On the tide of my vagrant prose

The end of the first chapter, “tuning my piano,” of John Barth’s The Floating Opera:

Why The Floating Opera? I could explain until Judgment Day, and still not explain completely. I think that to understand any one thing entirely, no matter how minute, requires the understanding of every other thing in the world. That’s why I throw up my hands sometimes at the  simplest things; it’s also why I don’t mind spending a lifetime getting ready to begin my Inquiry. Well, The Floating Opera. That’s part of the name of a showboat that used to travel around the Virginia and Maryland tidewater areas: Adam’s Original & Unparalleled Floating Opera; Jacob R. Adam, owner and captain; admissions 20, 35, and 50 cents. The Floating Opera was tied up at Long Wharf on the day I changed my mind, in 1937, and some of this book happens aboard it. That’s reason enough for me to use it as a title. But there’s a better reason. It always seemed a fine idea to me to build a showboat with just one big flat open deck on it, and to keep a play going continuously. The boat wouldn’t be moored, but would drift up and down the river on the tide, and the audience would sit along both banks. They could catch whatever part of the plot happened to unfold as the boat floated past, and then they’d have to wait until the tide ran back again to catch another snatch of it, if they still happened to be sitting there. To fill in the gaps they’d have to use their imaginations, or ask more attentive neighbors, or hear the word passed along from upriver or downriver. Most times they wouldn’t understand what was going on at all, or they’d think they knew, when actually they didn’t. Lots of times they’d be able to see the actors, but not hear them. I needn’t explain that that’s how much of life works: our friends float past; we become involved with them; they float on, and we must rely on hearsay or lose track of them completely; they float back again, and we either renew our friendship—catch up to date—or find that they and we don’t comprehend each other any more. And that’s how this book will work, I’m sure. It’s a floating opera, friend, fraught with curiosities, melodrama, spectacle, instruction, and entertainment, but it floats willy-nilly on the tide of my vagrant prose: you’ll catch sight of it, lose it, spy it again; and it may require the best efforts of your attention and imagination—together with some patience, if you’re an average fellow—to keep track of the plot as it sails in and out of view.

The more things have gone wrong

Colonna, in Umberto Eco’s Numero Zero, translated by Richard Dixon:

Losers, like autodidacts, always know much more than winners. If you want to win, you need to know just one thing and not waste your time on anything else: the pleasures of erudition are reserved for losers. The more a person knows, the more things have gone wrong.

The luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure

Last week, for the first time in fourteen and a half years, I visited the used bookstore I used to frequent in high school.

It hardly has changed. The walls are the same hunter green, the shelves still crammed with more books, and more good books, than one expects to find there. I saw and smelled my way back into a life I had forgotten I could remember. There was the section where I first read Prufrock in an original edition, the music of the twenty-two-year-old Eliot writing about a middle-aged man making more an impression of sound than sense to my seventeen-year-old ears, the words issuing, in part, some promise of the learning and the language Cambridge would hold for me; there was the table in the back corner where I first played chess, hardly worse than I do today, but at least then I won.

And though I did not buy my copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man there—instead I used an ugly, serviceable edition from Barnes & Noble, paired with Dubliners, the pages of which are filled with overwrought teenage marginalia I now wince to read—suddenly I found myself thinking of the last paragraph of this familiar passage as I stood there as I might have when my mother was still alive, a boy wondering what it meant to be both an artist and a young man, seduced by the surprise of the scholastic secret, the knowledge of words, and as I quoted the words to myself, that phrase I would take as a credo, I recalled that moment of first being taken in by the idea of beauty, reading these pages to myself in that solitary salvific silence Stephen describes, paying no mind to Lynch, and knowing that cardiac condition, which I still know, however blushingly:

—To finish what I was saying about beauty, said Stephen, the most satisfying relations of the sensible must therefore correspond to the necessary phases of artistic apprehension. Find these and you find the qualities of universal beauty. Aquinas says: Ad pulcritudinem tria requiruntur integritas, consonantia, claritas. I translate it so: Three things are needed for beauty, wholeness, harmony, and radiance. Do these correspond to the phases of apprehension? Are you following?

