Thursday, June 28, 2007

On remembering

Chaohua Wang at the LRB on the memory of Tiananmen:

Eighteen years is not a short time; it’s long enough for a baby to become an adult. On 4 June this year, a strange incident occurred. In Chengdu, the capital of the province of Sichuan, a city with a population of 11 million, the small-ads pages of an evening newspaper contained a short item that read: ‘Salute to the steadfast mothers of the 4 June victims.’ The entry was noticed by some readers, scanned and uploaded onto the internet, where it rapidly circulated. The authorities jumped to investigate. Within days, three of the paper’s editors had been fired. How had the wall of silence been breached? The girl in charge of the small ads, born in the 1980s, had called the number given by the person who placed the ad to ask what the date referred to. Told it was a mining disaster, she cleared it. No one had ever spoken to her about 1989. Censorship devours its own children.

Also, and more light-heartedly (I am in need of light-heartedness!), Frank Kermode has a very enjoyable piece on the letters of A.E. Housman:

The life of a bachelor fellow of Trinity could hardly be described as arduous; the company was distinguished, the wine excellent, the menus subject to his approval and the professorial teaching load fairly light. The days could be given to Manilius, the evenings to extensive reading or to such avocations as research into Latin obscenities. He had a private lavatory and, declaring himself to be a philosophical hedonist, refused on principle to allow his less fortunate neighbour, Wittgenstein, to use it. Vacations were filled with luxurious journeys.

And yet it is likely that few men, even taking into account these amenities, would envy such an existence. Housman’s own pronouncements, in prose and verse, on the meaning of life tend to be stoical; there were things he enjoyed, but he did not seem to enjoy them very much. And one is driven back to the position that it was the private pleasure of his divinatory exercises that made everything else tolerable. That was the view of his colleague A.S.F. Gow, who remarked that ‘a man whose mind is so perfectly adapted to the difficult and delicate tasks he has chosen out . . . cannot be wholly unhappy.’

And here's another good bit, which includes part of what is undoubtedly my favorite Housman poem (I believe it was introduced to me by one of the novels of Nicholas Blake aka Cecil Day-Lewis, and that I found the full version in the Faber Book of Light Verse):

Even if one leaves the poems out of account, it seems that whether or not he was unhappy he was capable of describing the state of man as one of just tolerable discomfort; and of claiming that there were ways of relieving even that degree of misery. He would tour Europe in a chauffeur-driven hired car and fly to France on the fledgling air services, claiming to conquer his fears by reflecting that every crash reported reduced the probability of his being involved in one himself. He invariably celebrated the New Year with a feast of oysters and stout. On hospitable London evenings he liked to entertain his guests at the Café Royal before taking them to a music hall.

And even dons can sometimes have fun in their donnish way, as Housman did when he became a gourmet, a connoisseur of wine, and a drinker of beer at lunch because beer produced a languor conducive to poetry. A frequent visitor to Venice, he seems to have fallen in love with a gondolier. Paris offered its own pleasures. A quieter entertainment was the composition of light verse, in which long practice made him remarkably skilful. The concluding lines of ‘Fragment of a Greek Tragedy’, written when he was at school, are here quoted as evidence that Housman could giggle learnedly:

Eriphyle (within): O, I am smitten with a hatchet’s jaw:
And that in deed and not in word alone.

Chorus: I thought I heard a sound within the house
Unlike the voice of one that jumps for joy.

Eri: He splits my skull, not in a friendly way,
Once more; he purposes to kill me dead.

Cho: I would not be reputed rash, but yet
I doubt if all be gay within the house.

Eri: O! O! Another stroke! That makes the third.
He stabs me to the heart against my wish.

Cho: If that be so, thy state of health is poor;
But thine arithmetic is quite correct.

Beer producing a languor conducive to poetry! Hmmm, not any poetry I would care to write, though I like beer...

1 comment:

  1. Tiananmen Square (I just wanted to say it, as so many others are not allowed to do so).
    Why is it that western leaders are so anxious to do business with these thugs?