18th-century literature: I have seen mostly England

Six days ago, Tom over at Wuthering Expections blogged about French literature of the 18th century. This got me thinking about my own reading of 18th-century literature. I don't have a good memory for when things were written, and because I read with no particular end in mind, in my imagination all books are pretty much contemporary, and Cervantes, Moses, Nabokov, Shakespeare, and sadly Jonathan Franzen are all even now hunched over their typewriters, pecking away at new works.

Anyway, casting my eye over a variety of lists more-or-less readily available on the internets, I discover to nobody's surprise that most of my reading of 18th-century works is centered around English-speaking writers. There were a lot of them, but even so they are by and large only nodding acquaintances of mine. I have neither the time nor the space to list all the works I haven't read. For example, I have not read any DeFoe, but I did read a surprising amount of Johnathan Swift in school. Fielding? Not yet, but I have Tom Jones on the shelf. Lawrence Sterne, yes to both Tristram Shandy and Sentimental Journey. A good number of Samuel Johnson's essays (mostly from the Rambler, I think), and Boswell's hagiography of Johnson. Rousseau's Social Contract, but none of his fiction. Oh, wait: Rousseau was French. What am I thinking? Some Pope, most recently "The Rape of the Lock." No Samuel Richardson. No Walpole. Goldsmith's "She Stoops to Conquer," yes. Some Robert Burns. Some Wordsworth. Some Coleridge, most notably "Kubla Khan," of course, I guess. The sonnets and other poems of Charlotte Smith.

I can't keep everyone's nationalities in tidy order, so I'll confess to having read Voltaire, but naturally only Candide. Several times, though. Some Goethe essays have made their way to me, and also a chunk of the Italienische Reise, mostly from the first half if I remember correctly from those long-ago school days. Did I read Diderot's Jacques the Fatalist in school? I can't be sure. No Smollett. No Radcliffe. No Montesquieu. Hume, though. Clearly lots of English works. Molière yes; Racine no. I haven't read Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane, but something about Zola's criticism of the work makes we want to read it. I can't remember if Zola praised or condemned the novel, but he mentioned it often enough.

Some Schiller, but not much, because Schiller. Lyndon LaRouche was a big Schiller fan. I can't help holding that against Schiller, which I know is unfair. To continue: I've long wanted to read Moritz's Journeys of a German in England in 1782. Some day. I've read a bit of Leibniz, after I learned that he was Voltaire's model for Dr Pangloss. Some Kant, primarily the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. Fun stuff. A good deal of that book influenced the character of a fictional detective in two novels I wrote years ago. Oh, and let's not forget Rudolf Erich Raspe's book Baron Munchausen's Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia. So that's German literature in a blinkered nutshell, then. To the best of my knowledge I've neither read nor can I name any 18th-century Italian writers. That's a lie: I've heard of Casanova, of course, but he's never heard of me. Nothing from Spain, either. Across the pond, a lot of folks in the New World were writing about politics. When I was a political science major, I read a bunch of this stuff. I also read Johnathan Edward's sermons. I pause to shiver. I read some Colonial-era diaries when I was researching a novel set in 1749. I have not read any fiction or poetry from Colonial America. I am aware that such stuff did exist, though.

Broadening my search, I report nothing from the Arab world. Nor any Sephardic authors. There is a five-volume novel by Cao Xueqin called The Story of the Stone that is supposed to be a masterpiece, "China's greatest novel," etc. I will keep an eye out for it. "Dizzying," I'm told. That sounds good, to be made dizzy by a novel. Looping back to England, I remind myself that I have all six volumes of Gibbon's Decline and Fall, which I plan to begin reading sometime in December, or maybe January.

It's said that the 18th century was "artless" but there is a considerable amount of good stuff there. My own reading has barely scratched the surface, as we can all see. If you look past literature to music, you will find a golden age in European art music, an incredibly fertile period of activity that to this day remains the focus of "serious" music. I put "serious" in quotes because I don't know what else to call the stuff, not because Captain Beefheart is frivolous. The 18th century produced what remains the core repertoire of Western Art Music(tm).

there is a season, etc.

