And the Sublime.
By IGOR WEBB.
JANUARY 2021. ALMOST a year in quarantine. I am still alive. Although something hard to name though pervasive has occurred to the experience—of being alive—subtle in the sense that there are moments when it hardly seems anything has happened—the birds swirl noisily in the bushes, just as before—and yet absolutely every pulse of light has changed, even when I couldn’t say how. Most of all, I suffer from a kind of double vision—attached to each bite of pizza, each step, each thought and emotion is the presence of its vanishing and pointlessness.
But I have spent a lifetime paying witness, persuaded it will matter if something is said in the way of reckoning.
So let’s start with
AFTER HE HAD stopped writing, my old friend Philip Roth began napping. And he was no slouch at it, either. He undressed, got into his pajamas, slipped under the covers—he told me he had learned from his father long ago that a nap was wasted unless done properly. It wasn’t a nap if you just closed your eyes. No longer driven to figure out, as he put it, what he “should do with these people,” he could take an hour out of the day to settle into blissful coziness. He loved his naps.
“I don’t have the energy anymore,” he said, explaining why he no longer wrote novels.
But he was extremely sharp to the end, formidable; he devoted himself to studying American history, and was as always a very good student.
So it wasn’t about the mind but the body.
If I told him that he was looking good, he would say, “That’s not what I see when I look in the mirror.”
His last few books were slim, devastating studies of the human animal aging and, now in earnest, though the books suggest this can never truly be done in earnest—of the human animal aging and facing death. The first of these is Everyman (2006), the title, as the book jacket informs us, taken from “a classic of English drama whose theme is the summoning of the living to death.”
Being summoned to death is our living experience, such as what Philip saw when he looked in the mirror.
The mirror in my bathroom is about fifteen steps from my bed, and I take the trip each morning at about the same time, around 7:00, because I have to walk the dogs. I don’t have to travel to work since I am working “remotely”; in fact, I have no reason whatever to get up at any particular hour. But since Fort Greene Park, a few blocks from the apartment to which I have recently moved, allows you to let the dogs off the leash before 9 a.m., well, if we are to get in an hour’s walk, we have to get there around 8, and to achieve that I roll out of bed at 7:00.
Here’s what I see when I look in the mirror (now!):
I am usually a calm person, imperturbable; I don’t worry. But in the last several months I have worried, enough to lose quite a lot of weight, so that in the white bathroom light I am an alarmingly thin, feeble-looking old man. I have not been this thin since I was in my twenties—but in my twenties my body, like yours, was solid and upright and I didn’t bother to look at it, whereas now, a little stunned, I do look. What I have to claim as my body in the mirror appears fragile and even more hopelessly creased, droopy, and spotted, my skin scrunched up around my nipples or sagging from my arms, black splotches and moles proliferating on my chest and for that matter on my hands and my face, some just ugly but harmless, some, my dermatologist says, “pre-cancerous,” and requiring treatment lest they kill me. Running from my right shoulder to my elbow is a faint yellow-green bruise caused by bone rubbing on bone or tendon and doing yet more damage to my already shot rotator cuff. My left rotator cuff is badly torn too, so I can’t hold five pounds in either hand at arm’s length. And I know that there, beneath the skin and bone, one of the valves of my heart is dangerously enlarged so each time it pumps my blood a little leaks out. That’s what got my father, in the end: heart failure. My mother’s brothers, both blond Jews, pale, blue-eyed, died of skin cancer. My mother died of colon cancer, but the last time I had a colonoscopy the good-humored doctor told me: “Even if you somehow got colon cancer tomorrow it would grow so slowly that, at your age, something else will kill you first. So, congratulations, this is your last colonoscopy.” Further down, along my thighs, the usual spider-web of varicose veins makes a sad frame for the even sadder genitals, about which the less said the better. All in all, however, not bad compared to Philip’s protagonist in Everyman who is in and out of the hospital, the subject of numerous procedures and operations, a stent here and a stent there. He still goes jogging though and is smitten by a young woman he passes each day—she “had the curvaceous lusciousness of a Varga Girl in the old 1940s magazine illustrations”—smitten enough to stop her and to ask, “‘How game are you?’” Which is the same question the famous aging writer asks Alice in Lisa Halliday’s debut novel Asymmetry, an aging writer modeled, by all accounts, on Philip Roth.
On the talk shows, the answer to “What gets you out of bed in the mornings?” is supposed to be a calling, something you are dying to get to and that you love to do.
But by now I’ve buried quite a number of people of my parents’ generation, including the parents of both my wives as well as my own parents, and also a few close friends from my generation, and none of them, in the end, were bouncing out of bed. Mainly they needed less and less sleep, and found themselves up at the crack of dawn; or more and more sleep, and found themselves in bed at noon.
I get up to walk the dogs.
What I Learned From William Hazlitt.
