Wednesday, October 07, 2009

good souls shine forth like shook foil

Michael Dirda is an excellent critic and I miss my weekly fix in the recently-abandoned Sunday Book World section of the Washington Post.

Fortunately, he's still available to be read in other places.

Here's one of his that's especially good. It appears in issue the for Fall, 2009, of the new, thrice-yearly journal In Character. Each issue has an abstract theme (Courage, Honesty, Justice, and Thrift, for example) and the theme of this issue is Wisdom.

Dirda's contribution to this topic interweaves the ways of the wise with those of the world's fools. In it he covers self-deceiving wisdom, the dialectic of wisdom and foolishness, and the wisdom of foolery. Called These Foolish Things, it deploys the author's wisdom to celebrate the uncerebral happenings of chaotic human existence. Distinguishing among real fools, professional fools, and unsuspecting fools, he celebrates this last-most, bulk of humankind who follow their hearts and don't always have have reasons for what they do — those many of us who seek experience itself as much as we seek the knowledge that is said to be the rationale for experience. He concludes: "It’s important for [we] human beings to make mistakes, to do stupid things, to go overboard, to be foolish — even if it’s painful — and not to judge [ourselves] too harshly when [we've] been burnt." "Come hear the music play!" he says.

Read the whole thing. Read it once fast, once slow. Enjoy it. It's really worth the time.

It's clear he's put a lot of thought into it and, as I say, marshaled his hard-acquired knowledge and put it to service in giving glory to the exuberance of play. It's Apollo giving honor to Dionysus, or rather Athena giving honor to Atë.

I like its typically good literary qualities. Dirda turns a fine phrase. He makes telling and witty allusions. He draws us into the theme by artful use of the high culture of our shared past.

Here are some of the article's memorable phrases that are his:
  • full of pity for the fools that mortals be
  • warm and dry in his old flannel dressing gown
  • mind-forged manacles of societal norms
  • Mr. Peepers with a coin purse
  • wears a bow tie and always makes the dean’s list
  • brought a spark of joy into the life
And some of his quotable sentences:
  • Humanity, that dialectical animal, likes to look at things as binary opposites: raw and cooked, gay and straight, Laurel and Hardy.
  • It’s no accident that the Feast of the Holy Innocents is also the date for the Feast of Fools.
  • Give me stiletto heels or give me death!
  • If you can’t say “keep the change,” why bother to go to the bar?
  • Being superhuman isn’t half as much fun as being human.
Here are some of the article's many allusions. If you've time and inclination, let me know what other ones you spot (and whether you agree with mine):
Who can love and then be wise? - Dirda is alluding to a piece he wrote a few years ago: Maybe passion is always a mistake: Yet who can love and then be wise? [2001 Washington Post Book World 29 July 1]

just one of those crazy things - This is of course from the Cole Porter song Just One of Those Things.

who can explain it? - From the song Some Enchanted Evening in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific.

Heaven looks out for such as these - This paraphrases the Gospel of Matthew (19:14) in the King James Version: "But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven."

an old maid in sensible black shoes - This may be a (conscious or unconscious) reference to Robin Williams' line in Good Morning, Vietnam: "No, we can't call them lesbians, they're 'women in sensible shoes'"

their good souls shine forth like shook foil - The phrase shook foil comes from the poem God’s Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins:
THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down thing
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
springs of natural affection - This phrase appears in Chapter 29 of a book by Oliver Wendell Holmes: Elsie Venner: a romance of destiny. Here's the passage: "Sabbath is their home; except for which the streams of vice which flow through the world would poison the springs of natural affection, overturn the social pyramid, and place it on its apex instead of its base." It also appears in numerous other sources as a search within Google Books makes plain.

bonfires of desire - There's a poem by Fiona Davidson with this title:
Bonfires of Desire

