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Monday, December 01, 2003

Bollettino

The man to whom I owe much of my education died this weekend. Hugh Kenner.

When I was thirteen, I liked to subscribe to magazines. I subscribed to Horizon magazine, which came four times a year. Horizon was a hard cover magazine with long, interesting articles. Sometimes they had pictures of art � and sometimes the art featured naked women. Thus was sealed a certain pact in my soul � art meant naked women. Hence, art must be great, since I knew that naked women were great.

But Horizon was expensive. So I subscribed to the National Review. I was raised in a very Republican household, I should say. Some say that the NR was at its best in the early sixties. I don�t know � I think it was fairly marvelous in the early seventies. I remember the book pages in particular. D. Keith Mano, an under-appreciated American novelist, wrote for the mag. So did Guy Davenport.

I still remember reading Guy Davenport�s review of Kenner�sThe Pound Era. This marked an epoch in my teenie soul. I�d never heard of Ezra Pound, or Hulme, or Ford Maddox Ford, or Wyndham Lewis. I was soon reading all those guys, as well as Kenner. I absorbed a bias in literature from Kenner as much as anybody else. I still have it. I can understand why the man wrote the best book about Pound and a book about the cartoonist who created Bugs Bunny. Kenner didn�t pay attention to the boundary between high and low � meaning he didn�t slum the low, as cultural studies people are apt to. What he saw in Bugs Bunny, or what he saw in Henry James, were the central things that made him love art � that beauty is not passive, that to know is a verb meaning to impart, that at the very center of any economy is a fundamental generosity which is not captured by any theory of enlightened self interest, but is about the self being interested, and all the real transactions are those in which you seek costs just to see what they are about. This, of course, violates the canons of left and right. St. Paul�s line: �we see now, as in a glass, darkly� has been interpreted by Leon Bloy to meant that we live, literally, backwards in this world � so that every triumphant news headline signals a diminishment of the level of civilization. Kenner would probably not agree, but he would understand the sentiment -- that you have to break into the real world. Revelation was Bloy's skeleton key -- the conviction that, as he once wrote, "intelligence is unitary" was Kenner's. I�ll miss Hugh Kenner.

This is a graf from the Guardian�s obit, by Jon Elek:


�When I met Hugh Kenner last summer, he was dressed in a stripey, light-blue suit, with a bow tie and glasses slightly askew. Even then though, the quickness and sensitivity of his mind were evident. He recited long passages from memory, and told anecdotes of Tom, Sam and Ezra. When I mentioned that I had come from London, his face registered the vivid recollection of a gone world.�

And here is a taste of that intelligence. This comes from a review of a book on the supposed centrality of anti-semitism to T.S. Eliot. Kenner, of course, rocks and rolls this idea. In the process, he rights these majestic grafs:

The Waste Land (1922) opens:

April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm,covering/ Earth in forgetful snow feeding/ A little life with dried tubers.

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee/ With a shower of rain. We stopped in the colonnade/ And went on, in sunlight, into the Hofgarten/And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

Whereas Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (c. 1390) begins,

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour Of which vertu engendred is the flour; . . .

And smale foweles maken melodye, That slepen all the nyght with open ye . . .

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages . . .

It once seemed evident that Eliot's lines weighed a twentieth-century yearning against one of five centuries earlier. Fit readers, it was understood, had Chaucer's lines somewhere in mind, and could gauge twentieth-century impatience with the long wet English spring by Chaucer's assumption that spring is a time of awakening. Also, against a slow communal pilgrimage to Canterbury, punctuated by tales, we have one eager American making off for Munich, where he meets a woman who remembers how it was to have been an Austro-Hungarian Archduke's sister. (Eliot was drawing on a memory; he had met that woman, a Countess Marie.) So, once, about a lifetime ago, The Waste Land measured one age's rituals against another, the text on the page echoing against a far earlier text that sounds in the fit reader's memory.


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