A FEW YEARS ago I fell into conversation with a man who looked to be pretty much my age at the annual U.S. convention for writers and writing programs, known familiarly as AWP. It turned out he came from the San Francisco area and knew some of my old friends, friends from when I was twenty-five years old. “So,” he asked me, “have you learned anything?”
“No,” I said, “not really”—meaning that what I knew in my twenties is basically what I know now, what I knew, that is, and know, about life. The same, he said, went for him.
OK, maybe that was a bit of convention braggadocio on both our parts; maybe we should have said that the essence of who we were at twenty-five, the presence in consciousness we would have named at the time as “me,” that remained unchanged. Because obviously we had learned a lot of things over the years, about a lot of different things, including life.
Also, what my chance acquaintance at AWP and I knew of life at twenty-five, as well as what we had learned up to that point, meant for both of us a lot of reading.
I was twenty-five, for example, when I pulled William Hazlitt’s Political Essays (1819) off the shelf in the English library, upstairs in the elegant main building, the Wilkins Building, at University College, London, where I had the good fortune to have been sent for the year by Stanford on a Leverhulme Fellowship (the year was 1966!). But when I opened the volume, I discovered—as I would discover about many books in that library—that the pages were uncut. (You could not remove books from the library, but had to read them there; but you could pull whatever you wanted from the shelves.) I was the first person who had ever wanted to read that book—and for this reason: at that date the English Department of University College didn’t believe in teaching “modern” literature, in fact, did not offer anything beyond the eighteenth century. Fortunately, since I was writing a Ph.D. thesis on nineteenth-century views of art and the modern novel, the library had a very good collection of (mainly unread) nineteenth-century texts. A beadle, in uniform, sat at a small desk just outside the library. I showed him the uncut pages and, without saying a word, he opened the drawer of his little desk and pulled out a long paper-cutter and cut the pages of Hazlitt’s Political Essays, unread since 1819.
In “My First Acquaintance with Poets,” Hazlitt recounts how Coleridge and Wordsworth transformed him from a lost, inarticulate “worm” into the voluble man-of-letters he became, and then adds: “So I have loitered my life away, reading books, looking at pictures, going to plays, hearing, thinking, writing on what pleased me best. I have wanted only one thing to make me happy, but wanting that have wanted everything”—surely, the most heart-rending sentence in English literature.
So this was the first thing I learned from Hazlitt, that love matters most.
Still, it seemed to me a charmed life—“loitering” among books, pictures, thinking and writing on what pleases you.
He was an irascible, impossible man who quarreled with everyone, entered every room scowling, lived on tea and ink, and by himself in cold rooms in small boarding houses. Even the saintly Charles Lamb would lose patience with him.
But when I pulled Political Essays from the shelf I didn’t know much about him. I did know that just as he, when young, looked with adoring, gaga eyes on Coleridge, so the young John Keats looked on him. How could the man who wrote “The Fight” and “On Gusto” and “My First Acquaintance with Poets” have been anything but a delight, the person you’d want along whether you were hiking across the moors or attending a staging of Macbeth or going to catch a prize fight?
When he held a quill in his hand and began to write, he poured wonderful sentences, ideas, turns of phrase onto the page—a great many of them so vigorous and electric we love to read them today, two hundred years later. But his life was a mess. Especially, such as it was, his love life. He so wanted to be loved, he was so vulnerable to fantasies about any woman he thought showed an interest in him. Liber Amoris, where he tells in unremitting detail the story of his humiliating courtship, if that’s the word, of Sarah, his landlord’s daughter, an entirely unremarkable but sly and seductive young woman, is a book no writer alive today—when revealing everything you might be ashamed of in print is commonplace—would dream of publishing. No one tells all to expose himself as a complete fool, gullible and besotted and blind, and I mean wholly and absolutely blind, to the simplest facts of sexual encounters.
He wasn’t an easy man to love. No one managed it, really, besides Charles Lamb. And although he was passionate about more or less everything, clearly he didn’t know how to love another person, except in print.
What he did know was that without love all the rest was pointless: what did it matter that he had lectured about Shakespeare like no one else if no one—and he meant, no woman—loved him?
Political essays. The literature curriculum I had been schooled in, meaning not only what I read but how I read, was almost entirely apolitical. Politics, if acknowledged at all in the literature classrooms of the day, was at most mentioned in passing. And in general, it was as if poems and novels and even essays had come into existence curiously independent of life, of people living in a certain place and a certain time, and—well, and living. But Hazlitt quarreled with Coleridge and Wordsworth because they—as he saw it—had betrayed the progressive political principles of their youth: it was a political quarrel. Even more, there were no demarcation lines in Hazlitt’s writing between one thing and another, politics and art, art and boxing, self and subject. His intelligence and sensibility and all he had read and seen, and his principles and prejudices, all of him was thrown into the enterprise of making sense of things, a passion Hazlitt conducted, pot of black tea at hand, through writing.