Love washes over me
Bliss follows in its steps
Curling around my soul
Just a trace of a kiss
Lingers on my lips
Burning like a spark
Blown from bonfires
Dreams settled upon it
The map of my skin
Tingles with your touch
Heart races faster now
Trying to keep up
With the passion that flows
Beneath my surface
Like a crystal river of desire
I rest on your shoulder now
Sated as we lie as one
Entangled hearts beat so soft
Eternity could call unheard

Fiona Davidson
Along with uncited allusions, Dirda gives us some good quotes from famous sources. Here are some:
"The master of those who know" - From Dante, Divine Comedy, Inferno. 4.131. "Vidi il maestro di color che sanno." "When I raised my eyelids a little higher, I saw the Master of those that know, sitting amid a philosophic family. All regard him; all do him honour."

"The heart has reasons that the reason doesn’t know" - Pascal seems to have been the first to coin this thought: "The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. I say that the heart naturally loves the Universal Being, and also itself naturally, according as it gives itself to them; and it hardens itself against one or the other at its will. You have rejected the one, and kept the other. Is it by reason that you love yourself?" — Pascal's Pensées, with an Introduction by T. S. Eliot (New York, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1958) 277.

'To quote Mr. T, “I pity the fool.”' - Mr. T starred in a TV series, I Pity the Fool.

"Maybe it was Memphis" - Maybe It Was Memphis is the title of a song recorded by American country music artist Pam Tillis — says wikipedia.

"What do I know?" - Michel de Montaigne is most famously known for his skeptical remark, 'Que sais-je?' ('What do I know?') — says wikipedia.

"Because he was he and I was I" - As Dirda tells us, Montaigne said this of his friend Étienne de La Boétie. Montaigne wrote: "If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than because he was he, and I was I."

'Christ endured the “folly” of the cross ... children, lilies, mustard-seed, and humble sparrows, all foolish, senseless things, which live their lives by natural instinct alone, free from care or purpose' - Dirda is alluding to his own writing here (Classics for Pleasure). Here is the relevant text from Praise of Folly:
Our blessed Lord himself, who, although he was " the wisdom of the Father," yet to repair the infirmities of fallen man, he became in some measure a partaker of human Folly, when he " took our nature upon him, and was found in fashion as a man;" or when "God made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him." Nor would he heal those breaches our sins had made by any other method than by the " foolishness of the cross," published by the ignorant and unlearned apostles, to whom he frequently recommends the excellence of Folly, cautioning them against the infectiousness of wisdom, by the several examples he proposes them to imitate, such as children, lilies, sparrows, mustard, and such like beings, which are either wholly inanimate, or at least devoid of reason and ingenuity, guided by no other conduct than that of instinct, without care, trouble, or contrivance.
-- The praise of folly
dialectical animal - I'm sure Dirda is not making an allusion to this source, but the phrase does appear in Addressing Postmodernity: Kenneth Burke, Rhetoric, and a Theory of Social Change by Barbara A. Biesecker (University of Alabama Press, 2000) she says "the human being is … first and foremost a dialectical animal because dialectic is a term that I believe signifies for Burke the process of the production of the human being, a movement that effects verbal or symbolic action but is not limited to these particular determinations." (29)

"If any man among you seem to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise" - This appears in 1 Corinthians 3:18.

"seek experience itself, rather than the fruit of experience" - Pater writes this in The Renaissance:
The service of philosophy, of speculative culture, towards the human spirit, is to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation. Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, — for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?

To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or .work of the artist's hands, or the face of one's friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening. With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch.
-- The renaissance: studies in art and poetry by Walter Pater (Macmillan and co., limited, 1922)

{Michael Dirda photographed by Larry D. Moore; source: wikipedia}

{Marginal drawing of Folly by Hans Holbein in the first edition of Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, 1515; source: riowang.blogspot}

{Detail of same}

{Walter Pater in 1853 by Simeon Solomon, pencil on paper; source:}

{Lucille Ball; source:}

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