—Of course, I am, said Lynch. If you think I have an excrementatious intelligence run after Donovan and ask him to listen to you.

Stephen pointed to a basket which a butcher’s boy had slung inverted on his head.

—Look at that basket, he said.

—I see it, said Lynch.

—In order to see that basket, said Stephen, your mind first of all separates the basket from the rest of the visible universe which is not the basket. The first phase of apprehension is a bounding line drawn about the object to be apprehended. An esthetic image is presented to us either in space or in time. What is audible is presented in time, what is visible is presented in space. But temporal or spatial, the esthetic image is first luminously apprehended as shelfbounded and self-contained upon the immeasurable background of space or time which is not it. You approach it as one thing. You apprehend its wholeness. That is integritas.

—Bull’s eye! said Lynch, laughing. Go on.

—Then, said Stephen, you pass from point to point, led by its formal lines; you apprehend it as balanced part against part within it limits; you feel the rhythm of its structure. In other words, the synthesis of immediate perception is followed by the analysis of apprehension. Having first felt that it is one thing you feel now that it is a thing. You apprehend it as complex, multiple, divisible, separable, made up of its parts, the result of its parts and their sum, harmonious. That is consonantia.

—Bull’s eye again! said Lynch, wittily. Tell me now what is claritas and you win the cigar.

—The connotation of the word, Stephen said, is rather vague. Aquinas uses a term which seems to be inexact. It baffled me for a long time. It would lead you to believe that he had in mind symbolism or idealism, the supreme quality of beauty being a light from some other world, the idea of which the matter was but the shadow, the reality of which it was but the symbol. I thought he might mean that claritas was the artistic discovery and representation of the divine purpose in anything or a force of generalization which would make the esthetic image a universal one, make it outshine proper conditions. But that is literary talk. I understand it so. When you have apprehended that basket as one thing and have then analyzed it according to its form and apprehended it as a thing you make the only synthesis which is logically and esthetically permissible. You see that it is that thing which it is and no other thing. The radiance of which he speaks is the scholastic quidditas, the whatness of a thing. This supreme quality is felt by the artist when the esthetic image is first conceived in his imagination. The mind in that mysterious instant Shelley likened beautifully to a fading coal. The instant wherein that supreme quality of beauty, the clear radiance of the esthetic image, is apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony is the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure, a spiritual state very like to that cardiac condition which the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani, using a phrase almost as beautiful as Shelley’s, called the enchantment of the heart.

The changing of olds ones

Returning home to Boston from a trip to Georgia a few days ago, and growing accustomed this time to the abrogation, I think of this passage from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, translated by John Woods:

Habit arises when our sense of time falls asleep, or at least, grows dull; and if the years of youth are experienced slowly, while the later years of life hurtle past at an ever-increasing speed, it must be habit that causes it. We know full well that the insertion of new habits or the changing of old ones is the only way to preserve life, to renew our sense of time, to rejuvenate, intensify, and retard our experience of time—and thereby renew our sense of life itself. That is the reason for every change of scenery and air, for a trip to the shore: the experience of a variety of refreshing episodes. The first few days in a new place have a youthful swing to them, a kind of sturdy, long stride—that lasts for about six to eight days. Then, to the extent that we “settle in,” the gradual shortening becomes noticeable. Whoever clings to life, or better, wants to cling to life, may realize to his horror that the days have begun to grow light again and are scurrying past; and the last week—of, let us say, four—is uncanny in its fleeting transience. To be sure, this refreshment of our sense of time extends beyond the interlude; its effect is noticeable again when we return to our daily routine. The first few days at home after a change of scene are likewise experienced in a new, broad, more youthful fashion—but only a very few, for we are quicker to grow accustomed to the old rules than to their abrogation. And if our sense of time has grown weary with age or was never all that strongly developed—a sign of an inborn lack of vitality—it very soon falls asleep again, and within twenty-four hours it is as if we were never gone and our journey were merely last night’s dream.

