Literature: April 2004 Archives

Many accuse James of being prolix, abstruse, and obtuse. They mistake elegance and stateliness in prose for meandering and they do not give their minds to the subtle currents that pervade the deep waters of his short stories, novels, and, yes, even travel writing. Take for example this excerpt:

from Italian Hours--"The Autumn in Florence"
Henry James

Florence too has its “season,” not less than Rome, and I have been rejoicing for the past six weeks in the fact that this comparatively crowded parenthesis hasn't yet been opened. Coming here in the first days of October I found the summer still in almost unmenaced possession, and ever since, till within a day or two, the weight of its hand has been sensible. Properly enough, as the city of flowers, Florence mingles the elements most artfully in the spring—during the divine crescendo of March and April, the weeks when six months of steady shiver have still not shaken New York and Boston free of the long Polar reach. But the very quality of the decline of the year as we at present here feel it suits peculiarly the mood in which an undiscourageable gatherer of the sense of things, or taster at least of “charm,” moves through these many-memoried streets and galleries and churches. Old things, old places, old people, or at least old races, ever strike us as giving out their secrets most freely in such moist, grey, melancholy days as have formed the complexion of the past fortnight. With Christmas arrives the opera, the only opera worth speaking of—which indeed often means in Florence the only opera worth talking through; the gaiety, the gossip, the reminders in fine of the cosmopolite and watering-place character to which the city of the Medici long ago began to bend her antique temper.

The refinement of the piece in its final form (present here in its entirety) is only known from acquaintance with its earlier incarnation as a piece in either The Independent or The Nation (The website that yielded these originals has subsequently vanished along with the wonderful texts. I have preserved the memory of it in the form of an e-book for PDA). The subtle twists of phrase and the delicate irony and humor that are so prominent here stand out from the rather more bold reportorial front that shows up in the articles. One can spend time with James and come to know Italy very little, but have a profound knowledge of a man of great sensibility and sense. Too bad as a society we spend so little time with those who have so much to tell us about how to observe, how to write, how to go about thinking, and how to analyze. It is unfortunate that we are often in too great a hurry for the majestic pace at which James moves. But given my druthers, I'd rather tour Italy with James or Hawthorne than with Michelin. What companionable company, what rare insights, and what refined humor. I have come to love Henry James more and more as I read more of the work. It is not for one who needs to come to the point, but rather for the person who relishes the journey as much or perhaps even more than the destination. Surely that is the first lesson in how to travel.

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Who'd have thought that the person who penned these immortal lyrics:

Because the Night
Patty Smith

Take me now baby here as I am
Hold me close, try and understand
Desire is hunger is the fire I breathe
Love is a banquet on which we feed

Come on now try and understand
The way I feel when I'm in your hands
Take my hand come undercover
They can't hurt you now,
Can't hurt you now, can't hurt you now

Because the night belongs to lovers
Because the night belongs to lust
Because the night belongs to lovers
Because the night belongs to us

started her work because of the man who penned this:

from "Le Bateau Ivre"
Arthur Rimbaud

Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassibles,
Je ne me sentais plus tiré par les haleurs :
Des Peaux-Rouges criards les avaient pris pour cibles
Les ayant cloués nus aux poteaux de couleurs.

J'étais insoucieux de tous les équipages,
Porteur de blés flamands et de cotons anglais.
Quand avec mes haleurs ont fini ces tapages
Les Fleuves m'ont laissé descendre où je voulais.

Dans les clapotements furieux des marées,
Moi, l'autre hiver, plus sourd que les cerveaux d'enfants,
Je courus ! Et les Péninsules démarrées
N'ont pas subi tohu-bohus plus triomphants.

La tempête a béni mes éveils maritimes.
Plus léger qu'un bouchon j'ai dansé sur les flots
Qu'on appelle rouleurs éternels de victimes,
Dix nuits, sans regretter l'oeil niais des falots !

Plus douce qu'aux enfants la chair des pommes sûres,
L'eau verte pénétra ma coque de sapin
Et des taches de vins bleus et des vomissures
Me lava, dispersant gouvernail et grappin.

"The Drunken Boat" [Le Bateau ivre] (1871)

As I was floating down impassive Rivers,
I no longer felt myself steered by the haulers:
gaudy Redskins had taken them for targets,
nailing them naked to coloured stakes.

I cared nothing for all my crews,
carrying Flemish wheat or English cotton.
When, along with my haulers, those uproars stopped,
the Rivers let me sail downstream where I pleased.

Into the ferocious tide-rips, last winter,
more absorbed than the minds of children, I ran!
And the unmoored Peninsulas never
endured more triumphant clamourings.

The storm made bliss of my sea-borne awakenings.
Lighter than a cork, I danced on the waves
which men call the eternal rollers of victims,
for ten nights, without once missing the foolish eye of the harbor lights!

Sweeter than the flesh of sour apples to children,
the green water penetrated my pinewood hull
and washed me clean of the bluish wine-stains
and the splashes of vomit, carrying away both rudder and anchor.

And what would either the poet laureate of the punks or the premier French poet claimed by the GLB have to teach us about Jesus?

I wouldn't think they would have much to say. However, as I was listening to an interview this morning on NPR, Ms. Smith had something very thought-provoking to say. She said that she started writing her poetry and doing her work because she wanted to do for others what Arthur Rimbaud and Bob Dylan had done for her. She consciously set about providing for others a role-model. Not for everyone mind, but for a small portion of the population.

It occurred to me, what if every Christian thought that way? What if each of us set about deliberately becoming for others what Jesus is to us? In other words, what might happen if we were to live out our baptismal promises and our Easter gift? We could serve as Jesus served us. We could bring people to knowledge of God. (Mind you all of this through grace, but nevertheless with us as active and willing partiipants.)

Wouldn't that transform the world? Rather than bickering and dickering and criticizing and complaining, what if we set about doing something to change the way things were? What if we helped only one person a day? What if we were of service only to a single person in our whole lives? Still, we would have done part of what we are here to do. Our first vocation is to love God most of all. But after that, we are called to bring others to this same love.

So, what if we were to be like Patty Smith and delibereately set about changing the world through imitating our role model. What might happen if we were to behave as though we had internalized the reality of His resurrection? It is precisely the answer to this question that causes nearly every totalatarian regime to crack down on Christianity. If we were to live our belief rather than just talking it to death, we would change the world in a revolutionary way. A revolution of God's love, not of blood and violence.

Now, that is not to say that we would ever change human nature or solve all of te problems that face us. However, we'd be a lot closer than we are now.

So perhaps we should give just a little thought to letting Jesus be not only our guide but our model. And perhaps we should consider each day how we can reflect just a little bit more of Him and a little bit less of ourselves.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Literature category from April 2004.

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