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.


Blogger Kirby Olson said...

I'm fascinated by the suicide of Romanian poet Urmuz. He said he would commit suicide for no reason whatsoever and did. He was the first Dadaist, a huge inspiration for Tzara.

Can you commit suicide for no reason? Can you live without a single reason?

Urmuz argued that you could, and then proved it. The police report is amazing because he had so many things in his pockets: I can't remember all the details but it went on and on and on.

11:13 AM  
Blogger Michael Andre said...

A character in Andre Gide's The Counterfeiters killed himself as an acte gratuite. He had no reason, except to assert his freedom. Ray Johnson had a couple hundred thousand in the bank when he killed himself. Everyone in the art world knew him, most admired him; but because he was known as a correspondance (sic) artist, there was the notion that his art was "free." Free might be considered cheap, and in the art world, the worth of your art is usually expressed in dollars. Thus, someone is the Village Voice said Ray's suicide was "a good career move." It certainly was. He's now considered a major artist.

1:12 PM  
Blogger Kirby Olson said...

Michael, if you had to choose an artist that you've known for president who would you choose?

12:25 PM  
Blogger Michael Andre said...

Hitler was an artist. He did architectural landscapes. His only customers were Jews. Then he got political.

4:47 PM  
Blogger Kirby Olson said...

So you're saying that getting into politics is always a Hitlerian act, and that artists are somehow saints to remain unpolitical?

"One ought to fight for the laws of the city as if they were its walls" -- Heraclitus.

10:34 AM  
Blogger Michael Andre said...

Poets and artists have remarkably different brains. It's as simple as poets thinking in words, and artists in images. Vaclav Havel was a both a good writer and a good president. I like Kirby's quote from Heraclitus. The laws are made of words not paintings.

2:11 AM  

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