So this was the function of literature. A way—for reader and writer—to find one’s way: It must have seemed to me at the time no less than the key to life, and if I did think of it that way what an exhilarating thought it must have been, because I was not then and have not yet become a planner and goal-setter: I had simply plunged headlong into being a twenty-five-year-old “young man” in a time of political turmoil if not revolution, and of sexual and cultural revolution too: so whom could I look to to follow?
All those writers.
MAYBE WALKING THE dogs isn’t the full story. Maybe the dogs are a cover, a cover for and an illustration of my sense of obligation.
Obligation: a debt of gratitude.
The pandemic has forced questions that pre-Covid were fundamental but nonetheless maybe abstract or merely speculative, such as what we owe one another, to an uncomfortable prominence: because the question of what we owe one another, and why, has become abruptly urgent, a literal matter of life and death.
And so I have wondered about the things I can’t help doing and why I do them. What do I choose? When I look around, what do I see? In this year when we can’t do much, what is it, nevertheless, that I do?
Moving to a new neighborhood in a pandemic was disorienting, unnerving, yes, but also nevertheless an adventure of discovery. Where was I? And then, where could I find what I need or want? And most important, what do I need and want? Looking out my window, down on the young couples on Dekalb, with their babies strapped to their chests and their dogs—alert and happy, ears perked up—walking beside them, I am tempted to go there—to the crowded sidewalks, the sidewalk tables where people are eating vegan noodles or steaming burgers in their parkas and woolen hats, to the delivery convoys of UPS trucks, FreshDirect trucks, Pea Pod trucks, to the bright cars blaring rap music, and of course the masks and the garbage . . . But I am going to restrict myself (well, more or less) to eating, in fact to bread.
To get where I want to go, I have to go back a little, to the town of Malacky (pronounced: Malatsky), where I was born in my parents’ bed, no doctor or midwife present, in 1941. The town, settled early in the thirteenth century, sits in the foothills of the Small Carpathian Mountains in a part of Slovakia literally known as the Backwoods. Just a hick town, half Catholic, half Jewish, surrounded by farmland. My father grew up in poverty, one of eight kids raised by a single mother. There wasn’t much to eat; the delicacies of his youth were broad noodles covered in butter, sugar, and poppy seeds or fruit dumplings or slices of rye bread spread with chicken fat (itself a delicacy). Many decades later, when he had long been absent from the Slovak backwoods but was feeling a little low, he would cook himself some plum dumplings and then devour them slavered with butter, ground walnuts, and sugar. Then he would make a little tea, with a Lipton tea bag, and lean back contentedly in his chair at the kitchen table. He also cooked chicken paprikash with gnocchi, and especially matzo ball soup. If we went to a restaurant, he’d have apple strudel for dessert, if it was available; and if it was a central European restaurant, he’d have palacinky, a form of dessert crepe. My mother didn’t like celebrations and so I don’t have any memories of fabulous holiday meals. And she didn’t like religion either—so no challah on Friday nights. But I remember coming home from school one afternoon when we were living in Quito, Ecuador, to find my parents stretching a piece of dough the entire length of the dining-room table in preparation for making strudel. They had escaped Europe and landed in a very unlikely place, quaint and, according to my father, welcoming and universally friendly, but far, far from home. So, together, they were making strudel.
My oldest daughter, Kelly, gave me for Christmas an external drive of the home movies we had filmed in the early 1970s, when she was all of four and five years old. There are lots and lots of scenes at the dining room table, food being carried in with melodrama, the succulent turkey, the Christmas pudding, a blue haze of the brandy burning along its surface, or a birthday cake, carried gingerly, candles flickering. And there I am, decade after decade, long after the home movies stop, looking intently at the food, bent over the dish as though I were davening, a posture in the presence of food that, as I learned from Ben Katchor’s The Dairy Restaurant, has a long Jewish history. Katchor’s book, which is, among other things, a history of the world retold through the lens of eating, and is my candidate for what to read under lockdown, opens with the sentence: “The ‘Garden’ in Eden is the first private eating place open to the public that’s mentioned in the Bible” and goes on to observe that “instead of being a source of original sin, the act of eating was considered by some Hasidim to be the highest form of prayer.”
Which makes sense to me.
We needed huge clear-plastic bags to recycle the vast quantities of cardboard and packing paper from our move; we needed to order a new bed for me—the one I originally ordered was too big for the room—and, of course, sheets, pillow-cases, and a fortune worth’s of cleaning products. We needed to get our names on the books of the providers of electricity and gas and of the invisible waves of light that make all of our necessary devices tick. We needed reading material to lull us to sleep. The independent Greenlight Bookstore is not too far, on South Portland and Fulton, so in the fall I bought many books. But it turned out that to feel succored, to feel settled, comfortable, warm, at home we needed the kind of pleasure that comes of eating bread.
