A few questions and some leftover thoughts from the last entry in this blog, Ruth Padel and the Presentation of Intelligent Pulchritude in Everyday Life … in ascending order of frivolity:
Why is Derek Walcott the focus of such vicious animosity in sections of the transatlantic literary community – more than the combinination of jealousy about his Nobel prize and gossip about sexual intemperance would explain?
The high watermark for the nastiness about him is surely a 2007 review of his Collected Poems in the New York Times Book Review. Most startling are its omniscient pronouncements about Walcott’s relationship to himself by the reviewer, a poet called William Logan. Since Logan’s harshness as a critic is well-known and the NYTBR is usually moderate and careful in its criticism, it is impossible not to wonder whether his editors weren’t trying to get across a hidden message in choosing his assessment for a lead review.
‘[W]riting,’ Logan wrote with the presumption of a hanging judge revealing a heinous crime — but not reasoning very well — ‘was Walcott’s escape from the islands. The metaphors whisper their quiet acknowledgment of guilt.’
At times [Another Life, Walcott’s autobiography in verse] reads like “The Prelude” by a writer far more elegant than Wordsworth, though almost every line about the poet himself sounds false:
[F]or the exile, language is a daily form of betrayal. Walcott has remained a figure of divided loyalties and a double tongue — his grandmothers were descended from slaves, his grandfathers white. Though he “prayed / nightly for his flesh to change, / his dun flesh peeled white,” like any young man of parts he was somewhat enamored of himself. Even the late verse can seem shallow and narcissistic, beauty seized in his own beautiful eye — he treats women (“O Beauty, you are the light of the world!”) in a manner closer to lechery than to old-style courtesy. Caught between two races and two worlds, he has sometimes succumbed to pride or self-pity, or to that pride indistinguishable from self-pity.
[How does merely worshipping female beauty add up to lechery?]
Letters from outraged readers took up most of the letters column in a subsequent issue of the publication:
Joseph Cuomo complained, in part:
Logan asserts that “the rhythms and intonations of English verse were a passport to the elsewhere; but they came with a burden — the language of the colonial masters was not the one caught in his ear at home.”
First, anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Walcott’s life knows that “the language of the colonial masters” was indeed “the one caught in his ear at home,” most particularly the language of Shakespeare and the Bible, both of which were read to him as a boy by his mother.
Logan only compounded his presumptuousness in his mostly incomprehensible attempt to justify his hatchet job:
The poet manages to sound like an exile wherever he lives; but mastery of English and immersion in the classics have estranged him from the island of his birth, no matter how often he returns or how long he stays.
Walcott’s conflicts are played out within himself — his vanities and even his self-pity erode the imperial manner of his verse.
The gist of Logan’s case against Walcott: he writes beautifully; in fact he writes too well – not least because by failing to do so in the patois of St. Lucia, where he was born, he has betrayed the half of his heritage that’s West-Indian for the sake of his English genes.
What business did Samuel Beckett have writing in French — or Conrad, Dinesen and Nabokov scribbling in anything other than Polish, Danish and Russian, respectively? Those Chinese and Indian engineers in Silicon Valley, how dare they code in western programming languages when it’s obvious that they should be working in the scripts of their Taoist ancestors, or of Sanskrit metaphysics?
There’s a great deal that we haven’t been told about the story of Walcott and the literati, I feel sure.
Didn’t Ruth Padel have a glimmer about how much damage she was potentially doing professional women last week with her bald-faced lie about her role in spreading rumours about Walcott’s past? About her failure to explain that, rather than her motives for exposing his reputation on some university campuses? Given that most working women have a hard enough time already with society’s ancient uneasiness about women and power — what was she thinking?
The drama of her resignation just nine days after her election as Oxford’s Professor of Poetry recalled a recent opinion piece on Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff, an outstandingly acute and meticulous biographer. (Read Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) (1999), for a superb sample of the biographer’s art.) Writing on this site about Padel’s confident projection of sexuality, I was reminded of just how remarkable that is, given Schiff’s reminder that
… Cleopatra puts a vintage label on something we have always known existed: mind-altering female sexuality. […] She does not so much bump up against a glass ceiling as tumble through a trapdoor, the one that dismisses women by sexualizing them. As Margaret Atwood has written of Jezebel, “The amount of sexual baggage that has accumulated around this figure is astounding, since she doesn’t do anything remotely sexual in the original story, except put on makeup.” In Cleopatra’s case, the sheer absence of truth has guaranteed the legend. Where facts are few, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history.
Padel, denying that she had used her connections to discredit Walcott, unwittingly recalled the female reputation for scheming that goes at least as far back as a first century BC marriage contract in which
a woman promises to be faithful and attentive — and to not add love potions to her husband’s food. Clever women, Euripides had already warned, are dangerous women.
In fact, as Schiff notes dryly:
Before she was a slot machine, a video game, a cigarette, a condom, a caricature, a cliché or a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor, before she was reincarnated by Shakespeare, Dryden or Shaw, she was a nonfictional Egyptian queen. She ruled for 21 years, mostly alone, which is to say that she was essentially a female king, an incongruity that elicits the kind of double take once reserved for men in drag.
She was self-reliant, ingenious and plucky, and for her time and place remarkably well behaved. Having inherited a country in decline, she capably steered it through drought, famine, plague and war.
The ages-old controversy about Cleopatra – the subject of Schiff’s biography-in-progress – has an echo or two in the opposition to Judge Sonia Sotomayor, whom President Obama nominated last week to replace a retiring justice on the US Supreme Court. Once again, a woman had to be defended against criticism of behaviour that would have attracted virtually no comment, had she been a man:
Judge Guido Calabresi, a former dean of Yale Law School who taught Ms. Sotomayor there and now sits with her on the Second Circuit, said complaints that she had been unduly caustic had no basis. For a time, Judge Calabresi said, he kept track of the questions posed by Judge Sotomayor and other members of the 12-member court. “Her behavior was identical,” he said.
“Some lawyers just don’t like to be questioned by a woman,” Judge Calabresi added. “It was sexist, plain and simple.”
Could there really be such a thing as a ‘collective unconscious’?
… and if there isn’t, how else are we to account for the phrase ‘thinking women’ turning up in The Independent (‘Can an ex-civil servant finally persuade women to buy erotica?’) ten days after I linked to Pauline, the sculpture I think of as Thinking Woman, in this space? I’m still waiting for someone to prove I’m all wet to suggest that the sculptor, Harold Francis Bell , has scored a coup for the ages.
What advice does Doris Lessing have for this premature case of Droopy Corners Syndrome that I found floating on the net a few years ago?
It is not given to every circle of bloggers to have a comrade posting not just one but two intimate anecdotes about a household name on every continent. @ISA, also known as Philip Hall – who should be hard at work on a memoir about his freedom-fighter family’s South African history this very moment – told us about the only anti-ageing cosmetic advice I have ever heard of Doris Lessing giving. Why she should have given him any advice at all after his ferocious evisceration, in her presence, of The Grass is Singing — that I, like many others, consider her finest work – surpasses all understanding. But it certainly says a lot for her.