Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Edward Said's taste in music, W.B. Yeats's bones, Dylan Thomas's drinking problem

1. There's a new book of posthumous Edward Said essays, Humanism and Democratic Criticism. The review in Bookforum is helpful.

This looks like a good collection. As I myself drift further away from Foucault, the Foucauldian strains in Said's thought (especially in the early argument on "Orientalism") begin to seem fishy. I would be glad to see this other side of Said (i.e., Said the humanist) come to dominate.

Still, I'm not sure whether Said's personal taste in art is relevant (Matthew Price calls him a cultural conservative against conservatism). Does it really matter that he loved opera and was indifferent to popular culture? I'm also not sure whether the term "humanism" is of much use other than as the negation of theology on the one hand and Foucault and Marx on the other. To me, the emphasis on the human is a way of orienting an ethics; it makes less sense as a way of deciding questions of aesthetic value.

2. I enjoy reading reviews of biographies because they always give a capsule version of the life of the subject. This review of R.F. Foster's two-volume Yeats biography, is particularly good on that score. Volume I of Foster's bio has been out for years; Volume II: The Arch-Poet just came out last year. Yeats is a particularly tough subject, since he himself put up so much interference in autobiographical writings where he aimed to set himself up for mythologization. Ellmann was perhaps a little under Yeats' spell; Foster, Brian Phillips claims, is not:

This is especially true of Richard Ellmann, whose masterful biography Yeats: The Man and the Masks, has been since its publication in 1948 the standard work in its line; so Foster’s steady chronologies are trailblazers of a sort. Foster, who holds Oxford’s first professorship devoted to Irish history, is known in Ireland as a “revisionist” historian, a label meant to distinguish him from the “nationalist” historians who long controlled the field. The nationalists see a clear evolutionary line running through Irish history, in which the oppressed Gaelic nation, and especially its Catholic majority, gradually wins independence from English and Protestant oppressors, until at last it achieves self-rule in 1921. The revisionists, in contrast, emphasize the variety and plurality of Irish experience, including both its Protestant strains and those types of Irishness which are, in Seamus Heaney’s phrase, “alloyed with Englishness.” Foster’s exhaustive and detailed account, a miracle of interwoven sources, is his method of allowing the greatest multiplicity and range into his treatment of Yeats’s life; it is therefore its own means of analysis, arguing against simplistic reduction and in favor of a complicated wholeness. Yeats’s life, which overlaps with and involves most of the founding moments of modern Ireland—the death of Parnell, the Easter uprising, the creation of the Free State, the Civil War—provides a vast matrix of political, social, literary, military, economic, and religious contexts for Foster to explore, and is to that extent a natural subject for him, as Joyce’s life, say, would not be.

I side with the revisionists. I think it's important to talk about the Protestant contribution in Irish literature, as well as the strong English influence. But I'm not sure why Phillips feels that a contrast with Joyce is in order. Certainly, Joyce was not as personally involved with the "matrix" of historical contexts as Yeats. But Joyce's literature, especially Portrait and Ulysses, are full of references to key moments in modern Irish history. And we find from Joyce's biography (also by Richard Ellmann), that even in exile in Italy and Switzerland his attitude to British colonialism in Ireland was not irrelevant to his daily life.

Though obviously any serious Yeats scholar will have to reckon with Foster, the sheer bulk of these volumes makes me think I will continue to recommend the Ellmann bio to students and friends.

3. I was a little disturbed reading this review of a new biography of Dylan Thomas by Andrew Lycett. For one thing, some sentences in the review paint an extremely unflattering picture of Thomas the person:

In the hectic prewar atmosphere or amid the falling bombs of the London Blitz, there were always pub crawls, black eyes, broken arms and public shouting matches with Caitlin McNamara, whom he married in 1937 and who, aggrieved by her position as the stay-at-home wife, gave as good as she got in terms of loud resentful silences and foul-mouthed abuse. Caitlin was naturally belligerent, but a plea in mitigation might include the description of Dylan's working routine at the Boat House at Laugharne in Wales, a place without running water or electricity but with rats and damp: eight months pregnant with her third child, Caitlin was expected to light the stove in his working shed, then boil the water for his afternoon bath so he could sit in warm water eating sweets until it was time for the evening's drinking.

I see. Well, I hope the sweets were worth it?

Also disturbing is the fact that the reviewer (Lindsay Duguid) doesn't quote a single poem! (Compare to Brian Phillips' review of Foster's Yeats). In honor of Thomas, let me quote a poem that should have been in the review:

The Force that through the green fuse drives the flower (excerpt)
by Dylan Thomas

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The full poem is here.


Anonymous said...

Iam interested in Yeats and I am in the area of France where he died. I want to go to his first resting place and leave a flower for him. His life and poetry have filled my imagination for most of my life.I was born in London of Iriah parents and spent much of my childhood in Ireland. I have loved Ireland too much. I found no mention of his bones on your page.

3:07 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home