The drama of consciousness

Jackson Mathews’s introduction to his translation of Paul Valéry’s Monsieur Teste:

Valéry saw everything from the point of view of the intellect. The mind has been said to be his only subject. His preoccupation was the pursuit of consciousness, and no one knew better than he that his pursuit led through man into the world. Valéry’s deep concern was always with some possibility, some potential of the mind. He looked at seashells, read mathematical physics, went to the theater, or waked early in the morning, all for the same purpose—to receive the light from these diverse angles, times, and objects upon his obsessive center: the conscious mind.

Consciousness is in itself dramatic, embodied as it is in its opposite, the human flesh. It is that quality which cannot be isolated or known. […] Like the wind, it may be “seen” only in other things. […]

It is this “point of view” of the intelligence that tells us the nature of Valéry’s work. It has been said that his Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci was rather an introduction to his own method, for what he did was to imagine the structure and operation of a mind so complete, so universal, that all the sciences and all the arts were its tools. If such a man ever actually existed, said Valéry, it was certainly Leonardo.

[…] The mind as it knows and suffers in man, as it lives in science, myth, or the arts; consciousness as it ranges from the lower limits of sleep upward through stages of waking and knowing, to the extreme limits of thought; the mind as it rises from the rich muck of the unconscious to the complex structures of the artistic or mathematical imagination; the human and historical condition of consciousness, the drama of consciousness: this may be the central subject of Valéry’s work. He called it the Intellectual Comedy.

Monsieur Teste is Valéry’s novel. Test himself may be seen as an ordinary fictional character, the lonely man of modern city life, a problem in everyday human relations. On the other hand, he is a mind behaving as a man, or to put it the other way, “a man regulated by his own powers of thought.” Monsieur Teste is the story of consciousness and its effort to push being off the stage.

But is it possible for a man to be all mind? Is Monsieur Teste possible? If not why is he impossible? That question, Valéry says, is the soul of Monsieur Taste: he is impossible because consciousness cannot entirely consume being and continue to exist. Consciousness depends on being. Sensibility is its home, knowledge is its profession. That is why Valéry had to invent Madame Test, all soul and sensibility; and Teste’s friend, his knowledge of the world.

The pieces that make up the present volume of Monsieur Teste are the occasional results of a lifetime of meditation on this question: how would a complete mind behave as an everyday man?

[…]

Valéry’s first conception of Monsieur Test was a kind of abstract man without a name—merely “the portrait of a certain Monsieur.” It may be that Valéry himself had not yet fully realized the importance of his creation and was hardly prepared to take Monsieur Test seriously. But that impression was erased when Valéry posed his basic question: Que peut un homme?”What is a man’s potential?” Here Valéry sounds his fundamental note.

On “the light from these diverse angles,” I think of the “innumerable reflections” in Ortega y Gasset’s preface to Meditations on Quixote. And on “sensibility is its home,” I am reminded of May Swenson’s “Question,” and the second stanza of Anne Sexton’s “The Poet of Ignorance“:

Perhaps I am no one.
True, I have a body
and I cannot escape from it.
I would like to fly out of my head,
but that is out of the question.
It is written on the tablet of destiny
that I am stuck here in this human form.
That being the case
I would like to call attention to my problem.

See also Rebecca Golstein’s novel The Mind-Body Problem.

Running its course in secret

from Chekhov, “The Lady with the Dog,” translated by Constance Garnett:

He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth—such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club, his “lower race,” his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities—all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night. All personal life rested on secrecy, and possibly it was partly on that account that civilised man was so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected.

See also Derrida’s “taste for the secret.”

Right for the wrong reasons

from George Eliot, Middlemarchwith a funny rhythmic echo of the bromide “all good things come to an end, but diamonds are forever” in the second sentence:

Miss Brooke argued from words and dispositions not less unhesitatingly than other young ladies of her age. Signs are small measurable things, but interpretations are illimitable, and in girls of sweet, ardent nature, every sign is apt to conjure up wonder, hope, belief, vast as a sky, and colored by a diffused thimbleful of matter in the shape of knowledge. They are not always too grossly deceived; for Sinbad himself may have fallen by good-luck on a true description, and wrong reasoning sometimes lands poor mortals in right conclusions: starting a long way off the true point, and proceeding by loops and zigzags, we now and then arrive just where we ought to be. Because Miss Brooke was hasty in her trust, it is not therefore clear that Mr. Casaubon was unworthy of it.

