A Conversation

Roger Scruton and Jordan Peterson. Amazing! We get:

1 – Penetrating diagnoses of our time. Explanations, prescriptions, example: how should serious people think and reflect on life in this present age, for example. Just look at the title given for the conversation: Apprehending the transcendent.

2 – Bonus observations on music, art, philosophy, literature, and the mercy of God. One of these makes sense out of why Game of Thrones appeals – a story written in the terms in which all books are presently taught: all human interactions are just games of power. Correctives are offered, largely from Russian literature.

3 – Wit: Peterson’s remark when Scruton says he is an example of cultural appropriation of the English ideal of the Gentleman because he endeavors and fails. Dry, understated, and thoroughly amusing.

4 – A conversation with anybody in which Scruton constantly says he agrees–except for once!

The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 2: 1923-1925

The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 2: 1923-1925These are the years in which Eliot started the Criterion. There are a lot of tedious business letters. Still, just seeing how he did business is interesting.

These were hard years for him, as letters about his wife’s prostrations, his indignation at doctors, his own exhaustion and frequent near-collapse, the effort and expense that went into living with an invalid, working at the bank, editing the Criterion for free, and keeping up an intellectual life all show. At the end there are letters between Eliot and Faber, the deal is arranged, his resignation from the bank, his contract at F & G, the glimpses of the deterioration of the situation with his wife all appear. “And I have made so many mistakes in the past, that I often feel no confidence whatever in my judgment, and act like a frightened rat.”

There is much in these 900 pages. On 11 December 1925, just to mention a curious detail, Eliot wrote Richard Aldington, a steady correspondent, wanting to buy together a set of Migne (standard cheap edition of the Greek and Latin Christian works from the patristic era through the Middle Ages). Eliot’s idea was to divide it between themselves and exchange tomes from time to time, according to the interest of each. One of the things Eliot wanted for himself was Periphyseon.

You will also find, of course, other curiosities in here, and criticism. One chap, for example, had his essay rejected with some advice, which Eliot apologized for, thinking it could come across as forward and perhaps condescending to do so. But he says the chap has a brain and he would like to see him learn to write better. What does he recommend? Study of Swift and Newman.

I’m glad to have lived to see the day of the publication of these tomes. They are well annotated too. Good for studying, good for perusing, good for occasional reading. I must get the next one.

Of Reading

Do you remember the first time you read The Two Towers? Did you throw the book away near the end, bitter, betrayed when that demon Tolkien seems to have killed Frodo? I remember I was outraged. Having read all that way for him to do this? It was a treasonous way to write. He had led me to believe the thing would end otherwise, and if the ending did not involve Frodo, I didn’t want it.*

But then I read on, and checked ahead, and saw he hadn’t died, and so resumed.

I knew it couldn’t end that way. It had to end better or it would have been a terrible book. Which is curious, if you think about it. After all, how do we know?

I think we know because there are certain expectations an author raises: expectations he must satisfy. You enjoy the end because he has created and nurtured a desire for it. When we assume what we do about Frodo at the end of The Two Towers, we get upset because we think we are not getting whatever it is we felt he was working toward.

I think that is how literature works: it nurtures a desire, awakens and stirs and nourishes desire. Then if it is a good book (in terms of artistry) it satisfies the desire. It creates an expectation that it meets.

And I think that is how we must judge these things: being aware of the desires encouraged in us. But there are then two things to be aware of: not only how well it satisfies the desire it has stirred up, but also what desires it stirs up. There are desires Christians have to put to death and not encourage.

But I do think this is the main question for evaluating imaginative writing. How does it operate on your heart? What desires does it nurture, strengthen, draw from you and then by satisfying, endorse?

*I do think it goes to show how shallow is the modern silliness about spoilers. It isn’t what, but how that matters in a story. We don’t read The Lord of the Rings in order to find out if Sauron will or will not win. We will hate the book if he does. We don’t read Harry Potter wondering if Voldemort will come out triumphant. He can’t, or it won’t be a good book. We read mainly to find out how. That explains also the pleasure of re-reading: we see better the how things come about, knowing perfectly well what will. The satisfaction lies not in what, but how. And that’s in other words the point of the remaining paragraphs above.

The Top Shelf

What is this list? This is my list of astonishing romanticism and favorite books that I can at the moment remember. Books that are read and re-read even serially sometimes and what one most wants in literature because through them the old magic runs.

J.R.R. Tolkien
How did he know so astonishingly exactly what so many of us wanted most? Tolkien is my #1 reason for never wanting to have been alive in any age that would not have included the year 1977.

C.S. Lewis
Till We Have Faces is still my favorite book in all the world. But would I really have wanted ever to live without knowing the Chronicles of Narnia or Out of the Silent Planet? I would not. And OotSP I still like more than Perelandra.