But even in hip Fort Greene, with its swarms of “young professionals,” finding bread—actual bread—is no simple matter. There are no bakeries.
My great-grandfather on my father’s side was a baker. The bakery was located at the street end of the house in Malacky in which my father and his siblings grew up, and already as a young boy my father got up before dawn and, on his bicycle, delivered the day’s bread, not only through the town but to the area’s farms, too. I don’t know much about the bread he delivered, but I do know it was made from a sourdough starter, not yeast, and was likely made of rye flour (in fact, Jewish rye bread!). Now, curiously, whereas for me bread is, to say nothing more (and I will say something more in a minute), a necessity of life, and I love bread, for my father good bread was a pleasure—and he was, for obvious reasons, quite knowledgeable about bread—but not something he ever went to much trouble to make—I don’t recall that he ever made bread at home—or to obtain.
So I didn’t get it—or not directly—from him.
No, my taste for bread is the product of social mobility: from the moment I first stepped onto the A train at 207th street in Manhattan for the hour’s ride to Brooklyn Technical High School many years ago, I left my father’s house and entered onto the lifetime I would spend among the eggheads and professors and politicos and literary types who people the cosmopolitan sub-basement of the ruling class. (The sub-basement, because we have no—or precious little—power, even though we like to think of the sub-basement as the foundation of the place.)
I wanted nothing to do with things cosmopolitan when I first landed in New York as a boy. I had had enough of that. On the contrary, I wanted to be stuck in place, to belong, I wanted to become an American boy. Both my parents worked, and I spent most afternoons after coming home from primary school—P.S. 98 Manhattan—alone, and I would feed myself the food television taught me exemplified America: Bond bread, canned baked beans, and apple pie, all of which I bought—with what money, I can’t recall—at the little corner grocery halfway between our house and school (the pie came in little individual portions in a small box—who made these?).
I remain to this day very fond of canned baked beans and also of those little portions of pie, but the bread . . . Still, I loved eating it on those dark afternoons when I would be alone at home, watching Westerns on TV.
But I never did become an American boy.
No amount of Bond Bread could quite remove the alien in me, the ineradicable traces of my origins, the echo of my parents’ hard accents when I spoke, the taste of poppy seeds, the dreams in which German soldiers, or my neighbors, were trying to kill me.
And anyway I was called “Igor.”
But that isn’t at all the whole story. My parents did not read to me when I was a toddler, and I did not read any children’s literature, either. But once in the U.S. I somehow got the bug and read War of the Worlds and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and soon enough Virginia Woolf and Camus and Sartre and James Baldwin. And as a young man, I lived in London and travelled to Paris.
I recently stumbled upon the late nineteenth-century Portuguese novelist Eco de Queiros, whom I had never heard of until a few months ago, and am reading his masterpiece The Maias. As the book opens, there’s some question about whether the Maias, for generations a wealthy family, have fallen on hard times, but the family’s steward, Vilaca, assures people that “‘they still have a crust of bread to eat . . . and butter to spread on it too.’”
I loved coming across that sentence. (Or we could go to A.A. Milne: “The King asked/The Queen and/The Queen asked/The Dairymaid,/’Could we have some butter for/The Royal slice of bread?’”) Bread, I don’t have to tell you, has been a metaphor as much as a staple for a very long time, but in Vilaca’s use of bread (as in Milne’s) there’s more than metaphor: there’s a distinct hint of pleasure in the sentence, the pleasure, for an old wealthy family, of eating.
In addition to Hazlitt, I was also reading John Ruskin in the University College English library, including his complaint, in the third volume of Modern Painters, against use of the word “taste” and for that matter “gusto” in relation to art, because the use of these words implies “that art gives only a pleasure analogous to that derived from eating by the palate.” Art was far too serious a matter to be compared in any way to, you know, eating. But on this point T.S. Eliot has it right: culture, he argues, should be understood to refer to “the whole way of life of a people,” not just great paintings, books, ideas—Ruskin’s “Art”—but everyday life, the sports people play, what people do on Friday night, and especially (this “especially” is mine, not his) what people eat.