We hear a lot about being right for the wrong reasons, but not so much about being wrong for the right reasons—arguably just as common, if not more so, and perhaps less of a sin. As for being wrong for the wrong reasons, that is still not so bad as being “not even wrong.”

If we care to be scholastic, we might map this fourfold way onto the apparatus of informal logic. If we fudge Eliot’s focus on “conclusions” and take rightness instead to be a matter of having given true premises, then to be right for right reasons is to be sound; to be wrong for right reasons is to be valid but unsound; to be right for wrong reasons is to be invalid and epistemically lucky; and to be wrong for wrong reasons is simply to be a user of Twitter.

If we care, instead, to be cancelled, we might look to the work of heterodox philosopher Donald Rumsfeld, who took his cue from analytical chemistry. In this typology there are known knowns, known unknowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns. (Rumsfeld himself is an instance of the third.) He thus extends the great philosophical tradition of drawing squares, from Plato and Aristotle to Levi-Strauss.

The method has become so popular it has since been taken up by statisticians.

Freely and sportively bombinating

A month ago I finished Charlotte Brontë’s vastly underrated first novel The Professor, which she completed at 31 but could never get published; her husband Arthur Bell Nichols finally got it out two years after her death, in 1857.

This week I happened to pick up Aldous Huxley’s first, Crome Yellow (1921), which he published at 27. It is just as forgotten and just as brilliant, and the critics have been just as wrong about both.

Each is dense with learning, psychological insight, and piercing characterization. (Each taught me several new words—indurated comes to mind in Brontë, pullulation in Huxley. At least 5% of The Professor is in French.) Both fell out of favor in part due to the facile charge of plotlessness—as if all the talking and thinking and feeling at work in them were not forms of action. Both feature intelligent men in their twenties who take a special interest in language and, of course, fall in love. And both partake of the satirical, but not relentlessly so; the authors clearly see something of themselves in their protagonists, though even they are not spared. I winced in self-recognition at several moments in each.

Brontë’s prose is purpler, more earnest and romantic: it frequently climbs to high and impassioned registers, but never loses contact with its undertone of intelligence. Writing on the other side of the Great War, Huxley, of course, would blush at such rapturous profusion, though I’d like to think he would admire its freshness. He is instead tersely witty, more straightforwardly and charmingly comic, at times virtually slapstick. (Chapter 1 ends, “He would take them by surprise.” Chapter 2 begins, “He took nobody by surprise; there was nobody to take.” [I’m not sure there’s a six-word sentence anywhere in Brontë.] In probably the funniest scene in the novel, our hero waxes romantic and at length about the beauty of the word carminative, only to have his ego—quite aptly—deflated, when he finally learns what it means. It is the most alembicated fart joke that has ever been told.) His monikers evoke Saki and Wodehouse: there is a Priscilla Whimbush, a Mr. Barbecue-Smith. But most of his humor operates quietly, by the irony of rhythm and understatement—as tight-lipped and corseted as the aristocrats he spoofs. The joke is all the richer because we are proud to have noticed it.


An unsigned review in the Times Literary Supplement, November 10, 1921, reprinted in Aldous Huxley: The Critical Heritage, edited by Donald Watt:

“I am tired of seeing the human mind bogged in a social plenum; I prefer to paint it in a vacuum, freely and sportively bombinating.” The plan was ascribed to a fabulous author in Crome Yellow, by Mr. Aldous Huxley. A vacuum is suggested by the rarefied seclusion of his fantastic coutnry house, where a small group of human beings reveal their amusingly simplified traits. But the void is, judiciously, not quite complete. The tone of Mr. Huxley’s story matches the title and the covers; it is a rich, full yellow, which suggests the exhilarating glow of summer and the answering temperature of mind. In this atmosphere the characters bombinate, so far as the heat allows. On the high towers of Crome by starlight (Mr. Huxley will explain in whimsical fashion why they were so absurdly tall), in the cool shadows of the granary, along the deep yew alleys by the swimming pool, the transitory action passes; while the things that are not done (so often more important than those that are) bubble in the mind, betray themselves in spontaneous gestures, or float down the stream of talk.