Charles Williams
Some people read about Williams and here they find something too weird. I used to think I had no limits on that until I tried to read Rudolf Steiner. I draw the line at Rudolf Steiner, but Williams I find exactly right. His heroines are admirable. I just found a good price on and purchased his Arthurian poetry.

E.R. Eddison
His philosophy is pagan: aristocratic, high and cruel. But also vast, and where will you find a 20th century author writing a romance in flawless, rich Jacobean prose? I enjoyed his Styrbiorn the Strong, so Northern, The Worm Ouroboros is a great work (my review here) and the peculiar and illuminating Zimmiamvian Trilogy I shall read more than once. Eddison dreamed vivid, pagan dreams in detail.

Mervyn Peake
Rich and sometimes overripe, was Peake: romanticism fraught with shadows and derrangement. Slow move his stories, ample in detail, atmosphere and personage. His imagination gormenghastly is voluptuous in invention of a moulting absurd vast . . . satisfying kind.

Lord Dunsany
Now you ought to treat yourself at least to some short stories. I am about due to read the Queen of Elfland’s Daughter once again, I think his only novel. No great developer of character, Dunsany was poetic in his prose and situations and outcomes. Perhaps he may seem light. Fairyland is lighter than a feather on some days.

Kenneth Grahame
If you cannot read and re-read The Wind in the Willows, then there is not a whole lot of hope for you. You simply do not love magic or ordinary things enough.

James Stephens
The Crock of Gold. There’s a recording of it with an Irish reader and much better all the dialogue of the philosophers if you have the right pronunciation. Another pagan work, with the curiosity of being Irish. Stephens was very keen on Eddison’s work.

David Lindsay
The philosophy of Schopenhaur finds its John Bunyan in A Voyage to Arcturus. Amazing, startling often, madly strange. One day I’d like to read some others of his works. My review here.

Ursula K. Le Guin
I haven’t really enjoyed anything by Le Guin like The Left Hand of Darkness. The ideology is present but not much. If I liked books making points I’d probably like G.K. Chesterton better and I don’t get much of a kick out of his fiction. Le Guin takes us into a new world, and I love winter-bound Karhide, the way she tells the tale.

Susanna Clarke
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was well done. A great curiosity, what with the Age of Reason prose and setting for a long, dark, Celtic fairy tale. She doesn’t do things by halves when it comes to finishing a story out.

Kalevala-Beowulf-Morte d’Arthur
These are books through which the magic runs and ran of old. In Mallory you have the charm a paganized Christianity all full of magic. In the Kalevala and Beowulf a view of an old pagan world that can no longer be. Through these I find I long for that old sense of more.

This is for me the top shelf of fiction. You might throw in Dune–which never stood a second reading. I enjoyed the vastness and the twisting of it, but if the test is multiple re-reading, then it failed. Still need to get around to William Morris.

July 8, 1930

Near the end of the first of three over-1000-page tomes of the surviving letters of C.S. Lewis there is an interesting letter to Arthur Greeves (also interesting, at this point in their lives, how much the former correspondence with his now-deceased father has shifted to Arthur; I notice it because I’ve read all the Greeves correspondence before, but all on its own and without the complementing letters to Warnie, to his father, to Barfield and other acquaintances).

Lewis has realized the inevitability of theism, and is perhaps a Christian, though this is before the evening’s conversation out of which he comes with a clear consciousness of the uniqueness of Christ as the Savior. He is at this point going through that peculiar realignment of thinking described in Surprised by Joy and The Pilgrim’s Regress. He is in particular adjusting his romanticism which has gone all the way from the voluptuous enthusiasm of the days of Dymer, over to the frightened withdrawing of the days when he attended and subsequently reacted to the horrible death of–one might say–someone who died of the madness of an excess of romanticism gone terribly bad (that letter is interesting too; the things he says are so unlike him there).

What he is traveling is the road to Narnia, really–that peculiar mixture of austerity and enjoyment that will not altogether emerge in finished form till the beginning of the third volume of his letters. Here I am at the end of the first, and in the early parts of the second he will get the thinking clear. I suppose the remaining interval is for him to get his thinking well in hand, established, and gather experience for the  remaining labor of producing these works.

That is one of the pleasures of these massive and exhausting (to produce; what a chap Walter Hooper is) works. The sort of inwardness of approach it imparts. I find it a great pleasure.

Depths of Feeling

O God, Thou knowest my foolishness,
and my sins are not hid from Thee.
Lord, Thou knowest all my desire,
and my groaning is not hid from Thee.
Let not them that trust in Thee,
O Lord God of hosts,
be ashamed for my cause;
let not those that seek Thee be confounded
through me,
O Lord God of Israel.

from Lancelot Andrewes’ Private Devotions.

This is an expression that runs deep, so deep it is remarkable in its humility. And it is humbling to be faced with such humility.

It comes at the end of the Confession section of his Wednesday prayers. I have found, after reading through these for years now, that his Wednesday prayers are still the ones that most make me pause. This section here is one of many, and I have found that not only do the expressions run deep: the source of his expressions runs deep.

