might begin to stagnate. Philosophically, I think there are advantages to involuntary external forces that discourage the development of static outlooks. I am accustomed to moving to a different location every few years and experiencing seasonal shocks, two circumstances that require reorientation and stave off presumptuous over-confidence. Psychologically I would feel that something were wrong if I lived in a static environment, and I prefer occasional jolts over which I have little control. The seasonal changes in Vermont are far more dramatic than in, say, San Diego, and though they can be distracting, they have a beneficial therapeutic effect.

William, as I said earlier, is hardly an adorable, cuddly house pet. Although he is affectionate at times, doesn't mind being picked up and purrs a lot, he still seems like a wild animal, and sometimes I think he's not that different from a pet fox. We've discouraged him from sharpening his claws on furniture by providing two scratching posts, but he prefers the furniture because it gets our attention when he wants to go out or be fed. We've tried, with limited success, to retrain him by activating alarms when he scratches the furniture.  I use a loud megaphone which has a setting that sounds like a police siren. So far these have had only a slight effect. He has nocturnal habits and usually stays out all night and sleeps inside during the day, but he is very active when he's awake and goes in and out often. It is 3:00 A.M. and I just let him in for a snack. He has become less of a problem with respect to catching prey, partly because I have made it more difficult for him to catch birds and partly because the rodents have evacuated the vicinity of the house. We have a new neighbor with a cat, and he spends much of his time defending his territory. Since I am loyal and feel responsible once a bond is established, William remains a significant distraction, because I had become accustomed to limitless free time.

When I go through bouts of reading fiction I have a tendency to get overdosed, impatient and progressively more critical. My recurring thought is that fiction is an artifice, and that its authors play shell games in which every shell is empty: the pretense is that there is some hidden reward, but the reward never materializes. For example, Cormac McCarthy produces some beautiful sentences:

They moved on and the stars jostled and arced across the firmament and died beyond the inkblack mountains. They came to know the nightskies well. Western eyes that read more geometric constructions than those given by the ancients. Tethered to the polestar they rode the Dipper round while Orion rose in the southwest like a great electric kite.

Yes, Orion looks like a kite, but it doesn't rise in the southwest – it rises in the east and sets in the west like everything else. There is a point where I become impatient with even the best evocative language, because there are always plainer and more accurate ways to say the same thing. It has become a regular pattern for me to get a sense that a novelist is employing various forms of subterfuge in order to insinuate arcane knowledge that is nowhere to be found in their book. In my view, any writer, whether writing fiction or nonfiction, has an obligation to write with as much clarity as he or she is capable. I'd rather not pick on Cormac McCarthy, because he's truly a good writer, but this criticism certainly applies to Mathias Énard in Compass. After finishing Blood Meridian I may have to take a long hiatus before returning to fiction.

And finally there is Trump. I remember 2004, when George W. Bush was reelected: I was flabbergasted and hoped that it was a fluke that was unlikely to recur. With Trump we have a disastrously incompetent president who makes Bush look comparatively good. In the Sunday New York Times there was an article on Trump accompanied by an image of him as a giant trampling the White House and breaking the Washington Monument like Godzilla. Although I'd rather not think about things like this, I can't escape the feeling that something is seriously wrong, and the fact that this problem isn't being addressed as a national and international crisis brings into question the viability of the entire American political process.

By the time I've finished McCarthy and started on nonfiction I should be in a better mood.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Blood Meridian I

I've read a little of this novel by Cormac McCarthy and am not sure when I'll finish it, since I haven't been reading much lately. Within the American literary world, McCarthy is a unique figure, because he rose to prominence almost completely outside the literary grid: he didn't graduate from college, doesn't teach or do readings and hardly ever gives interviews. For that matter, he isn't interested in the literary fiction of others and doesn't read it. He is now 83 and was not well-known as a writer until he was about 60. I had never heard of him before The Road, which was published in 2006. His path to success is far from the norm today, though it was fairly common fifty or more years ago. In his case he has developed a voice unlike that of any other, and his writing style stands out markedly. He has been dogged and uncompromising in how he goes about writing, and such a procedure has differentiated him from the pack considerably. The Road and Blood Meridian are of the highest caliber in American fiction.