Mr. Huxley’s personages are drawn with an extreme verve of crispness; in fact the merit of his comedy is that it becomes always more amusing as it grows. Little Mary Bracegirdle, with the earnest blue eyes and bell of short hold hair, would be very tiresome if she talked much of her “repressions”; so she is confined, for the most part, to simple and fatal acts. Mr. Scogan, on the other hand, whose forte is a dry, racy monologue which drones at intervals beneath the bombination, is enlivening for just so long as he would naturally be; only near the end is he revealed in the full colours of a bore. The way in which Mr. Huxley manoeuvres his party, displaying them by adroitly contrasted little scenes, has a good deal of Anatole France’s touch; and it is quite in the manner of that master to stay the narrative which a choice extract from the family records or a fuliginous sermon on the Second Advent by the vicar. Mr. Huxley suggests the same tone, too, by his rich converse with books, and by the “direct action” of the younger members of the party, which puts ideas to rout. But then the master himself, though he is steeped in knowledge and plays with contemporary follies, never leaves us with a notion that he limited by fashions or by culture. Of Mr. Huxley we do not feel quite so sure; like his Henry Wimbush, who remarks at a village dance that “if all these people were dead this festivity would be extremely agreeable”—for then one could simply romantically read about them—he almost invites us to believe that the proper study of mankind is books. Almost; but not quite; for in Denis, the hero of this little story, through whose eyes we see most of it, the tragi-comedy of adolescence becomes really poignant at the end. The stroke which ruined Denis’s hopes and chances was something that went deeper than his love-affair; it was the discovery, in a humiliating form, that there was a real world of remorseless and self-centered persons which impinged on his own crystal world of illusions and ideas. This shock gives the point to Mr. Huxley’s fantasy, which is so engaging that we hardly wish it other than it is; all we miss is a certain feeling of assurance that he is using his imagination freely for himself.

From Watt’s introduction to The Critical Heritage:

For Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) life and music shared a common quality: they could each be described as a simultaneity of co-existing incompatibles. The same description may be applied to the critical reception of Huxley’s work. He was hailed as an emancipator of the modern mind and condemned as an irresponsible free-thinker; celebrated as a leading intelligence of his age and denounced as an erudite show-off; admired as the wittiest man of his generation and dismissed as a clever misanthrope. A few pages of his writing or half a career served equally to evoke the incompatible opinions. Opening the cover of Point Counter Point, Wyndham Lewis objected to a “tone of vulgar complicity with the dreariest of suburban library-readers,” while André Maurois discovered in the same opening pages scenes “worth of the great Russians.” In 1933 C. P. Snow claimed that Huxley “ought to seem the most significant English novelist of his day”, while G. K. Chesterton quipped: “[He] is ideally witty; but he is at his wit’s end.”

Huxley’s writing, both the fiction and the nonfiction, provoked controversy at almost every stage. Those very features of his work which drew most praise—the scientific contexts, the detached irony, the panoply of startling ideas—provided as often as not evidence which his critics felt could be used against him. The Huxley critical heritage is a history of vigorous contention spurred by not always equal shares of insight and misunderstanding.