And nowhere is this more true, and true in particular about bread, than in Paris. This isn’t exactly news: but you may not have run across the Cornell historian Steven Laurence Kaplan, who as far as I can discover is the authority on French bread (needless to say, the most besotted lovers of French bread are those of us who are not French). He recounts that while working on his definitive The Bakers of Paris and the Bread Question, 1770-1775 (782 pages!), he wandered the city comparing bakeries. “I was enraptured and exalted by good bread. It excited all my senses; it spurred dreams. Delighting body and spirit alike, it inscribed deep traces of beauty and joy, Proustian moments of immobilized time. Good bread was sufficient unto itself, at any time of day . . . vox panis, vox dei.”1
I had travelled to Paris, on my first visit, from London, and London in the mid-1960s was a dour city, dusty, gray, still marked by the War. If you went to a greengrocer to buy potatoes, there they were, in a dark little room, piled next to the other piles, of carrots and onions. But in the markets in Paris the vegetables were stunning, a colorful, beautifully displayed array, arranged maybe by Renoir. And the bakeries were even more stunning because they not only looked great—in London, only pubs reflected a similar affection for vivid visual comfort—but also, and especially, smelled fabulous. The bread was nothing short of a revelation—who knew bread could taste this good? Just like that, possibilities of living rose up on every street corner that I was simply not aware of as, well, as actual possibilities. Life could be—like this?!
And when I returned to London and went out once more to buy potatoes I now knew I was being gypped, cheated out of what Henry James liked to call “the real thing.”
Much the same as I feel today wandering the streets of Brooklyn looking for a crust of bread. That is, “real” bread, something authentic.
We hadn’t been in Fort Greene long before we discovered that on Saturdays there is a farmer’s market on Cumberland Street, along the entire length of the park, and one of the booths in the market belongs to the She Wolf bakery, who make what we have come to call, a little pretentiously, artisanal bread. So far, it’s the best bread I’ve been able to find. Clearly these guys are trying to make the real thing, even though the truth is the baguette is no good—the wrong consistency, and tasteless. And it’s just a booth, not a shop of the Paul chain. But the bâtard is sharp, the crust baked hard and tinged black. I buy it, gratefully, every week.
Longinus, On the Sublime.
SITTING ALONE, OR venturing out bundled up, mouth and nose covered by a mask, staying away from people, self-conscious about the invisible badge that identifies me as at “high risk” of death should I contract the ever-present yet unseen coronavirus, I sometimes have the illusion that at last I am able to, have been forced to see things clearly. At these moments I want immediately to put it down in words, I want, to pick up another of Henry James’ turns of phrase, I want to make you see. But how can I make you see? This is a question, as James certainly knew, about the justification of the whole enterprise of writing, about poetics and rhetoric, and maybe about the ethics of writing—and in the Western tradition the classical authority on these things is Longinus.
About Longinus, amazingly, we know nothing at all, including his name and when and where he lived—but the consensus seems to be that the writing dates from the first century CE and, on account of Longinus’s praise of the writer of Genesis, that Longinus might have been a Hellenized Jew living in Rome. (As a Hellenized Jew living in New York, I like that idea.) Longinus’ subject is the expression of ecstasy, what it is and how it is conveyed. He wants to distinguish and explain, and claim as paramount, that moment when a piece of writing, for him as for Emily Dickinson, suddenly takes the top of your head off, or, in his words, “tears everything up like a whirlwind.” This is the sensation that for him announces greatness, and he encounters it and shows it to us across a generous range of genres, in epic poetry (Homer) and philosophy (Plato) and patriotic oratory (Demosthenes) and love poetry (Sappho) and, surprisingly, in Genesis.
So Longinus’ ambition is to fashion a definitive defense of sublimity as the product of art, and we get an immediate idea of how he’s going to go about this, and almost of what he’s going to argue, from his first few words, which are: “My dear Postumius Terentianus.” We know as little about Postumius as we do about Longinus, but from Longinus’ choice of approach we can see right away just how he thinks about his subject: first of all, by addressing his treatise to his friend Postumius, Longinus confides in us that talk about the sublime is best done among intimates, is not really suited to public discourse, is not for any passer-by; and then, that talk about the sublime will only be appreciated by another member of the elite. There’s no point in talking to just anyone on this subject. So although we don’t know anything about Postumius’ life, we know from Longinus’ treatise that he had to have been exceptionally well-read, of a literary bent, of a discriminating temperament. In this way Longinus very carefully selects his audience, and through this act of selection secures his argument: because if we get even a few pages into Longinus’ text, regardless of what we may think of his language, his examples, his arguments, we have either been seduced into or have willingly assumed a place among the other members of his set.
And everything Longinus says depends on this literary community, his set or circle, what it knows, what it values, how it approaches what matters, and of course what it argues about.2To clarify what I am getting at I want to go back for a minute to Steven Kaplan, because what he says about bread, which is always direct, precise, and eloquent, parallels and crystallizes what Longinus says about writing.3
Like Longinus, Kaplan wants to document sublimity, how (in eating bread!) it can be recognized, and how it is achieved. Judging the quality of bread—and Kaplan is the master rhetorician of bread tasters—is, he tells us, largely a matter of “organoleptic analysis” (a new word for me, organoleptic, wonderfully pedantic and meaning essentially of the senses. Classical rhetoric is built of similar words: polysyndeton, hyperbaton . . .). Just as in reading we’re going to pay attention to the words, the images, the visualization, the ideas so in analyzing the quality of bread we’re going to pay attention to how it looks, sounds, smells, tastes. But for Kaplan, and in an analogous way for Longinus (and every literary critic who has come after him), there’s a vexing flaw in organoleptic analysis, and that is that it’s subjective. Kaplan wants something more than a subjective judgment, even if the subjective judgment is the judgment of a connoisseur.