The story has a historical basis and describes the activities of a violent group in the American southwest during the mid-nineteenth century. McCarthy is known for his depictions of violence, but much of his skill resides in his use of language. He attempts to replicate vernacular from actual historical periods and takes a minimalist approach to punctuation, producing fictionalized environments that seem strikingly real while also unfamiliar and strange. His formative years were spent in Tennessee, and apparently he was influenced by William Faulkner, though I think he is a better writer. His emphasis on violence may be off-putting to many readers, but to me he is a renegade who successfully rebels against the prettified version of reality that appears in most fiction. The worldview that emerges in his novels veers towards deep ontological pessimism, which I consider an improvement over the shallow, boredom-inducing depression that crops up in standard bourgeois fiction.

McCarthy's comparative indifference to immediate career advancement and his interest in non-literary subjects have provided him with materials that enrich his works. He likes spending time with scientists and has an office at the Santa Fe Institute. The apocalyptic world described in The Road probably has a basis in the study of nuclear winter, and even if McCarthy lacks the scientific background to understand all of the details, his friends, such as Murray Gell-Mann, can certainly help him out. McCarthy wrote the cover story for the latest edition of Nautilus, and I see that he has interests similar to mine. The article is about the nature of the unconscious, and how it operates independently from language. For most literary people, the world begins and ends with language – even though thoughts and ideas can originate and exist independently from it. I was gratified to see someone besides me say that humans are similar to chipmunks. McCarthy points out that chipmunks have a rudimentary language that they use to describe specific kinds of predators – ground-based or aerial – when one is approaching.

While McCarthy doesn't tend to produce characters who exhibit a high level of sophistication, which is something that I look for in most writers, I am willing to put up with him because he writes so well and his dark vision is hard to find elsewhere – even when it reflects aspects of reality that we ought not ignore. I'll have more to say on this book later.

Friday, May 12, 2017


Milosz's writing style is engaging, but his subject matter is frequently of little interest to me, so I don't have much to say about the book. To Begin Where I Am is a collection of essays which tend to focus on religion and poetry, two subjects that don't excite me much. While my sensibilities are similar to Milosz's, he seems too genteel and reticent at times, and I get the feeling that I am reading someone who lived centuries rather than decades ago. It also doesn't help that his frame of reference seems to be Poland, a country well beyond my personal experience. I had hoped that more of the book would be about his life in America, and though he does mention it, the context is usually professional and academic.

It is possible that Milosz adopted an attitude, which seems plausible given his background, in which he refrained from biting the hand that fed him. Certainly he was a survivor, and whether it was a deliberate strategy or not, stylistically he comes across as restrained and polite where others, myself included, would be blunter. Nevertheless, he does manage to say what he thinks is important, but perhaps a little less forcefully than I would prefer.

The essay that interested me the most, "Against Incomprehensible Poetry," was written while he was editing A Book of Luminous Things, my favorite book of poems, and concludes as follows:

Average people feel and think a great deal, but they cannot study philosophy, which would not offer them much comfort in any case. In truth, serious problems reach us by means of creative works, which on the surface appear to have only artistry as their aim, even though they are freighted with questions that everyone poses to himself. And it is here, perhaps, that in the wall surrounding poetry for the elect a gate opens up, leading to poetry for all. I will be satisfied if my attempt at defending poetry against narrowing and desiccation will be recognized as one of many attempts that can be made.

Passages like this mean a lot to me, because they express the importance of art beyond its role as a subject for study or as a source of entertainment or prestige. His conception of art remains obscure in American culture.

