Thursday, April 30, 2020

Prime Motor

Every once in a while I think of the collapse of Joe McCarthy as a political power, which happened almost overnight. He went from the most feared man in America to a pathetic drunkard, whose colleagues avoided him in the Senate hallways, in a matter of days.

"Strange powers have our enemies, and strange weaknesses," as King Théoden remarked. Political life always seems overdetermined and implacable, until suddenly it's not. So "Up, Éorlingas, and fear no darkness!"


On the other hand, it's the silly polling season. No, dear friends, Florida and Texas are not in the bag. Sheesh. Get a grip.


Engrenage énorme dont le premier moteur est le moucheron et dont la dernière roue est le zodiaque.

Enormous gearing, the prime motor of which is the gnat, and whose final wheel is the zodiac.

-- Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Reading Hugo

Reading Victor Hugo for the first time. When I was young, and first barreling through the classics, I obtained somewhere an absurd prejudice against French language and literature, and mostly skipped it. A couple decades later I had a limping reading-knowledge of French, and was waiting to read it all in the original. Now, with a clearer picture of my mortality, I've realized that if I'm going to read much French literature, I better read it now and in translation. If I get to it later in French, that will be gravy. But better get to it now.

Nearly through the second volume of Les Misérables. It's a bit trying, when he drones on about theology and monasticism. But it's illuminating even then. This is where I came from, where the American Democratic Party came from: all the glories, absurdities, and contradictions of liberalism are on display.

The belief in supermen, and the convenient now-you-see-it-now-you-don't deism, are the most striking things to me. Hugo is dazzled by Napoleon, and Jean Valjean is just Napoleon transposed to private life. The superhero motif sails on to the present day. 

God is indispensable, but malleable. You can make him be whatever you need to him to be at the moment. It's not, of course, Hugo's fault, but prosperity gospel and no-fault Christianity are already in the wings.

But this is the captiousness of hindsight. There's a great deal of sentimentality, and your shoes fill with it as you squelch your way through the novel, but Hugo does bludgeon home one of the great ideas of his time: that we are making criminals and prostitutes, that society is producing them on an industrial scale, that these conditions could have no other outcome. 

Whether Hugo ever set these insights against his own bargains with Eros, I don't know: I might look about for a biography. I suspect that the superhero shtick will have come in handy for him, there.

Sunday, April 05, 2020



I have asked how not to become morose
at a time when all lights flicker, a time

when the sky hesitates, the sun
avoids my glance, and the moon

pitches after a restless night into
the sickly western haze.

The dawn is not cool; the afternoon
has no warmth; evening brings a glare

of streetlamps, blue and unlovely,
that give false counsel to the moths

and little of use to my feet.
I have asked, and receive your silence.


Well, I will try my own answers.
To live at times of crisis is the common lot:

we are not singled out. Boccaccio 
pulled his hood over his nose and hurried away,

Chaucer put off his trip to Paris, and wondered
if his butt of wine would come this year.

Peevish princes, venal and unwise
are not a new invention of our time,

nor are mobs that drag a man
with the wrong name off to death.

These are old, old stories. 
Often told, half-listened.


And no answer. Let me try again:
all this fret and unease comes

because we think we know:
and we do not know.

There are better times and worse times, perhaps;
certainly lives happier, lives more distressed;

but we are swallowed by the fish of the future
and what we will find in its belly

we do not know. Not what we thought.
Did we really love the lineaments 

of the made world so much, that we must
fear to lose them? Let them go.


Democracy, the rights of man, 
the golden rule: they will all be found

and lost again, broken and restored.
The storytelling apes will have 

their algae-bloom, their die-off;
the rains will come and the seas will rise.

Is it our business to know, or even to attend?
Yesterday at twilight an apple tree

was heavy with white blossom,
whiter than could be believed, so that I stopped

and tried to tell how mere reflection 
could be brighter than the dimming sky.


The wind rises. Branches toss their heads,
a ruffle runs through the ferns; sparrows

jostle by the pool. There is a new front,
slate gray, implacable, moving inland:

too slow for the motion to be seen, but eating up the sky.
Still silent? Or is this your answer? Rain,

a day-long, week-long rain. The crows call
each to each. All my failures are laid out

before me, but even those
the rising wind lifts, and carries away:

it leaves only this blessing, 
this enormous blessing, of the rain.