It's fall in Seattle, which means that the leaves are turning all shades of shades, making sidewalks and choked gutters quite pretty. The weather has been remarkably rain-free for the last week or so, though that's all supposed to come to an end in a few days, and I assume the city will then enter The Long Dark.


So pretty. But don't get used to seeing the sky, Seattle.


Fall in Seattle also means it's time to vote again. I swear, we have some sort of election or other every six months. But we are, generally speaking, an informed electorate and don't mind doing our duty as citizens. Though I confess myself relieved that our mailbox will now no longer be choked with political advertisements. A word to the wise for creators of political ads: hire an editor and a graphic designer! Your ads are too ugly and ungrammatical to look at and/or read!


Democracy in action.

the coming night with its dying-deep but dazzling darkness

    Then voice: commanding, flaring in an ear.
    I could not speak, only heard and witnessed.
    The little animals and the big came
    Trotting with my teeth-grooved bones in their mouths.
    They laid the bones, each in its place. Sinews
    Were cauled around the spars. Glitter-fine, flecks
    Of skin were strewn and grew whole cloth, seamless
    And unmarred. The birds brought eyes, so I wept
    But knew no why. The voice swelled in my head
    Like an oracle blown into a shell.
    The winds were my hammock. I swung the air
    Like a bell. A Lazarus breath entered
    The gate, my mouth. And I came forth, ready
    To quit the ruins and the stained river,
    Braced to live before I died again.

In The Book of the Red King, Marly Youmans creates a complex poetry cycle set in a mythic kingdom that may exist a thousand years ago, or it may be here now (the cultural references in the city of the Red King run from armies on horseback to dogs on skateboards). The poems seem to grow out of the world's epic myths and legends (Gilgamesh is referenced by name, and the work can seem to be haunted by Spencer, Shakespeare, Malory, and Milton--and also maybe Wordsworth and Coleridge and I will try to stop comparing now), but this is not a reworking of old tales, nor even I think is it so much a new myth as it is an explication of the life and work of the artist (and possibly in this sense, Yeats' spirit also hovers over the book). Youmans is always powerful when she writes about art and artists, and The Book of the Red King strikes me as her most forceful (and possibly most personal) statement about art (and the artist's purpose) yet. Creativity, rebirth and transfiguration are the threads that stitch The Book of the Red King together.

And when, unseen, some Atlas dropped the skies,
Tumults of stars and feathers rushed, slammed
Against the Fool, air forward-gyrating
With power and a noise like muscled creeks,
While the cloud-buried sun sent fire as pale
As lightning bolts to dazzle snow and mist
And summons him to ends of mystery
Like the wheels within wheels of the whirlwinds.

(from "The Fool Glimpses the City")
and
Still the Fool kneels in the kitchen midden,
Making a city out of broken china.
By starlight, towers and shard cottages
Of crockery are glowing, luminous
Neighborhoods for the moon: how he trembles
From the chill air, or else from pilfering,
The bringing something out of things that are
Not--like syllables' juggled radiance.

(from "Wild to Make")

yes, that's how it is to be caught by the creative impulse. This is good stuff. This is what Youmans' book is like, and this is not what Youmans' book is like. It's interconnected, but open-ended, hard and specific and mysterious.

I promised myself that I was just going to point to the many ways The Book of the Red King has an attractive surface, how many of its pleasures are easily enjoyed just through the inventiveness of Youmans' characters and the angular, beautiful chemistry of her language. I promised myself that I was not going to, you know, interpret the poems here. The problem with that promise is that as a reader, I spend a lot of energy asking texts what they are about, what they think they are doing below the surface. So maybe we should just get that out of the way first. That's a joke; I've done nothing so far except interpret. I don't know any other way to write about art, because I assume that formal aspects of good art are bound up in meaning. And vice versa. I digress.

The Book of the Red King is a collection of poems and lyrics written by the Fool, a character presented as a jester in the court of the Red King. The Fool writes The Book partly as a gift to the Red King, and partly because this writing is what the Fool does, is compelled to do by the creative impulse. The role of the Fool-as-artist is informed by the role of the Fool-as-fool in a feudal court: he observes, he speaks, he tells the truth. He also creates beauty, points to beauty, loves and points to love, grieves and points to grief, is angry and points to anger, etc, all of this being the work of the artist. The Fool, I am telling you, is Marly Youmans (and Yeats and Shakespeare and Milton and let's say Matthew as well, why not). That's my theory; see the first paragraph of this increasingly-staggering little essay. You'll have to draw your own conclusions about the identity of the Red King. Youmans has said of him, "He is all the things he is at once, it seems."