Milosz also comments on a few poets with whom I'm familiar. He seems to like Robinson Jeffers, whom I also like, though he isn't a favorite. I concur with him that Robert Frost was not "the greatest American poet of the twentieth century." Frost, he says, is "cold." However, I did not feel that Milosz was nearly as expansive as he might have been as a cultural critic, and therefore found the book a little disappointing. In his life he had twice escaped repressive communist regimes, so perhaps it makes sense that by the time he arrived in the U.S. he was as a matter of course not about to rock the boat.

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The Trump presidency has been so much in the news recently that I should say something about that. One positive aspect of it has been the defeat of Marine Le Pen in France: French voters probably feared the prospect of a Trump-like president there. It remains to be seen whether Macron will be a competent leader. In the U.S., it looks as if Trump's administration may implode. The evidence increasingly points to Russian connections and attempted cover-ups. The most plausible explanation is that Trump's business empire depends on hidden Russian financial backing, and that, with or without Trump's direct knowledge, Russia planted several Russian sympathizers high up within his administration. While fellow Republicans have been trying to use Trump to advance their political agendas, his credibility will eventually become so damaged that they will no longer be able to support him without heavy political costs.

In my mind, the absurdity of this situation also applies to Russia. Putin has been playing a dated Cold War game because that is all he knows. The fact is that, since the eighteenth century, world power has been a function of economic dominance. Because Russia's economic prospects are marginal, Putin's disruptive KGB tactics in a sense make him seem as out of touch with reality as Trump. You can give Putin some credit for undermining the U.S. political system, but this will surely have no long-term effect on world history. If anything, the short-term result will be that American politicians in high office will be more closely scrutinized for foreign influences. The disastrous Trump administration may also set back the Republican Party several years, allowing the Democratic Party to make significant gains, which seems to be the opposite of Putin's intention. In any case, I am looking forward to the exit of Trump, whose skills seem limited to unscrupulous self-enrichment, reality TV performances and golf.

Monday, May 8, 2017


I've been reading To Begin Where I Am: Selected Essays, by Czeslaw Milosz, and am not sure at this point how much I'll write about it. Some of it repeats from his memoir, Native Realm, which I commented on earlier. At the moment I am finding memoirs slightly oppressive, because they draw you back to a distant past which is only partially remembered, and much is irretrievable. When I try to remember my own past in detail, I soon find it frustrating that I can't remember, say, the name of an elementary school teacher. Straining to recall something that I haven't thought about for fifty years can induce in me a state similar to claustrophobia. Our brains didn't evolve to become huge repositories of information, and an unexpected dysfunction may emerge when one obsesses about one's past. It may be safer and more productive to weave a simple narrative about it and leave it at that.

In Milosz's case, his life had been severely disrupted, and he was aware enough to lament what he knew had been lost. With his poetic sensibility, he reminds me of Dylan Thomas in A Child's Christmas in Wales, though with a more adult, less playful emphasis. Unlike Dylan Thomas, he experienced a life that was spent mostly in exile, and although Paris may not have seemed too far from home, the U.S. certainly did. I respect Milosz because he struggles with meaning and looks at his life more seriously than most writers, even ones with similar backgrounds. Take, for example, Vladimir Nabokov, whose privileged life in Russia was ruined by the Russian Revolution. I was not impressed by Lolita when I read it long ago, because I thought it took a needlessly cynical position on the U.S. and was psychologically shallow. If it hadn't been a novel about pedophilia written by an author with a Russian-sounding name and good academic credentials, I don't think it would have become popular. The impression I have of Nabokov is that he resented having to work for a living, despised Americans, surrounded himself with sycophants and was too self-important to be a good observer. I may be wrong, but I'm unwilling to read any more of his books to find out. Another memoirist, Barack Obama, wrote Dreams of My Father and received critical acclaim. He too experienced disruptions in his life, but they were on a minor scale. He is neither as skilled nor as insightful a writer as Milosz and most likely wrote the memoir in order to embellish his image prior to his entry into politics. I probably won't read his post-presidential books.