Remarkable—and intriguing—is that what I have is a translation from the original Greek. What is remarkable is how much of the phrasing of Scripture is present in his text. How is it in the original? I don’t know how to put my finger on it exactly, but there is a seamlessness of diction and feeling that wells out of the most ancient sources of our religion and runs through this translation with such crystal purity, one is tempted to think the original really must have been a translation from the English that Newman ingeniously recovered.

What is orthopathy? This is orthopathy; Andrewes’ expression is right feeling. And the great virtue of Andrewes’ is how close he weds it, how he connects is back to that supreme expression of English language orthopathy, the King James Version, a version not only wedded to our literary culture and crucial to it, it is a work lives very close to the genius of our language (that is at least what I take Richard Mitchell to mean when he says it is one of God’s three gifts to the English language).

What is language for? Correct expression, you might say. There is a distinction between feeling and expression, but there should be no division. These are like the two natures of Christ, and should be joined forever without confusion, without change, inseparable and indivisible.

In much of this little book, I think this distinction without division holds.
My Barfield buddy JS Allen put up something that made me think of this neglected essay (I wrote it a while back and never posted it because I didn’t think there was a lot of shared appreciation for the KJV among my readers). It can look a bit narcissistic to link to something linking back to me, but . . . well, don’t look at it that way. The way he compares the NIV and the KJV is very good, and all of it goes around in the end to Dandelionend, which is not a bad place to start.

“In dreams begins responsibility” — William Butler Yeats

Speaking of C.S. Lewis

Advice on reading Beowulf:

When I was reading it I tried to imagine myself as an old Saxon thane sitting in my hall of a winter’s night, with the wolves & storm outside and the old fellow singing his story. In this way you get the atmosphere of terror that runs through it—the horror of the old barbarous days when the land was all forests and when you though that a demon might come to your house any night & carry you off. The description of Grendel stalking up from his ‘fen and fastness’ thrilled me. Besides, I loved the simplicity of the old life it represents: it comes as a relief to get away from all complications about characters & ‘problems’ to a time when hunting, fighting, eating, drinking & loving were all a man had to think of it. And lastly, always remember it’s a translation which spoils most things.

—Letter to Arthur Greeves, 1 November 1926

There is something with the insight of study behind it also, Tolkien’s “The Monsters and The Critics” which anybody trying to appreciate Beowulf ought to take into consideration. It does at a scholarly level something of what Lewis did by instinct and love of literature (and study, of course, but not the specialized kind Tolkien brings to it; at this time Lewis was preparing to try to enter university) in his paragraph above: try to put it in something of its original context and look at is as something to be enjoyed, not as an academic problem to be solved. He makes plain that it is work requiring above all, imagination.

A Curious Book

I was Googling a poem by Henry Vaughan and ran into this: England’s Antiphon by George Macdonald. It is a historical overview of the religious poetry of England, all online, in 24 chapters. Some may be interested.

Here are a few things he says in the introduction

If the act of worship be the highest human condition, it follows that the highest human art must find material in the modes of worship.

For we must not forget that, although the individual song springs from the heart of the individual, the song of a country is not merely cumulative: it is vital in its growth, and therefore composed of historically dependent members. No man could sing as he has sung, had not others sung before him.

The Problem of the Love of Poetry in Our Age

What are the considerations for a responsible poet in our age?

Though Edwin Muir died over fifty years ago, his answer to this question, delivered in the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures of 1955-1956, is still worthwhile. The lectures were published in a book entitled The Estate of Poetry. What were the problems he, a poet and a great one, entertained and answered?

I have spoken of the enigma of the public, and the ascendancy of criticism, and science, and the effect on the imagination of a world becoming more and more a world of secondary objects. I have also tried to give an idea of the virtue of the poetic imagination, its ancient succession, and the urgent need for it in our time. Poetry in any age is contemporary. What I have tried to urge is that poetry will not truly be contemporary, or truly poetry, if it deals merely with the immediately perceived contemporary world as if it existed by itself and were isolated from all that preceded it

The enigma of the public? Much has changed since Socrates had his dialogue with Ion. Much had changed, Muir observed, since he grew up in Orkney in a world where there still existed anonymous folk poetry in daily use: poetry that was the living property of all. Wordsworth first felt keenly the loss of that public. He offered Lyrical Ballads as an antidote against the fragmentation and inattention he perceived would result from the phenomenon of the newspaper, against the impending loss of poetry. Muir knew there was no going back. In our day we’re seeing the demise of the newspaper, but the problem has become all of our culture: there is no audience for poetry. Wordsworth dealt with the problem by adjusting his diction, though as Muir pointed out, he was a bit too clever to follow his own advice exactly.