[. . .] His are the hands that drift
Ever-so-slowly outward in what is
Not-time. Yet in that spaceless, hourless realm,
He weaves the cloth of starts and spins his threads,
Unreeling filaments of energy
That spiral through all people, things, and space.
In trance, he is the King of Paradox;
The universes are a cloak he wears,
Glinting behind him like a moonlit seal...

One distant fleck of stardust knows the trick
Of waking the Red King from gulfs of dream:
His Fool, with bells and baubles on a stick.

I'm only getting at the large-scale framework, and there are a number of other themes running through this cycle of poems, which I will not get into other than to say that redemption, striving for grace, and the fool-like nature of true faith are patterned into the work. A passing theme that caught my attention is that of dust. Adam, as we all know, was formed from "the dust of the ground." The Fool rises, in a way, from the earth itself in the first pages of the book. Draw your own conclusions. But dust is played with across several poems, an image worked to show the possibility of redemption, of grace.


Once was a particle of dust
Named Hob; and one day a big gust

[. . .] --the sky
Of stars seemed to be asking why

They were bright fire, when he was dust
That yearned but never would combust.

[. . .] A chilly vapor held
Him in its cloud: a mote be-spelled

By cold [. . .]

and he slipped
Into the white and perfect script

Of snow: the story of a star,
Six-armed, rainbowed, spinning from far
Realms of sky; sun rising at night;
In midwinter, this birth and light.

I know that it's almost impossible to excerpt a poem without doing it damage, but I am not quite willing to quote wholesale from the book, so this will have to do for you. There is also a lovely poem where dust motes in streaming sunlight are turned to a swimming veil of gold, a striking image.

Because Youmans always writes on a number of levels at once, this essay can only seem to diminish her artistry by so poorly describing it. I know that poetry has, even at the best of times, a limited audience, but The Book of the Red King deserves readers, and plucky Phoenicia Publishing deserves a reward for being brave enough to market collections that require thoughtful readers. A good deal of current American poetry is merely angry, woke, political, and shallow; or else it's merely pretty, saccharine, and shallow. And while Youmans' book could serve as a text for a contemporary course on the uses of beauty and empathy, she writes for the ages, which I think is in the long run a better idea. I don't know why Marly Youmans isn't much better known, for both her poetry and her novels. She always taps into the substrata of art and life. As she says at the end of her poem "Both Sides of the River":

Come closer to me, under
The wind-tossed shadow of leaves,
And listen: I can't whisper how to walk
On both sides of the singing river,
For riddles must be
Learned, earned in long
East-of-sun, west-of-moon
Mad fairy-tale journeys
Or starlit wrestlings with angels
Or sometimes by accident,
As when an innocent mind tumbles
Into the vertical blue of wells.
And if for one fleck of time
You stand tiptoe on both sides of a river,
You won’t master the mystery.
Always, there’s a residue, something
Hidden in sight,
Brimming with sunshine
Or collecting cloud-shadows
Like the leaf-silt, spell-silt
That fell through golds and ambers
In a fortuneteller’s teacup--
The scribe, the maker
Of resistant, radiant messages
Impossible to read.

"Both Sides of the River" is not from The Book of the Red King, but Red King is filled with resistant, radiant messages. And it's not so impossible to read.

