Monday, September 24, 2007

Violent Spectacle

Back in New York, I saw 3:10 to Yuma yesterday. Thirty years ago I was in Peru this time in September. Peru was run by Russians. Che posters were everywhere. There were free Russian lessons at the University of Cuzco. There happened to be an International Conference of Third World Nations in Lima while I packing for my return to the U.S. Everybody seemed to speak English, and reside in New York; their next stop was the autumn opening of the United Nations. However, on our way back to New York, rightist tanks rolled in the streets of Lima, and the Russians abruptly departed. Today the mass media is echoing Bush’s anti-Iran ploy. President Ahmadinejad is speaking this afternoon at my alma mater, Columbia University, and tomorrow at the U.N. The tabloids call him Mr Evil. First there was Osama, then there was Saddam, and now there’s Ahmadinejad. Are the Republicans preparing us for more war? Like O.J. Simpson they’ll eventually catch the guy who blew up the World Trade Center. Meanwhile the cowboys in 3:10 to Yuma sure kill a lot of people.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Non Serviam

My mother is 91-years-old and lives in a nursing home run by nuns on the campus of Universite Laurentienne. The nuns are doctors, biologists and hospital administrators. St Joseph Villa is cheerful; the souls of the residents may linger unaccountably on this earth, but that is a fact to be celebrated. On Sundays the nuns get real. A brisk woman with a scapula and a chalice enters my mother’s room. She gives my mother Holy Communion. She asks me if I want Communion. I begin the usual trite bad-boy Catholic, “Well, you know, Sister, it’s been over a year since my last Confession, and perhaps I really better not….” But she’ll have none of it. Faster than I can utter, Non serviam -- my sins are forgiven and I have a host in my mouth.

I’ll have to cancel our meeting in Hell. Sorry. I’m sure you’ll have more fun without me.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Dido Goodbye

I’m not sure whether I can or should defend the classics. I love them, of course, but I don’t have a cell phone and threw out my TV long ago. I don’t tend to buy new books. For one thing, I have no room for more books. So, like a certain sad alcoholic uncle who died alone, I tend to take five books from the library and read two or three right to the end.

I took Anthony Everitt’s Augustus from the New York Public Library. As I started to read, I thought that the book was printed in two colors; the maps and pages were adorned with careful purple handwriting. No, these were corrections by a previous reader. Nor was the previous reader thorough. I discovered new mistakes on every page. How could Random House do such a piss-poor job publishing?

Sadly, I know only too well. The late Richard Morris was a dear friend and when he began publishing popular science books, I’d try to read them. Frequently I would give up after forty or fifty pages, because, I thought, science was beyond me. Then one day it flashed -- the computer “spell check” had corrected an “error” with the wrong word, reducing pages and pages to nonsense. Richard’s books are 2% gibberish.

What labor classical scholars have expended over the centuries getting their texts correct! Perhaps I love to read the Aeneid or The Iliad with my little Latin and Greek because I feel the immensity of human attention, intelligence and love which have been expended to preserve these books.

I never printed an issue of Unmuzzled OX magazine with no typographical errors. Proofreading in 1971 was always done in pairs. Jack Unterecker, my advisor at Columbia, taught me the routine. The walls of Jack’s apartment were covered with bookcases. He was a joyful man, but the times, I think, really wrecked his life. His wife came out as a Lesbian, Farrar-Strauss mangled his biography of Hart Crane, and the 1968 student uprising at Columbia culminated, for Jack, with the first of a series of heart attacks which eventually killed him.

You can’t read another person’s life with certitude. Carolyn Heilbrun was known at Columbia at the time for tying feminism and literature--or so Lyndall Gordon told me. I passed on Heilbrun’s courses, but read mysteries she wrote under the pen name Amanda Cross. One day I came across her email address and wrote her a fan letter. To my surprise, she responded, and we began a regular correspondence. At one point I lamented that after Jack’s death Columbia held no memorial. This contrasted with the reaction after Kenneth Koch’s death. Carolyn responded with the only email which seemed like inappropriate feminist boilerplate, viz., Jack was a victim of the old boys’ network. The truth, as I’m sure she knew, was rather the opposite.

I went on a lengthy trip and the emails ceased. I learned that while I traveled Heilbrun had committed suicide. She had been sick, someone told me; but then a note appeared in The Times in which her son said, no, his mother had been in perfect health.

At this point in this poet's blog I might wrap these words up by quoting, say, Virgil’s rendering of the suicide of Dido. After the artist Ray Johnson committed suicide by drowning himself in Sag Harbor, I bought Emile Durkheim’s classic Suicide to try to figure out why. There are people who believe there’s nothing to add to Durkheim’s book. Durkheim was a 19th century French sociologist. August Comte, who is credited with the invention of sociology, attempted suicide as a young man by throwing himself in the Seine. Unlike Ray, Comte was saved. If Comte had succeeded at killing himself, we’d never know why, by this reckoning, because his student wouldn’t have written the final word on that grimmest subject, Suicide. Comte’s death would just be incomprehensible.