So, how do you get beyond organoleptic analysis in your judgment of bread? Kaplan proposes a whole system, in fact a scoring system that is something like the system used for judging wine and not unlike how Longinus wants to show us greatness in writing though rhetorical rubrics. And if you have the fortitude you can read what Kaplan has to say about grain and sourdough starter and rising and shaping and ovens, just as you can follow Longinus on “Selection and Organization of Material” and “Amplification” and “Phantasia” and “Asyndeton” . . . But in the end, Kaplan is more forthright about the whole business than Longinus: “Exceptional bread,” he admits, “remains the prerogative of an elite. We may hope that the bakers who experiment endlessly with smells and tastes will bring their colleagues with them along the path to excellence.”
In bread as in writing this is the mentality of bounty.
And as long as we’re talking about bread, the point is obvious. No one who is hungry is going to quibble about the quality of bread. Also: there are hungry, indeed starving people not simply far away in Yemen, but just down the street.
I WAS BORN in the middle of the Holocaust, and I am writing now in the midst of a pandemic and maybe too at a moment when it seems we might well return to the catastrophes of the first half of the twentieth century. Can I justify scouring the streets for good bread, or the bookstore shelves for something sublime to read?
The young man who spent happy afternoons reading Hazlitt wanted, like him, and Ruskin, and Marx, to turn the world upside down. As if, if you could hold people upside down en masse, evil would drop from their trousers’ pockets like spare change (in those days, there still was such a thing as pocket change), and a better time would arrive. And so in literature, as in politics, I chose to be on the side of being good: I was going to be a serious man, and live a just and authentic life.
When I finally got to reading Longinus, I discovered that (arguably) it was he who put that idea into my head: “Sublimity,” says Longinus, “is the echo of a noble mind.” For centuries this sentence has served as the lodestar for those of us liable to the view of a literary life as a higher calling, and so it is responsible for the endurance of a certain—and in my view, admirable— cultural ideal, and at the same time for a lot of mischief in the form of self-deception.
The self-deception comes of the ideal of being good, because the tell-tale signs of goodness, indeed nobility, Longinus obliquely but definitively tells us, are right thinking, right judgment, the ability to experience ecstasy in response to literary greatness. Here’s the whole thing in a nutshell in the voice of Ruskin: “What we like determines what we are, and is a sign of what we are; and to teach taste is inevitably to form character” (“Traffic”).
Longinus, and Ruskin, teach taste as an ethical achievement, in the practice of aesthetic discrimination, and, if I can put it this way, in the faith they ask us to share in the nobility of person of the great artists. How does the self-deception come of the ideal of being good? Because we aspire to right thinking, to nobility of person while basking in our membership in Longinus’ set, and the latter is, in everyday life, as a social actuality, as an elite, not exactly or (let’s be generous) not altogether good.
Dickens knows these entanglements best.
Toward to the end of the first part of Great Expectations, Pip’s apprenticeship with Joe, a venture he once anticipated happily, has now, after Miss Havisham and Estella have flashed before him a life of different pleasures, become something he’s ashamed of. He no longer feels at home in Joe’s house; and though ashamed of being ashamed of Joe he can’t help it. “The change was made in me,” he says; “the thing was done. Well or ill done, excusably or inexcusably, it was done.”
Pip writes these words as an adult looking back ruefully at his origins with the melancholy awareness of where his choices have landed him. I don’t feel at all melancholy about where my choices have landed me, but I can hardly be the only person who has identified head and heart with Pip at that moment of his transformation.
Because of course I am writing as the person I became long ago, the kid who jumped the fence into Longinus’ back yard at the first opportunity.
How do the values, the way of being in the world as a member of Longinus’ set, the literary elite, how does this hold up in the face of plague, and even more, in the face of the Holocaust, that is, in extremity?
We have available a searching—in fact, searing—answer to this question in the exchange between Hans Mayer, who wrote under the name Jean Amery, and Primo Levi on, to use the title of a chapter in Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved, “The Intellectual in Auschwitz.” Amery writes first, in At The Mind’s Limits, arguing trenchantly that to be an intellectual—“a cultivated man”—in Auschwitz was tantamount to self-destruction, because everything a cultivated man values is shown to be false—profoundly, unbearably, totally and irredeemably false—the very first time this man is struck a random blow by a kapo. “Beauty: that was an illusion. Knowledge: that turned out to be a game with ideas.” Accustomed to treasuring and aspiring to nobility of person, devoted to graciousness, virtuous discourse, to being finicky about everything to do with taste, Amery is shattered by the utter uselessness of all this in the face of “reality,” a reality he is crushed to realize he has spent his life denying. He, like all of us in Longinus’ set, has masked reality with the games of intellect, and now at a single blow he sees it has all been a self-indulgent, self-deluding game; he is a person utterly incapable of living in reality. He is shattered and lost. How is he to survive when he knows nothing true about living?