At the center of that history was Huxley’s own peculiar approach to fiction, what George Catlin called “that strange mutt of literature,” the “novel of ideas.” The term provided at most a sketchy description of Huxley’s books, but his critics were at a loss to suggest anything better. His attitude toward fiction seemed to casual and iconoclastic. “There aren’t any divinely laid down canons of the novel,” he asserted. “All you need is to be interesting.” Huxley’s novels flaunted those conventions of logical realism followed faithfully by older writers, such as John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett. Accordingly, his younger audience in the 1920s found him refreshing: “By comparison, most other contemporary writers seemed stuffy, unenlightened, old-fashioned.” But at the same time his writing appeared to defy the new authoritative view of fiction as an organic art form which had evolved through the influence of Flaubert and Henry James. Developing standards of criticism in the earlier twentieth century were deeply affected by Jamesian aesthetics, by Bloomsbury’s belief in the autonomy of art, and by a severely formalist approach to literature. Huxley’s practice of the novel ran counter to these trends: “From a Jamesian perspective that insisted on rigidly delimiting a fictional world through a filtering consciousness with which the reader was asked to identify but could never wholly rely on, Huxley the novelist was inevitably unsatisfactory” (Firchow). To many observers the failure of Huxley’s fiction either to adopt a traditional posture or to adhere to a formalist criterion meant that he was stuck in an untenable sort of writing which hovered indecisively between the novel and the essay.

Huxley’s critics were slow to realize that he held a different concept of fiction. Like Quarles in Point Counter Point, he readily admitted the problems he had in creating conventional plots: “I don’t think of myself as a congenital novelist—no. For example, I have great difficulty in inventing plots. Some people are born with an amazing gift for storytelling; it’s a gift which I’ve never had at all” (Paris Review interview). But the telling of stories, for Huxley, was only a small part of what fiction could accomplish. He wrote to Eugene Saxton on 24 May 1933: “I probably have an entirely erroneous view about fiction. For I feel about fiction as Nurse Cavell felt about patriotism: that it is not enough.” The popular style of fiction written by Dumas, Scott, or Stevenson could not satisfy Huxley. Also, as much as he appreciated Arnold Bennett’s friendship and advice, he recoiled from the elaborate realism of books like Riceyman Steps. Throughout his life Huxley sought to write another kind of fiction. “My own aim,” he told an early interviewer, “is to arrive, technically, at a perfect fusion of the novel and the essay, a novel in which one can put all one’s ideas, a novel like a hold-all” (Maraini). The drive to synthesize multifarious attitudes towards life moved Huxley to develop an integrative approach to fiction which in its breadth, he hoped, would transcend the limits of purist art. In this radically charged sense Huxley believed that fiction, along with biography and history, “are the forms”:

My goodness, Dostoevski is six times as profound as Kierkegaard, because he writes fiction. In Kierkegaard you have this Abstract Man going on and on—like Coleridge—why, it’s nothing compared with the really profound Fictional Man, who has always to keep these tremendous ideas alive in a concrete form. In fiction you have the reconciliation of the absolute and the relative, so to speak, the expression of the general in the particular. And this, it seems to me, is the exciting thing—both in life and in art.

More pith, more substance, more reality

Charlotte Brontë on her first novel, The Professor—brought into print by her husband only after her death, in 1857—in a letter to William Smith Williams (joint owner of her publisher, Smith, Elder, & Co.), December 14, 1847:

Dear sir,—

I have just received your kind and welcome letter of the 11th. I shall proceed at once to discuss the principal subject of it.

Of course a second work has occupied my thoughts much. I think it would be premature in me to undertake a serial now—I am not yet qualified for the task: I have neither gained a sufficiently firm footing with the public, nor do I possess sufficient confidence in myself, nor can I boast those unflagging animal spirits, that even command of the faculty of composition, which as you say, and, I am persuaded, most justly, is an indispensable requisite to success in serial literature. I decidedly feel that ere I change my ground I had better make another venture in the three-volume novel form.

Respecting the plan of such a work, I have pondered it, but as yet with very unsatisfactory results. Three commencements I have essayed, but all three displease me. A few days since I looked over The Professor. I found the beginning very feeble, the whole narrative deficient in incident and in general attractiveness. Yet the middle and latter portion of the work, all that relates to Brussels, the Belgian school, etc., is as good as I can write: it contains more pith, more substance, more reality, in my judgment, than much of Jane Eyre. It gives, I think, a new view of a grade, an occupation, and a class of characters—all very commonplace, very insignificant in themselves, but not more so than the materials composing that portion of Jane Eyre which seems to please most generally.