the vision of Gideon and the lightning of Damascus

“We begin, in all probability, by telling the youth of fifteen or sixteen, that Nature is full of faults, and that he is to improve her; but that Raphael is perfection, and that the more he copies Raphael the better; that after much copying of Raphael, he is to try what he can do himself in a Raphaelesque, but yet highly original manner: that is to say he is to try to do something very clever, all out of his own head, but yet this clever something is to be properly subjected to Raphaelesque rules…This I say is the kind of teaching which the Royal Academy lecturing, press criticisms, public enthusiasms, and not least by solid weight of gold, we give to our young men. And we wonder we have no painters.”
"Raphael had neither religion nor originality enough to trace the spirit of poetry and the spirit of philosophy to the inspiration of the true God, as well as that of theology, but that, on the contrary, he elevated the creations of fancy on the one wall, to the same rank as the objects of faith upon the other; that in deliberate balanced opposition to the Rock of Mount Zion, he reared the rock of Parnassus, and the rock of the Acropolis; that, among the masters of poetry we find him enthroning Petrarch and Pindar, but not Isaiah nor David, and for lords over the domain of philosophy we find the masters of the School of Athens, but neither of those greater masters by the last of whom that school was rebuked- those who received their wisdom from heaven itself, in the vision of Gideon and the lightning of Damascus.”

This is Ruskin on Raphael, first in a defense of the Pre-Raphaelites, and next in a lecture called “Pre-Raphaelitism”, given at Edinburgh University in 1853. So Raphael, says our John, not only elevates art above nature, he commits the Renaissance sin of elevating art above religion, which is to say, he places Man at or above the level of God. That about wraps it up for Raphael, if you're John Ruskin. Ruskin leapt into the Art Wars in Victorian England, on the side of the realists, the naturalists, the Pre-Raphaelites. They had a point, I think, about subject matter and mannerism, though they seem to have also ended up focusing on mythological/historical/literary subjects and painting in a highly artificial manner. So who knows what was going on. And while I must say that Raphael is not my favorite painter, I quite like a number of his works (the portrait of Castiglione in the Louvre is a masterpiece, as are many of Raphael's portraits). And while I like a number of the Pre-Raphaelite works I've seen, I would rather look at Raphael.

Nonetheless, or perhaps because of all this cunundra, Mighty Reader and I went to an exhibit of Pre-Raphaelite works at the Seattle Art Museum last night. There was a Ruskin watercolor! I've never seen a Ruskin with my own eyes. I must say he was probably a better draughtsman than he was a painter, though this painting is not as blurry as my photo makes it appear. I was doubtless trembling with the excitement of seeing something Ruskin had touched.


The details are quite clear when you see them closely. The buildings on the lake shore are delicate and finely rendered:


The biggest influence Pre-Raphaelite work has had on me is my love for the graphic arts and especially the style of illustration that came out of the period. Here is an edition of Chaucer, with a gorgeous design and illustrations that remind me of every book I loved as a child:


I do not remember who the artist is. The image below is a detail from a large painting of a market square where a variety of tradespeople were preparing for the work day. Thomas Carlyle is painted off to the side, chatting no doubt about society with another philosopher, whose name I forget because I had never heard of him. Anyway, the forget-me-nots were lovely.


I leave you with a modern work hanging in the same gallery, a piece of anonymous post-Pre-Raphaelism:


The Victorian Art Wars and the rising ideas of naturalism versus artistic beauty dovetail nicely into the Zola essays I'm currently reading. Perhaps I'll write about those essays in the near future. Zola was not the clearest thinker, I am discovering.

the lettuces lounged in line with an air of careless indolence

Florent Laquerriere escapes from Devil's Island, where he has been wrongfully incarcerated by the government of  Louis Napoleon, and returns to Paris where he takes a position as one of the fish market inspectors in the immense new marketplace Les Halles. Devil's Island was a deforested purgatory of drought and starvation; Les Halles is a different sort of purgatory. The first chapter has Florent, upon his initial return to Paris, staggering around in Les Halles before the market opens, surrounded by food of every description (and Zola does, in fact, give every description of the food), weak and delirious from starvation. The book's first irony; there are countless more, for example this passage from a scene fairly late in the book, where Florent and Claude (a painter) visit a farm outside of Pars:

Florent paced backwards and forwards amidst the perfume of the thyme, which the sun was warming. He felt profoundly happy in the peacefulness and cleanliness of the garden. For nearly a year past he had only seen vegetables bruised and crushed by the jolting of the market-carts; vegetables torn up on the previous evening, and still bleeding. He rejoiced to find them at home, in peace in the dark mold, and sound in every part. The cabbages had a bulky, prosperous appearance; the carrots looked bright and gay; and the lettuces lounged in line with an air of careless indolence. And as he looked at them all, the markets which he had left behind him that morning seemed to him like a vast mortuary, an abode of death, where only corpses could be found, a charnel-house reeking with foul smells and putrefaction. He slackened his steps, and rested in that kitchen garden, as after a long perambulation amidst deafening noises and repulsive odors. The uproar and the sickening humidity of the fish market had departed from him; and he felt as though he were being born anew in the pure fresh air. Claude was right, he thought. The markets were a sphere of death. The soil was the life, the eternal cradle, the health of the world.

