Hugh Kenner (on taking the best stuff for granted)

Thinking of “Better Read Than Never” – my cleverly named series of reviews on books that are “yesterday’s news” (but not for me) – my tendency to untimely reading isn’t limited to novels. My mind being what it is, I decided to finish off the November 2014 edition of The Atlantic, an interest-packed number of a great old magazine. A James Parker piece on the “rock-star poet” Dylan Thomas, among many other things the inspiration for Robert Zimmerman’s stage name¹, came first, a welcome re-read. What I hadn’t noticed the first time through, or what at least didn’t make much of a dent in my memory bank, was a startlingly great quote from Hugh Kenner.

¹ So far, I have reserved judgement on Bob Dylan’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I’m leaning towards The nostalgia and narcissism of the Boomer generation triumph again. Interesting choice. People paid attention, but I’m not sure it does anything for literature, which continues to have a declining coolness index unless I’m wrong (I hope I’m wrong).

Kenner – yup, news to me, too – is described in the Atlantic piece as a student and explainer of Marshall McLuhan, though I’ve come to discover that he was much more than that. Alongside McLuhan and the uber-educated imagination of Northrop Frye², the I hardly knew ye Kenner was in fact one of the great critical minds of 20th-century scholarship, a prodigious writer and one of the great Wise Guy Canadians. (True to form, I’m now bandwagon-jumping on to an e-book platform of his The Elsewhere Community (1998), an account of his travels to learn from and be among the greats of the arts and sciences.³)

² I was lucky enough to have a remarkable English teacher in high school, Pete Hill, who shoved The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye at me. Even then, my rather lightly educated mind knew it was awesome. (Note to self: read more Frye.)
 ³ Also true to form, I will now find an obscure way to connect this literary life to basketball: Kenner was born in Peterborough, Ontario, where one of the older high schools is Kenner Collegiate, named after Hugh’s father, a teacher. (A school named after a teacher?!) At least one of my teams has played at Kenner, so there.

(But enough about me.) The knockout punch of the Dylan Thomas look-back came toward the end of the article, which argues that we should not look at the excesses, lifestyle and literary, of the Welsh poet but rather at the best of what he was and what he did. Author James Parker reminds us of the famed McLuhan aphorism: The medium is the message. Parker advises, therefore: don’t look so much at this or that Thomas poem, which may by now feel dated or immoderate or just plain meaningless; instead, consider what the man himself meant, and attempted. At this point, Parker quotes Kenner’s explanatory paraphrase of The Medium is the Message.

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John Updike: On Race and Being American

(3-minute read)
Grampa Up.

Grampa Up.

Today, we look back at the insights and perspective of one thoughtful White American on his society’s racial culture, and his worried-grandad prospectus for two young Blacks that he loves like family, because they are.

In Updike’s Self-Consciousness: Memoirs (I reviewed it here), he knits together six themed reflections on the life that he lived. In nearly all of them, the world being what it is and the United States playing the role within it that it does, he refers to the question of race, even if only obliquely. One of his essays, though, addresses it straight on: “A Letter to My Grandsons”, second-last of the six, speaks directly circa 1989 to the two young boys born from the union of Updike’s eldest daughter and her West African-born husband, who “are about as black and white as people can be”. The boys’ names are Anoff and Kwame, and who knows who and where and what they are today? I wonder what they make, as grown men, of the 48-page public rumination that their deceased and famous literary grandfather bequeathed to them, to say nothing of the country left behind by his and subsequent generations.

For my taste, too much of the letter was preoccupied with obscure and distant Updike-side genealogy. It made for dull reading. However, other parts were electric, for me, and these are the places where the writer frankly assesses the American racial culture and bares his fears and hopes for his beloved young grandsons’ place within it. Updike was an honest, perceptive and profoundly eloquent writer, in 1989 and before, and until his death in a subsequent century. Here is a small chunk of what he left behind for his dark wee darlings to read when they came of a suitable age;

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That Long-Overdue Gandhi Quote…

If you ever take a look down and right for the He Said/She Said… section of this cyberspace pit of thrills, you’ll know more about me than is probably healthy. Sucker for quotes. Sets lofty goals and doesn’t meet ’em. Can’t find his keyboard when life gets fast. Needs, even in the ever-advancing senilization of middle age, reminders about the most fundamental things…

Nobody reminded me, though. I’ll blame it on you. Yes, in that month-old (at least) quotation from the mighty Helen, I promised another similar sentiment from Mr. G. It’s a double-barrelled shotgun blast of humility AND the need to act. This passage is taped to the wall, nine o’clock high, next to my writing desk. Sorry, don’t know where it comes from.

A.A. Cooper (Seven Deadly Virtues)

The Seven Deadly Sins:

Truth, if it becomes a weapon against persons.

Beauty, if it becomes vanity.

Love, if it becomes possessive.

Loyalty, if it becomes blind, careless trust.

Tolerance, if it becomes indifference.

Self-confidence, if it becomes arrogance.

Faith, if it becomes self-righteous.

                                    Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1801-1885, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury: politician, reformer, philanthropist,

Retro Reading

I can’t post extensively here, but I can still work in my weekly quote in the He Said/She Said block below right. This week, it’s back to G.K. Chesterton, with one of a few gems I found in his 1908 novel The Man Who Was Thursday. As a novel, there are unlikelihoods and glitches in the story-telling, though it should be said that he subtitles it A Nightmare.

It’s one of those novels that expects the reader to accept that its characters could have the most astonishingly eloquent, philosophical and lengthy conversations. Once you allow for that, the pleasure of Chesterton’s prose is fine. It’s quite a remarkable book, underlaid with serious intent and ideas and yet told in a witty, sardonic and fantastical way. (With one young man of my dear acquaintance quite fascinated by the tenets of Anarchism, the serious and mocking shots that Mr. Chesterton lobs its way were especially piquant.) In the midst of all the adventure and bon mots, GKC throws in the occasional aphorism like this stealth missile on the glories of old-fashioned monogamy. He’s a quote machine.