Skins in the game

sidewalk plaque in Charlottesville, Virginia plaque featured chalk graffiti added by local artist Richard Parks.
(Courtesy of Richard Parks)

As if we need reminding (ed: we do!), set aside how much we hate women and remember how racist we are! The discussion about American universities – especially our oldest, most venerable institutions of higher learning – and their deep connections to slavery has barely begun to break through, even and especially at our oldest, most venerable institutions. So, while the public remains largely unaware of the history, we might wonder how universities have for so long escaped scrutiny about the past – about how they were built, how they succeeded, who they succeeded for, and how so much of this was connected to buying and selling people to use as free labor. The NYRB dives into a four new books, and sets the stage rather clearly:

One reason, perhaps, that academic institutions were spared from scrutiny was that they seemed, by design, to be physically removed from the vulgar transactions of commercial life. The trading houses where merchants contracted for consignments of cotton, rum, molasses, and human chattel; the insurance firms that indemnified slave owners for loss of human property; the clothiers that manufactured coarse smocks for enslaved field hands—all these were likely to be found among shops and markets, close to the banks from which they obtained credit and the wharves where human goods were loaded or unloaded for sale.

Think, on the other hand, of our early colleges: Harvard on its bluff above the Charles River, or Yale looking across New Haven Green toward the Long Island Sound, or Brown atop the heights of Providence. Their architecture (ecclesiastical) and setting (pastoral) seemed to say, “We stand above the fray, removed from the workaday world, in a high-minded sphere of our own.” For people like me whose shelves are filled with books about these colleges, it’s not a bad idea to paste a note every foot or so along the edge of the shelf bearing this reminder from the novelist James McBride: “The web of slavery is sticky business. And at the end of the day, ain’t nobody clear of it.”

And friends, of course it’s not just the Ivies. The preponderance of screaming denials (CRT!) and counter-recriminations (Woke!) arise out of fear and cowardice about facing this history as it bleeds to profusely into our present. Can’t stop the bleeding without finding the wound, cleaning it carefully, repairing as much damage as possible, dressing it and providing all available care for full recuperation. Only then can we attend and check on the healing.

Image via WAPO

Back to the Well, again

Someone, a person unknown to me, at the ______ last night asked me to name my favorite book. Typical _____-talk. After a few beats, I said it was really four – Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. This is from Justine, opened at random to page 108. By the way, I can’t find this text  anywhere on the internets, which feels like a kind of theft in reverse, were that possible.

They were drifting, Melissa and he, across the shallow blood-red waters of Mareotis, in each other’s arms, towards the rabble of mud-huts where once Rhakotis stood. He reproduced their conversations so perfectly that though my lover’s share was inaudible I could nevertheless hear her cool voice, could deduce her questions from the answers he gave her. She was desperately trying to persuade him to marry her and he was temporizing, unwilling to lose the beauty of her person and equally unwilling to commit himself. What interested me was the extraordinary fidelity with which he reproduced this whole conversation which obviously in his memory ranked as one of the great experiences of his life. He did not know then how much he loved her; it had remained for me to teach him the lesson. And conversely how was it that Melissa had never spoken to me of marriage, had never betrayed to me the depth of her weakness and exhaustion as she had to him? This was deeply wounding. My vanity gnawed by the thought that she had shown him a side of her nature she kept hidden from me.

Now the scene changed again and he fell into a more lucid vein. It was as if in the vast jungle of unreason we came upon clearings of sanity where he was emptied of his poetic illusions. Here he spoke of Melissa with feeling but cooly, like a husband of a king. It was as if now that the flesh was dying the whole funds of his inner life, so long dammed up behind the falsities of a life wrongly lived, burst through the dykes and flooded the foreground of his  consciousness. It was not only Melissa either, for he spoke of his wife – and at times confused their names. There was also a third name, Rebecca, which he pronounced with a deeper reserve, a more passionate sorrow than either of the others. I took this to be his little daughter, for it si children who deliver the final coup de grace in all these terrible transactions of the heart.

Mm hmm.

Big Green Lizards There

On April 23, 1959, Shakespeare’s birthday, Gene Andrewski sat down with Lawrence Durrell at Durrell’s home in the south of France for an interview that became an installment in the Paris Review‘s Art of Fiction series. The Durrell interview is number 23. Here’s part of it.