What is interesting is to consider that a hundred years later, or so, Frost and Yeats found it necessary to think about diction also, and to adjust. What they realized was similar to what worried Wordsworth: the poet needs an audience. They felt they had to speak in a common diction, in a public voice in order to be heard. Muir does not examine Frost, but he does consider Yeats, and especially Yeats change of style. Yeats at first imagined and gathered about him an audience, but in the last he changed himself and made himself a great poet thereby. Wordsworth lost his vision and petered out, Yeats came through. He gathered an audience and he stuck with his audience. He had “vast sentiments, generalizations supported by tradition,” “but also the touch of nature which makes the whole world kin.”

So, I might add, does Muir in his poetry, and that is the best part of it, from what I can tell.

The enigma of the public in our age is in finding what we have in common in a world increasingly filled with artificial, secondary objects, with people living with so much that is artificial, loving it more than what is real, loving that at the heart of which is a lie. What use is the touch of nature if the world is increasingly cyborg? I think Muir is more sanguine about the possibilities of poetry in our age than he ought to have been. Consider his opinion that free verse had arrived at a dead end and would fade away. He was partly right, the free verse of our time has been dead for fifty years or more, but it hasn’t gone away.

Another of the things that troubled Muir was the ascendancy of criticism. It was leading, he felt, to the idea that a poem existed to be explained rather than enjoyed. This, he felt, represented a threat to poetry. He appreciated the new critics, but was also critical of their contribution to this error. He felt they were capable of analyzing a poem into saying the opposite of what it meant, and he demonstrates how Cleanth Brooks does exactly this to Tennyson. It is a good corrective, and in support Muir quotes from none other than T.S. Eliot, which is brilliant.

One of the reasons traditional forms and rhyme prevail in the poetry of Edwin Muir is because he considers poetry meant for public enjoyment, not for academic inquiry. And I believe the presence of traditional forms and rhyme in the smaller poetry, the funny poetry, the curious poetry, the unassuming poetry shows that when it is considered a matter of enjoyment (not as Muir puts it, existing primarily as a problem), poetry tends to flourish in forms instead.

Which leaves still the problem of the audience, along with the question of tradition. Muir believes forms give greater possibilities for addressing the wide range of traditional themes. Traditional forms (along with the innovations in these, such as the great invention of English verse: blank verse with all is music), though he doesn’t say this, help draw poetry back into conversation with the ancient ways. I think this is implied. And the audience? Muir believes the poet will have to imagine it. Muir certainly had no great audience and labored for years having started late and improving virtually alone. Perhaps such a thing can work. It is telling, however, that that is the problem which Muir feels he must address in his lectures.

The truth is that if you believe poetry is valuable, is vital, then you are going to have to become part of the audience: critical in the sense of being able to appreciate, knowledgeable of the tradition of poetry, and with the sort of discernment to be able to sort the good from the bad. I think what Muir shows us is that we need to be concerned about being an audience more than we need to be concerned about having poets. Muir also shows how to appreciate the poets, how criticism ought to function, how to understand the comments on poetry some poets make. It is one of the best books on poetry I’ve ever read, Muir’s lectures: gentle, interesting, illuminating, worthwhile.

Conversations with Philosophical Mexicans: An Essay on Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy in Which Theories of Creativity Are Suggested and I Tread upon the Borders of My Thought, Unfortunately

There are some novels you read with keen interest but also read wondering what is going to bring everything together in the end. It has been too long since I read Light in August to safely comment on it, but I remember the ending of that one was like stepping back and finally seeing that all these interesting colored pieces of glass made up a greater whole. It is a very compelling way to end a novel and probably very difficult unless you are Wm. Faulkner. A novel that tries it and fails leaves the reader feeling the book was an imposition.

The process of clarifying what you want to say is probably different in various types of writers. Some are known to plan almost everything out in great detail. I remember listening to an interview of an author whose work seemed to me rather tedious and predictable. When the author said he worked everything out in detail before writing and also mentioned that he wrote at a rate of four books a year, I realized why his work was tedious and predictable. The problem with organization is that you have to work very carefully to maintain spontaneity that is true to life.

If fiction is to have more than a surface, if it is to be more than just a story, then it has to get its depths from the mysteries of the world, and the mysteries of the world when examined by fiction all find their source in the mysterious well of the human soul. The human soul is not only a well, it is a sea: deep, subject to tides, and never entirely predictable, besides being full of wonders and as transformative of what falls into its power as Ariel makes it out to be.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that does fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Which is why, even though apparently many work by organization, it is not easy to do unless you are a genius and have seen all things (or perhaps clever; P.G.Woodehouse had to have planned out all his plots, or else he was a genius and going in reverse, which is possible). You have to be organized to a certain extent, but what that extent may be is what is interesting. So some writers proceed by exploration. They have an idea, or they have a scene, or they have an atmosphere and they develop it. Some discover what it was they wanted to say only when they revise the original story, or after many revisions if they are more dense. And some, it seems, have the trick of following along with their story for a long time till at last they find where they were going. At least, this is the impression one gets. It can work because the truth is part of an order that is the order of the world. This order will emerge in the work of art if the work of art seeks and finds the truth.

