Saturday, January 29, 2011

"Rotting oranges, used tissues and odd socks"

Maybe Empson and Auden are my favorite literary personalities because I can "identify" (dread word!) with their lifestyles. For instance, here is Frank Kermode reviewing a biography of Empson:
His victims were usually confident that his habits in controversy were in some measure aspects of a more general eccentricity: the strangled, oddly inflected voice or voices, the peculiar beard, the use of drink to lubricate all argument, to get something started. [...] Money worries in the final years required him to spend time at American universities, teaching, lecturing, and reinforcing his reputation for bizarre or clownish behaviour. A colleague at Penn State notes that ‘he went back at night to a place full of rotting oranges, used tissues and odd socks’, and records that ‘he once, for some minutes, watched my neighbour’s door lamp through my telescope, thinking it Mars.’ Dining with Marshall McLuhan, ‘I thought I had to explain to him that he was worshipping the devil, being a Roman Catholic. It was at his own dinner table, but the ladies had gone for their pee, so it wasn’t really rude.’ On a visit to Harvard he was ‘truculent and contradictory’ towards Richards.

There is something heartening about all the drunkenness and especially the squalor. (Remember the Auden martini?) Both W.E. and W.H.A. had Robert Lowell as a gleeful describer of their living habits; Kermode quotes Lowell on Empson:
Not that conditions in their Hampstead house were very different from those of the Sheffield ‘burrow’ – they were described by Robert Lowell as having ‘a weird, sordid nobility’
And there is a wonderful passage in one of Lowell's letters to Elizabeth Bishop -- collected in Words in Air, which btw is a must-read, but is in storage like most of my other books -- on Auden's Manhattan parties. (I find it interesting how much more natural it seems for nobility to be sordid than to be, say, hygienic: is it that we associate the aristocracy with decline or that we associate it with antiquity, which is automatically dirty [1]?  Empson is very "gentry" -- the legend has pushed this angle, referring to him as a squire etc. And isn't there a thing about bad teeth as well?)

I went back to the Kermode articles because Empson's been "in the news" lately, at least to the extent that my feed represents "the news" -- first of all there was that Michael Wood article on True Grit:
If traditional pastoral often idealises the simple life, it never quite chases the shadows of cruelty and corruption away, and what William Empson called the trick of simplification was always the thing. The mode kept remembering what it was ostensibly getting rid of.

The "trick of simplification" is a notion I'd like to associate with Empson's prehistory as a mathematician though I'm not sure this is right; certainly the Pastoral book is preoccupied with a kind of structural question that lends itself to "modeling," and I have sometimes wondered whether what one does as a theoretical physicist isn't related to pastoral in the sense that, instead of attacking a complex and idiosyncratic problem directly, one takes an entirely different, heavily simplified, and more "conventional" situation, treats it, and points out that the relations between certain entities in the original problem and the (asserted-to-be) analogous ones in the simplified one are -- unexpectedly as it were -- the same [2]. Mathematics is in this telling the individual or collective unconscious; it has many of the right properties for this role, and I suppose one can think of complex things like the weather as perversions of some submerged mathematical inclination. Of course none of this is useful as an account because there is no moral significance to the complexity of nature.

And then there was an article on "six types of clarity" that Marina sent me in response to my saying that something was an ambiguity of the second kind. ("I like it that you clarify which kind of ambiguity you're talking about." Admittedly an odd thing to do, but I do think Empson's types 1, 2, and 4 describe specific effects for which I don't know of any other terminology.) It's a very nice article and has some insightful things to say about an issue I blogged about sometime ago re "primitive" poetry. Of which more later.


[1] One is tempted to assume an association between messiness and vitality, but this falls apart after say the 17th century. The Rochester character in The Man of Mode doesn't use deodorant but is irresistible -- the expected pattern -- but generally the bourgeoisie and esp. the nonconformists are (a) on the rise, (b) not notably filthy, (c) not irresistible, at least qua bourgeoisie, (d) [possibly] breeding like rabbits. (Not sure about (d) in popular perception. Might be projecting backwards from the Mormons. Not sure either how far northern accents would stand in for filthiness -- the Chatterley line of reasoning, though gamekeepers were not bourgeois.) There's something odd about the fact that neatness is perceived as a diminishing virtue, even as far back as Johnson's comparison of Dryden and Pope. I suppose this is all linked in some tenuous way to the dissociation-of-sensibility thesis and the idea that poetry has never come to terms with modern life, has never found the right things poetical, etc.

[2] There are some areas, like string theory, to which this paradigm doesn't evidently apply. One probably wants to think of the Standard Model as the idiosyncratic, complicated system that is being simplified. But there isn't really a notion of "universality" there as there is elsewhere, so this isn't a natural description.


Jenny Davidson said...

Iris Murdoch = another liver in squalor.

Zed said...

Oh dear that undermines the "identification" thesis... though perhaps I've never given Murdoch a fair chance.