You didn’t find it difficult to write in England, did you?


No, I think it’s a most creative landscape. It’s a violently creative landscape. I think the only thing that’s wrong is the way we’re living in it.


Can you summarize what’s wrong with the way we’re living in it?


The things one notices immediately are petty — it’s the construction of a sort of giant pin-table of inhibitions and restrictive legislation and ignoble, silly defenses against feeling, really. That’s what it amounts to. Of course there may be other mitigating factors which one leaves out when one is talking jolly glibly. If you put a writer in the pontiff’s seat, God knows what you might expect out of his mouth—you know, there may be economic conditions. It may be just that England is too overcrowded to be able to live in a joyous—


Mediterranean way?


No, not necessarily Mediterranean. One of the writers I reread every two or three years is Surtees, and I very much hoped that

6 LAWRENCE DURRELLEngland was going to be Surtees’s England—a vulgar, jolly, roister- ing England, not especially aesthetic or cultivated or delicate in any sense, but something with its vulgar roots in food, sex, and good living. By which I don’t mean fine living or refinement of values, because those are just the top dressing. It is at the roots that something’s wrong.


It is the whole attitude towards living in England that’s wrong, then?


One says that, but what I want to say is that it is wrong for me only. I don’t wish to correct it. I am not a proselytizer. I wouldn’t know if you asked me tomorrow how I’d go about making that English nation over into something nearer my heart’s desire. I am simply trying to explain to you why one is always an English orphan, as a writer, as an artist; and one goes to Europe because, like a damn cuckoo, one has to lay these eggs in someone else’s nest. Here in France, in Italy, and Greece, you have the most hospitable nests, you see, where there’s very little chi-chi about writing or artists as such, but which provide the most extraordi- narily congenial frames in which a job of work can be done. Here one feels on a par with a good or bad cheese—the attitude to art of a Frenchman is the attitude to what is viable—eatable, so to speak. It is a perfectly down to earth terre à terre thing, you see. Yet they don’t treat Camembert with less reverence than they treat Picasso when he comes to Arles; they are in the same genre of things. But in England everyone is worried to death about moral uplift and moral downfall, and they never seem to go beyond that problem, simply because they feel separated from the artists. It’s the culture that separates, you see, and turns the artist into a sort of refugee. It’s not a question of residence. Even the home artist has to fight for recognition; instantly, people don’t recognize that he is as good as good cheddar. It’s a different category to them.


Do you consider The Black Book important to the evolution of the Alexandria series?


Only in the sense that it was important for my evolution, you know, my inside evolution. It was my first breakthrough. I don’t regard it as a good book. In fact, I wince at it a bit, and there are parts of it which I think probably are a bit too obscene and which I wouldn’t have written that way now . . . but, how shall I say, I turned myself inside out in that book. Mr. Eliot is kind enough to praise it very highly, and what he is praising is not the book —which is more a curiosity of literature than a contribution to it— but that as a boy of twenty-four I had to undergo a sort of special crisis even to write the book at all and that was what was truthful, not the book itself, not the paper with stuff on it. It was the act of making the breakthrough and suddenly hearing your own tone of voice, like being reborn, like cracking the egg all of a sudden. And that’s what it was for me. I cracked the crust in that book and the lava was there, and I had only to find a way of training the lava so it didn’t spill over everything and burn everything up. I had to canalize it. That was the problem of the next ten years. Poetry turned out to be an invaluable mistress. Because poetry is form, and the wooing and seduction of form is the whole game. You can have all the apparatus in the world, but what you finally need is something like a—I don’t know what—a lasso . . . a very delicate thing, for catching wild deer. Oh, no, I’ll give you an analogy for it. To write a poem is like trying to catch a lizard without its tail falling off. Did you know that? In India when I was a boy they had great big green lizards there, and if you shouted or shot them their tails would fall off. There was only one boy in the school who could catch lizards intact. No one knew quite how he did it. He had a special soft way of going up to them, and he’d bring them back with their tails on. That strikes me as the best analogy I can give you. To try and catch your poem without its tail falling off.

It’s all great… go read the whole thing.