Meditations on a Tangent Not Entirely Disconnected from the Ideas This Introduction Was Developing

Of course, good revision is not apparent in a finished work, or is seldom noticeable, and there is a lot of blood, sweat and tears going on behind the scenes till the novel is published. Even an experienced writer has to labor, and I have read some saying it does not get easier but only harder and the end of it is to hope you can die before you run out of things to write about—not enviable and certainly not easy. But it seems to me that for the work to stand complete and compelling as a work of art, it has to have an organic integrity that comes from taking on of a life of its own. For this to happen, it seems to me there has to be a certain logic, a right coherency that the elements of the work find and toward which they call the writer, as it were, so that writing includes the struggle to find out what it is that is trying to be born.

If fiction were about interesting ideas then it is conceivable it could all be planned out, like the argument of some book by somebody I hope never to have to read, such as, say, Immanuel Kant. But ideas are too pointy, they are easier to manipulate and work with than the insights that fiction aspires to impart. If a book arguing a point or handling an idea aims at achieving a certain mutual understanding between the author and the reader, the work of fiction does too. The difference is that the work of fiction aims at an understanding that cannot be reduced to a proposition. The reason it cannot be reduced is that the understanding is an understanding about the irreducible mysteries of the world, or what have otherwise been called the reasons of the heart. Those reasons that reason cannot know are the reasons that make fiction deep and the communications of which are the business of fiction. It is the sort of understanding between author and reader that is in no small way composed of a deep sort of sympathy, especially since the author is not gazing at the reader, but showing something to the reader in the mirror of the human soul.*

I do not mean to say, by suggesting a mirror, that there is no real communication taking place. I mean the mirror in the sense George McDonald meant when he observed that every mirror is a magic mirror, which I take to mean it transforms the world it reflects, with emphasis on the transformation. I also mean to emphasize the Platonic theory of knowledge as anamnesis, which strikes me also as a form of sympathy, which, in turn, I connect with mirrors (as a symbol perhaps, but not only as a symbol, though I am not sure since now I am at one of the points I am trying to think through).

When the poet says that God has put eternity in the heart of man he must mean, in a sense, that God has put a mystery in the heart of man. A mystery is something beyond comprehension, and whatever eternity is, it is a concept I doubt any human being has quite wrapped his head around. I think time is how we know eternity for it is suggested in the endless supply of the present moment we experience. It is also suggested in our inability to imagine any existence other than in a continual stream of present moments—eternity must be absolute. (What sort of paralysis stops permanently in a past moment? I cannot imagine that paralysis. And we can speculate about future moments, but if you stop and wonder exactly what it would mean to move forward in time all you can imagine—at least all that the glories of Science Fiction has suggested to us—is to switch your present moment [and it feels remarkably the same only there is more past to it and, as Douglas Adam’s pointed out, has problems with the tenses of verbs], not to attain a conscious future, not to be before yourself. Part of the problem with time travel, it seems to me, is that we keep using words that imply space—motion, travel, forward, backward. We do not appear to have a vocabulary of time. Language is all made of metaphors, and richer when metaphorical, but it does seem to me highly suspicious that time is obviously borrowing from space and space is not borrowing language from time.)

Something has been put into the heart of man that is too vast to be searched out and for which we yearn. In other words, the whole universe can fit inside the soul of man (see what I mean about vocabulary? it is impossible to avoid mixing the categories of space and time—and even Einstein was confused, you know). And, in fact, the whole universe is inside the soul of man, since man is made in the image and likeness of God who made all the universe, as Moses records. All the depths are in the soul of man; the soul of man can be said to be an undiscovered country. When the writer writes his work, he makes a sort of mirror into which the reader looks and discovers something new in the depths of his soul that is true about the world. This sympathetic insight is what the writer aims to achieve.

A Resumption of the Introduction to the Meditations Originally Meditated

Cormac McCarthy sometimes gives the impression of piling episode upon episode, scene upon scene, fraught situation upon carefully built-up fraught situation for the sake of the episodes, the scenes, and the fraught situations. These are very interesting in and of themselves, but it would be a strange creature (a writer probably, and a bad one at that) who would enjoy reading such things without eventually discerning a coherency delivering said series from being mere aggregations. There is a coherency that emerges at the end of Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy—though as I went through, and with great enjoyment, the coherency of the whole appeared dubious.

I should add that I have only read through the border trilogy once, that I ought to read through it again before committing myself to publishing anything about it even in this medium some find so conveniently retractable, but that I am afraid I may not have anything to say if I read it again (nothing to do with the work, everything to do with how it is with me). I do intent to collect the hardcover volumes (have The Crossing already, but this border trilogy is proving hard to find) and read through them in ink and paper.