The Drowned and the Saved, the last of Levi’s remarkable books, is his address, forty years after the fact, of the unfinished business of the Holocaust, including the question of whether, after Auschwitz, anyone would wish to be a cultivated man. To weigh Amery’s lucid, brutal analysis, Levi revisits a pivotal incident in If This is A Man,4 his celebrated first book, when the messenger of his Kommando, Pikolo, chooses Levi for the plush task of accompanying him to the kitchens to fetch soup. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a passage from Dante’s Inferno pops into his head; he stops Pikolo, and begins to recite from memory.
Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance
Your mettle was not made; you were made men,
To follow after knowledge and excellence.
This is, for Levi, an ultimate moment of ecstasy, of experiencing the sublime exactly as Longinus defines it: “As if I also was hearing it for the first time,” Levi says, “like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am.”
Pikolo, who is from Alsace and whose language is French (his actual name is Jean), can barely follow but nevertheless “begs [Levi] to repeat it . . . he has received the message, he has felt that it has to do with him, that it has to do with all men who toil, and with us in particular; and that it has to do with us two, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for the soup on our shoulders.” Then Levi again quotes Dante but he can’t recall the full sequence of verses, and yet now it is almost too late, they’re already at the kitchen—he hastily explains to Pikolo that after months at sea, Ulysses and his men catch sight of a mountain rising from the waters when suddenly
. . . three times round she went in roaring smother
With all the waters; at the fourth the poop
Rose, and the prow went down, as please Another.
—Inferno, 26. 141
“I keep Pikolo back, it is vitally necessary and urgent that he listen, that he understand this ‘as pleased Another’ before it is too late; tomorrow he or I might be dead, or we might never see each other again, I must tell him, I must explain to him about the Middle Ages, about the human and so necessary and yet unexpected anachronism, but still more, something gigantic that I myself have only just seen, in a flash of intuition, perhaps the reason for our fate, for our being here today. . . .” These ellipses are Levi’s. The next line reads: “We are now in the soup queue, among the sordid, ragged crowd of soup-carriers from other Kommandos.”
In The Drowned and the Saved, Levi tells us he has kept in touch with Jean, they see each other every once in a while, and he has confirmed with Jean that what he wrote in If This Is A Man actually happened as he recounted it, that Jean too remembers the incident, this moment that, Levi says, may have saved his life.
I’ve skipped a few paragraphs from If This Is A Man, paragraphs in which Levi discovers, as if for the first time, and tries to convey to Pikolo the sublimity of Dante’s wordplay, just as Longinus, or any New Critic might have done. So here we have the whole ethic of Longinus’ circle tested under the most fearful, the most dire circumstances.
For Longinus, the ethical distinctions of writing are implicit in each stage of the literary process—in the experience of the writer (noble thoughts), in the translation of experience into composition (sublime use of rhetoric), and in the experience of the reader (ecstasy). He devotes most of his attention to the translation of experience into composition, for he aims to be useful. And so, for example, he wants to distinguish what Homer does in The Iliad, which he calls “realism,” from what Homer does in The Odyssey, which he disparages as “myth.” He means by this distinction that we recognize what happens in The Iliad as credible—in fact, as powerful, moving, sublime—because it rings true to life: if there were such a man as Achilles he would act as Homer describes, and Homer’s description strikes us as such a precise and eloquent observation of life that we are in awe of Achilles. Whereas Cyclops—give me a break. Similarly, he praises “Sappho’s treatment of the feelings involved in the madness of being in love. She uses the attendant circumstances and draws on real life at every point.” He then quotes a famous passage from her work (“To me he seems a peer of the gods”) and concludes: “Lovers experience all this.”
So the ethical task of a noble mind is to show things as they are: sublimity, however, comes of an incomparable use of the resources of rhetoric. For Longinus there are two enemies of proper judgment—on the one side are those who confuse “polish” (Longinus’ word)—rigid, obligatory adherence to the rules—with sublimity; and on the other are those who maintain you can’t achieve sublimity by applying the tools of rhetoric: sublimity is the achievement of genius, and genius is “natural” and can’t be learned or taught.
But as we have all learned painfully during the pandemic, you can’t just make bread “naturally,” even if you’re a genius. You have to follow the rules. And—as we also learned—this is easier said than done—to follow the rules so you get a good result in baking, you have to know what you’re doing—you have to understand the rules—and to know what you’re doing requires study and practice.