There are several essays in Milosz's book that I haven't read yet, and I may or may not comment on them individually.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017


One phenomenon that occurs with me and seems to be less common in others is the periodic complete loss of interest in an activity that I had previously found interesting. This first occurred when I was an undergraduate student majoring in philosophy. I somehow managed to define myself as someone to whom philosophy was important, even when I didn't like most of the classes I took. I didn't realize then as I do now that academic philosophy for the most part is not inherently interesting, and that the people who taught it, at least at my college, tended to be slightly incompetent or stuck in a particular kind of rut. The same phenomenon occurred in other subjects that I studied, and by the time I was a senior it became difficult for me to find any courses that I wanted to take. Looking back, there was only one class that I took in four years as an undergraduate which I enjoyed thoroughly, and that had nothing to do with philosophy. This may seem like bad judgment, depression or some other psychiatric disorder, but I don't think that it is. The fact is that the more familiar I become with a subject, the more likely I am to think that it isn't particularly fascinating, and that the people who are fascinated by it are deluding themselves.

That same pattern has occurred with respect to some of the books I've discussed on this blog. I may start out liking a particular writer, and then, once I reach a saturation level, I begin to think that the writer isn't as good as I had thought initially. In extreme cases I may even come to believe that a writer is a fraud. Since starting this blog, I have partially solved this kind of problem by alternating between literary works and scientific works. You can't go completely wrong with scientific works, because they are usually informative. If something is wrong with a scientific book, it may be a poor writing style or a less-than-satisfactory exposition on the subject, but you still come away learning something from it, and the author generally has no pretenses about his or her literary skills. My problem with fiction is that it frequently fails to deliver in a manner that I find acceptable. Over time, this puts me in a quandary, and I begin to wonder whether I should even have been interested in fiction in the first place.

There is a flow of popular scientific or nonfiction books that makes it easier to find something to read that won't end up annoying me. That has been a saving grace for me, because if all I ever wrote about was fiction, I probably would have given up writing by now. Compass was one of those books that periodically prompt be to rethink why I am reading it in the first place. At the moment I am inclined to put a hold on my quest for good new fiction and concentrate temporarily on authors whom I know are good. I've ordered a book of essays by Czeslaw Milosz and the novel Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy, because I'm confident that I will like both.

With respect to fiction, part of my malaise seems to come from not identifying with my own generation, the baby boomers. They and their literary successors have produced what I think of as substandard literature right up to the present. If you want to look for parallels in fields outside fiction, the U.S. presidents come to mind. The four baby boomer presidents, Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump, seem frivolous compared to Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower. If you contrast photographs of Roosevelt with those of, say, Obama, there is no question that Roosevelt quite literally felt the weight of the world on his shoulders, whereas Obama was merely posing for a photograph in which it appeared that the weight of the world was on his shoulders. Roosevelt died in office protecting the world from Nazi Germany, and Obama left office looking forward to lucrative book deals and high speech fees. The difference is that Roosevelt wanted to make an important contribution to mankind, whereas Obama made a lifestyle choice in order to gain high social prestige and an affluent lifestyle. If Obama often seemed as if he were missing in action, that's because he was. His legacy, like those of Clinton and Bush, already looks shaky. Trump's was dead on arrival.

My thesis is that affluence has in this instance increased mediocrity, because there is nothing serious at stake, and seriousness itself becomes devalued when a society experiences no grave threat. A lack of gravitas came to pervade all aspects of American life, from politics to the arts. Writers such as Milosz and McCarthy represent alternatives because they were informed by World War II. In Milosz's case, he spent his early life facing it directly. McCarthy, though not old enough to have done that, is more akin to Ernest Hemingway, a war writer. In their writings, the specter of darkness never disappears entirely.

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I continue to adapt to the arrival of spring. The grass is tall enough now that I had better cut it soon. I have planned to move my large telescope onto the rear deck for the summer and to protect it with a new weather-resistant cover. I purchased a wheelchair ramp in order to simplify moving it onto the deck. The deck is the only place on the property with good views to the south, where all of the planets and many deep sky objects are located. The smaller telescope currently on the deck has only about a quarter the aperture and captures far less detail.