At Last, the Meditations Originally Meditated

The border trilogy consists of a story about the remarkable John Grady Cole, a story about the unfortunate Billy Parham, and then a last story in which they appear together. In the first story John Grady Cole wanders south of the border and returns. In the second story Billy Parham wanders south of the border twice and returns. In the third story the border is crossed routinely until in the end the south of the border comes north at last. As you can perhaps deduce, the border is more than a line on the map.

John Grady Cole is one of the most fascinating characters in fiction that I know, at least right now. Billy Parham is perhaps not fascinating, but he is very interesting and he seems to be the perfect kind of character to involve in lengthy conversations with philosophical Mexicans. John Grady Cole, being more taciturn, does not lend himself, although there are plenty of philosophical Mexicans spoiling for lengthy conversations with him too. (And it helps if you can read Spanish, but you do not have to know Spanish to understand the border trilogy.)

The meeting of different nationalities usually comes with a zone of weirdness to each. This is due to meeting something unfamiliar. I do not think the zone of weirdness really exists for McCarthy for he appears to know both Americans and Mexicans well enough. If he did not know Americans he could not write American novels. And if he did not know Mexicans he could not write about them so well in his novels. I have lived in Mexico and know something of Mexican ways and ways of speaking; all of McCarthy’s types are true types and the Spanish he puts in their mouth is the genuine Spanish of Mexicans. So the zone of weirdness is probably erased for McCarthy, but he knows what it is (it is not hard to remember or to re-encounter). Though the zone of weirdness is not something McCarthy would have to deal with were he to travel in Mexico, yet he exploits it in these novels and this is how he shows us that the border is more than a line on the map—and more than just a zone of weirdness. The border is the border of mystery itself.

The zone of weirdness is what makes Billy Parham the kind of character to involve in lengthy conversations with philosophical Mexicans. That a certain type of Mexican should find another type of American the proper subject for a philosophical harangue is not exceptional. In the case of Billy Parham and the philosophical Mexican, both types are garrulous. But Billy brings a self-consciousness that corresponds to that of the Mexicans. This self-consciousness makes them both seem taciturn which in turn encourages confidence (John Grady Cole not only is taciturn, but he has none of Billy Parham’s self-consciousness which also helps to earn the Mexican’s trust: they find John Grady Cole too alien, Billy Parham is for the Mexicans a fascinating mix of similarity and strangeness and this is the zone of weirdness. The only Mexicans who harangue John Grady Cole are the ones who feel they have a definite advantage over him—i.e. are about to kill him or can get him killed). Billy and the Mexicans first exchange remarks, then discover some sort of sympathetic mysticism in each other, and so the Mexican is compelled to talk aloud and Billy Parham is compelled to encourage it and listen.

A Paragraph of Digression on Some Corresponding Literature Leading Back to Our Theme

If you are interested in reading more about the zone of weirdness, then go to Hemingway who exploited it regularly, though perhaps not to as great effect as McCarthy has in the border trilogy. Hemingway’s foreigners always inhabit a zone of weirdness and it is part of the irony informing the theme of The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway was also interested in the violence, disorder and resulting mysticism of Spanish and Spanish-speaking culture, and especially the regulated violence, the ritual of the bullfight with all its superstitions and capacity for drawing out of the heart powerful destructive desires. If you are interested or better, fascinated with the mysticism of anarchic places where violence is used to impose order, then The Power and the Glory by Grahame Greene will be interesting, or look to Gabriel Garcia Marquez for whom everything familiar is stuck in a zone of weirdness.

There is something mysterious and more alive than the southwestern USA in the Mexico of McCarthy’s novels. It is something he achieves by art, but not therefore something that is not true to real life. Mexico in the novels becomes a place of insight in which the pilgrim protagonists cannot dwell, cannot prosper but where they can and do learn some of the most important things about life. In Mexico life is more stark because it is more unregulated and people live with a greater superstition than is possible for them in the more orderly lands north of the border. Mexico is mysterious because there mystery holds sway in the living imagination. The presence of real power, the authority of violence imposed without the ordering of law is what makes Mexico a realm of mystery. Both John Grady Cole and Billy Parham come face to face with it as they come of age in the first two novels. But it is not till the last novel that McCarthy brings everything together climactically as he holds up the mirror to his American readers.

I run the risk of giving the impression that the first two novels are incoherent on their own. They are coherent, especially the first. But in the second something has escaped, perhaps because he knew he was writing at trilogy by then, which may not have been apparent from the beginning—I speculate at this point. The second novel in some way needs the third more than the first, and the third brings all three together. That is why I began where I did: talking about novels that make sense only with the help of a sort of epilogue.

And one of the things that goes wrong in the second novel, The Crossing, is that McCarthy fails to put what he is saying into the poetry of his narrative. He is able to do this elsewhere very well, to use an action to communicate what he needs, but at one point he either doubts his ability to do it or wants to be more pointed than he should, which is to say: he does not trust his reader, and this is a failure. How does he fail? He subjects Billy Parham to a long conversation with a philosophical Mexican. It is very boring. I think it is boring because it is an attempt to tell the reader what the reader who is enjoying the story would rather see dramatized in the narration, made alive in action rather than relegated to the lips of a character. It fails because it defrauds the thing McCarthy is trying to communicate.