Later, in a letter to the other joint owner of the publishing house, George Smith, February 5, 1851:

The Professor has now had the honour of being rejected nine times by the “Tr–de” (three rejections go to your own share); you may affirm that you accepted it this last time, but that cannot be admitted; if it were only for the sake of symmetry and effect I must regard this martyrised MS. as repulsed, or at any rate withdrawn for the ninth time! Few, I flatter myself, have earned an equal distinction, and of course my feelings towards it can only be paralleled by those of doting parent towards an idiot child. Its merits, I plainly perceive, will never be owned by anybody but Mr. Williams and me; very particular and unique must be our penetration, and I think highly of us both accordingly. You may allege that that merit is not visible to the naked eye. Granted; but the smaller the commodity the more inestimable its value.

How to resist adult stupidity

Christopher Hitchens on Saki, “Where the Wild Things Are,” The Atlantic (2008):

At the age of 15, Noël Coward was staying in an English country house and found a copy of Beasts and Super-Beasts on a table: “I took it up to my bedroom, opened it casually and was unable to go to sleep until I had finished it.” I had a similar experience at about the same age, and I agree with Coward that H. H. Munro—or “Saki,” the author of the book in question—is among those few writers, inspirational when read at an early age, who definitely retain their magic when revisited decades later. I have the impression that Saki is not very much appreciated in the United States. Good. That means I can put into my debt many of you who are reading these words. Go and get an edition of this Edwardian master of the short story. Begin with, say, “Sredni Vashtar” or “The Lumber-Room” or “The Open Window.” Then see whether you can put the book down.

The spellbinding quality of the stories is almost too easy to analyze and looks mawkish when set down in plain words, because Saki’s great gift was being able to write about children and animals. But consider: How many authors have ever been able to pull off these most difficult of tricks? Kipling, for sure, but then, Kipling would not have been able to render the languid young princes of the drawing room, such as the exquisite Clovis Sangrail, with whom Saki peopled so many a scene. The character of these lethal Narcissi is well netted in a phrase coined by Sandie Byrne, who refers to them as “feral ephebes.”

If you want to incubate an author who will show lifelong sympathy for children and animals, it seems best to sequester him at an early age and then subject him to a long regime of domestic torture. This was the formula that worked so well for Kipling, as evidenced in his frightening autobiographical story, “Baa Baa, Black Sheep,” and it is almost uncanny to see how closely Saki’s early life followed the same course. Abandoned to the care of cold and neurotic aunts in England while his father performed colonial duties in India, he and his siblings had to learn how to do without affection, and how to resist and outpoint adult callousness and stupidity. But without those terrible women—and the villains in Saki’s gem-like tales are almost always female—we might not have had the most-fearsome aunts in fiction, outdoing even Wodehouse’s Aunt Agatha or Wilde’s Lady Bracknell.

Wodehouse happily admitted to being influenced by Saki, and it would be interesting to know to what extent Saki was himself influenced by Wilde. There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that he was, because some of his epigrams (“Beauty is only sin deep”) betray an obvious indebtedness, and one (“To lose an hotel and a cake of soap in one afternoon suggests willful carelessness”) is an almost direct appropriation from The Importance of Being Earnest. But in that epoch, Wilde’s name lay under a ban, and Saki would have been well advised to not challenge the unstated rules that underlay that prohibition. (I find the speculation about his own homosexuality pointless because there is nothing about which to speculate: he was self-evidently homosexual and, just as obviously, deeply repressed.)

[…]

As is by no means uncommon in such cases, Saki was of the extreme right, and even an admirer must concede that some of his witticisms were rather labored and contrived as a consequence. Several of his less amusing stories are devoted to ridicule of the women’s suffrage movement, which was cresting during his heyday, while a persistent subtext of his work is a satirical teasing of his contemporary and bête noire, the ponderously socialistic Bernard Shaw (“Sherard Blaw, the dramatist who had discovered himself, and who had given so ungrudgingly of his discovery to the world”).