This is more or less the first thing Longinus insists on in his little treatise, that art cannot be achieved without method. Moreover, “Grandeur is particularly dangerous when left on its own, unaccompanied by knowledge . . . abandoned to mere impulse.” And finally—the kind of insight that makes him so memorable—“the very fact that some things in literature depend on nature alone can itself be learned only from art.”
Still, in the end, Longinus—and Kaplan and Hazlitt and Ruskin and on to the present—in the end Longinus can only show us: What is good bread? This loaf. What is a sublime literary passage? This one. But as the editor of my copy of Longinus says, “it is not at all clear in what sense some of the passages Longinus commends are sublime at all. But the great thing is that he does quote them, and that he is himself pleased by them.”5 We can’t always see what’s sublime about what Longinus shows us; and, worse, we can never be sure how to tell whether the next piece of writing we read, a piece on which Longinus has not yet commented, is or is not sublime.
We are left to our own subjective responses.
On one of their encounters long after they have left Auschwitz Jean tells Levi that he wasn’t at all interested in Dante at the time Levi so passionately recited the cantos of Ulysses. He wasn’t at all interested in Dante, but he was interested in Levi. He could see it meant a great deal to Levi, and so it mattered to him, too.
If there is no escape from subjective judgment, can we choose between Amery’s and Levi’s accounts of the experience of the cultivated person in the Lager? Of the value and efficacy of art and those who live by it? But didn’t that moment when Levi recited Dante save his life, if not literally then, even more important in this instance, figuratively?
Who is to say? What can we say with any certainty about people in extremity and what extremity will reveal? How would the person we find loathsome or petty or ridiculously self-important behave in the Lager? Or for that matter, how would those we admire or, especially, those we love? I have often wondered how things would have turned out if my father had been the child and I the father. Because my father was an extremely resourceful man, one of those people who can fix anything, a man everyone liked immediately, a man who all his life loved best and was most at home among the men with dirty trousers and pride in their craft. I am very doubtful I would have been anywhere near as resourceful as he, never mind as brave.
But who can say?
Now it’s 2021. I have been alive a long time and I have been lucky: I haven’t had to find out. What’s certain is that the change was made in me long ago, and for better or worse. Picky, picky . . . I feel my skin tingle when I read those passages of Levi’s about the cantos from Dante . . .
About ten years after At The Mind’s Limits, Amery wrote On Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death, an exceptionally lucid argument for suicide as the ultimate act of freedom for a human being. Two years later, Amery killed himself.
Not long after writing The Drowned and the Saved, Levi, gripped by a depression that, he said, was worse than anything he had felt in the Lager, threw himself over the stair railing in the apartment house where he had lived his entire life, and fell to his death.
As for me, I get myself out of bed early on a cold Saturday morning, January 2021, grab the leashes from the hook by the door, and head out, gratefully, to the farmer’s market on Cumberland, along the park, to buy bread.
Igor Webb was born in Slovakia and raised in the Inwood section of Manhattan. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in, among others, The New Yorker, Partisan Review, The Hudson Review, The American Scholar, and Notre Dame Review. He is Professor of English at Adelphi University. His most recent book is Christopher Smart’s Cat. (2018).
- Good Bread Is Back: A Contemporary History of French Bread, The Way It Is Made, And The People Who Make It (Durham & London: Duke UP, 2006), 2.
- And we see the exact same strategy used in, say, the first issue of The Spectator, where Addison and Steele clue us in to what they propose to do, which is transform an unruly, uncouth class of rich men into a cohesive nation of “gentlemen.” They take various approaches to getting this done: they invent a cast of characters to personify their circle, they choose the appropriate subjects for discourse, but their great breakthrough is to propose an answer to the question of who can be considered a “gentleman” that is at once radically democratic and at the same time exclusive and aristocratic. Who is a gentleman? Why, whoever reads The Spectator. And this ingenious strategy is then followed by magazine after magazine, by the TLS, for example, before it appended signatures to its reviews, and by The New Yorker, with its revealing signature cover, before it added writers’ names to “Talk of the Town.” Who was the “we” of “Talk of the Town”? The collective but singular voice of the cultural set comprised by the magazine and its readers.
- There’s no need for me to make a case for the importance of literature, or, with a capital letter, Art. Here’s the case Kaplan makes for bread: in addition to being sensuously sublime, bread, he says, “is located at the crossroads between the material and the symbolic”; it “forges complex links between the sacred and the profane, hope and anguish, whole and part, mother and child, prince and subject, producer and consumer, seller and buyer, justice and injustice” (Good Bread 5-6).
- In the U.S. the book is titled Survival in Auschwitz; see “The Canto of Ulysses.”
- Classical Literary Criticism, eds.. D.A, Russell and Michael Winterbottom. Oxford (2008), xv.