If you write a story that is the occasion for an argument you want to put in somebody’s mouth you should be careful the argument does not overwhelm the action of the story. Now a conversation can be an action, but when the substance of the speaking of one character carries an argument so that all the rest is decoration, you have failed to tell a story. Plato did it all the time (well, ok, it was more than a decorated argument since the surroundings of the dialogues are important to the meaning of the dialogue, but they elucidate an argument discernible without them), but we do not pick up Plato thinking here is a work of fiction. That is not the joy of Plato. Plato wrote ingeniously interesting philosophy and he certainly seems to have done it better than Immanuel Kant is reputed to have done, but Plato did not write any novels. And if you write a good story but in the midst thereof have a philosophical Mexican saying things longer than is interesting and with no discernible action but a lot of argument, you are going to make your reader suspicious.

But in the third novel, Cities of the Plain, McCarthy does better than in the second when the philosophical Mexican begins to speak to Billy Parham. The philosophical Mexican intersperses his philosophical conjecture as commentary on a mythic dream whose purpose appears to be to wrestle with the notion of human consciousness. The objections to the failure in The Crossing are even suggested by Billy Parham himself, in his interlocutions which are more frequent in the third novel than in the second. Still, McCarthy’s excuse for doing it, for putting within his work of art the thing the art is mean to suggest, is perilous. The depths of a mirror are not achieved by giving it thicker glass. The depths of a mirror are achieved by holding it in such a way that it reflects to the looker a deep place previously unnoticed. The ingenious mirrors of fiction are able both to focus the gaze and to keep from distorting the thing gazed at, which is a feat and why they are so valuable.

John Grady Cole, a man peculiar mostly because he is un-self-conscious, while being a particular and well-developed character still manages to take on an allegorical significance. He is Everyman, in a way. He is admirable because of his persistence, and his persistence fascinates because it is the persistence of a heart that desires what it desires absolutely. The gaze of John Grady Cole’s heart is a gaze so focused on the object that it is completely unaware of the perceiving subject. John Grady Cole is un-self-conscious. Billy Parham is anything but un-self-conscious. I do not mean he is self-conscious in the sense that he is timid, for he is not timid. But he is aware of how he appears; he becomes aware of the gaze of the other and it is always with him as it is with the Mexicans, and this is the basis for the sympathy that exists between them. And in this lies the superiority of John Grady Cole: he is unaware of the gaze of the other but he is always himself gazing on that which is other with an undiminished intensity that makes his character relentless.

This makes John Grady Cole something of a mythic hero—something more than modern, for what is more modern than the sense of being trapped by one’s own consciousness—and it is he that must meet with the most absolute instance of evil, for only he has the power of an undistracted gaze with which to look on the awful face, and listen to its terrible speech, and who has the power to overcome and to shut the mouth of evil. And only after that can McCarthy step back from all the episodes, and scenes and fraught, symbolic situations and show us the greater whole: that is when Billy Parham is strangely accosted north of the border by another philosophical Mexican.

Mortality comes with the intimations of immortality just as surely as time suggests eternity to us. And McCarthy is concerned with nothing, he has said, that is not concerned with life and death. The border trilogy is concerned with the significance of immortality, and is fascinated by violence, order, and mortality. In the end order wins because it is able to focus its violence by the power of an undistracted gaze. But the distraction of self-consciousness still remains at the end of the trilogy, and has entered the world of order ominously. What McCarthy does is pose the problem of modern man: how to live with historical consciousness, which is a form of self-consciousness, which eludes without confronting a growing chaos and violence. It is a predicament of paralysis. It is a predicament ominously unresolved which may suggest to the reader there is only despair to follow.

Despair, however, is not the end of all things. For just as time suggests eternity, and mortality suggests immortality, so the opposite of despair suggests despair’s antithesis: hope. How? Mysteriously, the way that through all the border trilogy the worst always suggests the better. And in a trilogy in which the mystery is shown to spread, that seems to me a complex ending, and a good one.

*I suspect this is not limited to fiction, but is true of all true art; but I am not prepared or qualified to make statements about other arts—and whether I am qualified or prepared to make them about fiction is perhaps too much of an assumption. Besides, you have my previous statements in which I made some assertions about the mysteries of the world, and wells, and all that; it is a hedging of my bets that conveniently curtails my scope.