 Not that The Belly of Paris is a novel that condemns the city and urges us to some primitive life instead. The Belly of Paris is really about consumerism and acquisitiveness, which Zola describes as a battle between The Fat and The Thin. Fat and Thin do not mean Rich and Poor; it is about something deeper within humanity, more like gluttony versus...I don't know; what's the opposite of gluttony? moderation? abstinence? Maybe. Some people are just not hungry, even when they don't eat. In a metaphorical sense, that is. Perhaps this is a novel about materialism, then.

Zola gives a lot of pages over to descriptions of food. One of his narrative gambits is to carry the reader from a celebration of food, a glorious cornucopia of delight, to a suffocating and poisonous bacchanalia of death and rot. The book begins with page after page of wagons laden with fresh vegetables, entering Paris in the wee small hours of the morning, a caravan of good healthy stuff. As the book goes along, the the heaps of carrots and cabbages are replaced by bloody heaps of sheep's tongues, by cheeses melting and reeking in the sun, by a halfwit gleefully slitting the throats of forty pigeons as his bloodthirsty lover watches.

Meanwhile, Florent has become radicalized and has joined a revolutionary group who plan a coup against Louis Napoleon and his regime. This plot is mostly for comic relief, the revolutionaires being mostly idiots and police informants. The real action is the lower middle class squabbling of the women of the market, a collection of misogynist stereotypes Zola has brought together and animated with some amusing verve.

A tall female pushed the shop door open. It was the handsome fish-girl, Louise Mehudin, generally known as La Normande. She was a bold-looking beauty, with a delicate white skin, and was almost as plump as Lisa, but there was more effrontery in her glance, and her bosom heaved with warmer life. She came into the shop with a light swinging step, her gold chain jingling on her apron, her bare hair arranged in the latest style, and a bow at her throat, a lace bow, which made her one of the most coquettish-looking queens of the markets. She brought a vague odor of fish with her, and a herring-scale showed like a tiny patch of mother-of-pearl near the little finger of one of her hands. She and Lisa having lived in the same house in the Rue Pirouette, were intimate friends, linked by a touch of rivalry which kept each of them busy with thoughts of the other. In the neighborhood people spoke of “the beautiful Norman,” just as they spoke of “beautiful Lisa.” This brought them into opposition and comparison, and compelled each of them to do her utmost to sustain her reputation for beauty. Lisa from her counter could, by stooping a little, perceive the fish-girl amidst her salmon and turbot in the pavilion opposite; and each kept a watch on the other. Beautiful Lisa laced herself more tightly in her stays; and the beautiful Norman replied by placing additional rings on her fingers and additional bows on her shoulders. When they met they were very bland and unctuous and profuse in compliments; but all the while their eyes were furtively glancing from under their lowered lids, in the hope of discovering some flaw. They made a point of always dealing with each other, and professed great mutual affection.

A good deal of the action involving the women of Les Halles has to do with gossip, women making up stories about their neighbors, stories that take on essentially cash value: a good story will get you a free meal from one or more of the shops. A gossip with an established reputation for titillating stories can save a lot of money of groceries, and lives are made or broken in Les Halles on the strength of gossip.

I am not doing a good job of describing The Belly of Paris. For that, you should go read Tom's excellent posts at Wuthering Expectations. Meanwhile, yesterday I picked up a copy of L'Assommoir at a used bookshop yesterday afternoon, so apparently I plan to read more Zola. Zola was a student, you could say, of Flaubert. He took many of Flaubert's techniques and ran with them. Possibly he used them with less precision than Flaubert, or let's say with fewer strictures, and I'm going to say that I probably prefer Zola's writing to Flaubert's.