The Poet Yeats

“The world as the imagination sees it is the durable world.” —the Poet Yeats

A distinction between the heart and the soul, the core and the personality interested Yeats, also the fading of beauty in time and the trade of beauty for wisdom. “Wisdom is bodily decrepitude,” he wrote. Contraries meeting fascinated and vacillation perplexed the poet Yeats, and more: he strove to look into the unchanging world and to find a deeper core, a depth of rest without tension and with better insight. Yeats saw many things, but he seemed to believe that to face the truth was to be troubled and unhappy for such was the nature of things, and in this he was not altogether wrong. I do not think he was resigned to it, and I think his great heart strained to find a different conclusion. In his last poetry there is a kind of despair, however. It seems to me that whatever can be said of Yeats, his great and deep unhappiness cannot be ignored. I find it one of the best things in his poetry, like the rain of Ireland which makes it green.

Nothing is worth having that you cannot really have, and there is a sense in which anything worth having deeply, anything you can really possess in an earnest way is worth having, even if it is a deep unhappiness. Better that than to have nothing. And more, for if you have a deep unhappiness, you are likely to come into the regions where wisdom is found, for wisdom is found in the house of mourning, though many seem to have forgotten that. Yeats, had unhappiness, but he had more.

What Yeats had was a desire for deep mystery because there he found substantial and permanent things. In our age it seems popular desire reaches for little more than an easy happiness, a happiness maintained through careful and deliberate ignorance, and to live in our age is to be tempted by that desire. It seems an age easily satisfied by amusements uncritically attained and one in many ways unwilling to disturb its own complacent calm. Yeats scorned happiness too cheap. Better hard-won unhappiness, better the insight of contemplated regrets than the loss of ignoring them.

Yeats was interested in secrets, in hermetic rites and symbols, in occult practices and automatic writing and contact with the world of spirits. Yeats was a poet in search of meaning, in search of certain symbols; he was without the Christian God and he seems to have been robbed of heathen faith by his troubled and indifferent times. He suggests to me a man who tried to be a pagan and did not succeed. But his great romantic heart urged him to strong incantation and by straining he taught his eyes to see more clearly than some. Yeats had his regrets, but they took him in a way of consideration and attention, of brooding and examination.

Here is a work of the poet Yeats at the height of his powers, the seventh of his Supernatural Songs:

VII. What Magic Drum?

He holds him from desire, all but stops his breathing lest
primordial Motherhood forsake his limbs, the child no longer
Drinking joy as it were milk upon his breast.

Through light-obliterating garden foliage what magic drum?
Down limb and breast or down that glimmering belly move
his mouth and sinewy tongue.
What from the forest came? What beast has licked its young?

What he can see and what he can say! What he shows us how to see and say, what poised desire and what intimations of a brooding drum. I thought some of these thoughts while going over a canal on a little bridge. I looked around and saw one like the poet Yeats, a great blue heron in the water to his thighs waiting under the grass and shadow of the bank. He waited a little, and I waited; and then, as if we had reached a mutual understanding, he left me slowly. Much the same the poetry.

I think he found—the poet Yeats—to be a heathen and love beauty is to enter the atmosphere of tragedy, and found that the cyclical epochs of heathen history are a form of despair, and like the panting carp that gasps the water he dove to probe the bottom; and we glimpse the beauty of his underwater motions.

“How can the arts overcome the slow dying of men’s hearts that we call the progress of the world, and lay their hands upon men’s heartstrings again, without becoming the garment of religion as in old times?” — Yeats in 1900.

You feel the hope of achieving this has gone out of him in his last poems, that its last flowering comes in the Supernatural Songs, that he wanted to be pagan without succeeding in the end. He was a heart opposed to all of the machinery, a seeker not of simplicity but of mystery which is the true antithesis of machinery. Reading his wonderful, so-called critical works, one feels he is not so much criticizing as wishing, gathering the veils of twilight about him with purpose. He writes at a high tide of conviction, like T.S. Eliot in The Sacred Wood. When he says “We who care deeply about the arts . . . must baptize as well as preach,” one wonders if he did not mean to be a new St. Patrick, a St. Patrick operating in reverse. Hence his occupation with the politics of Ireland: he wanted to bring his people along and he ended up going with them, lamenting in the end, like Jeremiah to Egypt. Yeats the last heathen prophet was betrayed by the spiritus mundi slouching to Bethlehem to be born.

“Romanticism is a shortcut to the strangeness without the reality.” —T.S. Eliot.

Yeats was a romantic, a mystic, and that is why I love his poetry. I do wonder what it is Eliot meant by reality. He is so austere, almost prim, nearly fanatical in his calculations but, as usual in his judgment of his object, precise. One could wish for more of the heart and less of the contemplation in Eliot if it were not that the contemplation is what one has learned to wish for in Eliot. But what Eliot says is right in that the goal is the same and that the way you come to it matters. With Yeats you have the heart that knows the ends: he wants the insight of the strangeness, the permanence of unassailably mysterious things. Yeats is compelling for the things he sees truly, the measures he gives justly, the uncalculated and the apt—as in this observation: “But one cannot, perhaps, love or believe at all if one does not love or believe a little too much.” Whatever Yeats’ sins, they were not sins of austerity. In this lies the sincerity of all his vacillations and the power of all his chanted truth.