Philip Larkin comes under the scalpel again, but this time the hand is friendly. The book, Philip Larkin – Life, Art and Love takes a look what’s become a focal point of the great poet’s life and work: his seemingly banal Life as a librarian (I never shared that view – library work is richly rewarding for the literary inclined), his Art, which suffered tragic abuse when several critics and higher journalists blurred the picture by noting some seemingly racist and sexist language in his collected letters followed by a respected biography noting the same thing. And along with all that, his secretive Love life was exposed, which came as a shock and added spice to the staid picture he had painted of himself as a bored, suburban bachelor in a staid, middle class town.
Life, Art and Love are given a therapeutic scrubbing in this book, returning him to the shelf of normal, healthy souls who chose to live their life in semi-seclusion and not in the public eye. After all, Larkin’s true charm came from presenting himself as being un-Byron and un-Shelley, and, yet, he is, for our time, as great as the greatest British poets.
Larkin’s steadfast champion over the years, Clive James, gives the book high marks for setting the record straight and throwing water on whatever fainting spells caused the sniping in the first place.
A classic, eclectic anthology on the major world religions is available now from Norton. The book includes some 4,200 pages of texts spanning roughly 3,500 years. Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are presented “in their own words,” followed by critical responses, dissents, appreciations, commentaries, poems, songs, broadsides, in short a wide range of material that offers a reader one of the broadest, most comprehensive views possible of humanity’s search for the meaning of life. The overall editor, Jack Miles, discusses the book here.
On Sept. 11, the great Lonn Taylor, my friend from Fort Davis, Texas, was on The Colbert Report talking about the 200th anniversary of The Star-Spangled Banner. He had a great time… Here’s his weekly newspaper column recounting his experience. He had never heard of Steve Colbert before he was contacted by the show’s producer.
September 25, 2014
The Rambling Boy Column
By LONN TAYLOR
Andy Warhol (or perhaps Marshall McLuhan; there is disagreement about who originated the phrase) said, “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.”
On September 11 I was famous for six and a half minutes, so I still have eight and a half-minutes coming to me. That night 1.2 million people watched me explain to Stephen Colbert why Francis Scott Key was on a sloop in the Patapsco River watching the British fleet bombard Fort McHenry 200 years ago and how he happened the next morning to jot down a poem that became our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I had written a book on the subject in 2000, and someone connected with the Colbert Report had found the book and invited me to appear on the show to help commemorate the bicentennial of our national anthem.
The call with the invitation came in late May. I have to confess that at the time I had never heard of Stephen Colbert or the Colbert Report. We do not have a television set and I really only watch television on election night and during the Miss America contest. Fortunately, my wife, Dedie, took the call and briefed me before I called back, so I did not sound like a total idiot to the producer I talked with.
Over the next three months I watched a lot of clips of the Colbert Report. The more I watched the more nervous I became. Colbert seemed irreverent, frenetic, and acerbic, someone who asked questions and didn’t listen to the answers but simply tried to score off his guests. I decided that it was going to be like being interviewed by Vance Knowles in his Jackie Pepper persona. By the time Dedie and I left for New York I was a nervous wreck. About a week before we departed Emily Lazar, the executive producer of the show, called me and spent half an hour rehearsing me on the phone, reading me a series of questions that she said were similar to those that Colbert would ask. She advised me to have three or four things in my head that I could talk about if the interview seemed to drag. I got on the plane running these little speeches through my head.
All of my fretting proved to be for naught. The show, which runs at 11:30 P.M. in New York, is taped before a live audience between 7:30 and 8:30 P.M. A limousine picked us up at our hotel at 6:30 and took us to the studio, where a young woman met us at the curb and showed us to a private green room with my name on the door. The room was furnished with sofas and plates of fruit and cheese were on a table. Henry Kissinger had occupied the room the previous evening and I signed the guest book just below his name.
Colbert came in just as we got settled and introduced himself. He explained that he was going to interview me in character, and that his character was that of a dumb right-wing idiot and that I should not take offense at anything he said. He was not intimidating at all; in fact was a most gracious host. After he left Emily Lazar came in and said they had now refined the script and she could run through the questions Colbert was likely to ask, although she also said that it was impossible to predict what he might do on camera. We went through another series of questions and she left the typed script with me. I was made up, a microphone was attached to my lapel, and I was led through a maze of cables and cameras to the set and seated at the interview table. The camera swung around, the lights came on, Colbert jumped up from his desk, introduced me, strode over to the table, shook hands, and we started talking. Six and a half minutes later it was over, and I realized that he had asked none of the questions that were in the script, had made no insulting remarks, and had not interrupted me once. I also realized that I had just had a wonderful time.
The television audience did not see the best part of the show. During the warm-up period, when Colbert was exchanging remarks with the studio audience, a young man wearing a Northwestern University t-shirt stood up and said that he was a student at Northwestern and that the Northwestern Dance Marathon, the annual student charity event, was coming up. He knew that Colbert was a Northwestern alumnus and he wondered if Colbert could work a mention of the dance marathon into tonight’s show?
Colbert thought a minute and said, “We’ll do something better than that. Come down front after the show.” When the taping was over Colbert called the young man down to the stage and explained that they were going to slow dance together, and that when they started the camera would be on the student’s face but as they turned it would reveal that he was dancing with Colbert. Colbert took the young man in his arms and they danced several steps and turned, and Colbert looked into the camera and said “Northwestern University . . . Dance Marathon,” providing Northwestern with an invaluable film clip to use in promoting the marathon.
With 1.2 million people watching I was sure that I would be stopped on the sidewalk the next day by people wanting autographs. It took 2 ½ days for it to happen, and it wasn’t an autograph. Dedie and I were waiting for a table for Sunday lunch at the Café Luxembourg on 70th Street when a young man leaving the restaurant stopped and said, “Aren’t you the historian I saw on the Colbert Report Thursday night?” I allowed that I was and he said, “Wow. You were really interesting. We’re studying Francis Scott Key in our Bible study class.” I’m still trying to figure that out.
I want to thank all of my friends who sent e-mails saying that they had enjoyed the show, and especially all of those folks who went to the Crowley Theater to watch it at the ungodly hour of 10:30 P.M. The fact that I knew that you were watching kept me from being completely tongue-tied.
Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Email Taylor to be placed on the column’s mailing list.
The Sinosphere blog of The New York Times has published an interview with Bill Porter, who also publishes translations of Chinese texts under the pseudonym of Red Pine, upon the release of his Yellow River Odyssey, a travel journal written just prior to China’s emergence into the modern world. His extensive photographs of the trip capture a China that has largely disappeared. Many of Red Pine’s books are now bestsellers in China, after being translated from English into Chinese, including his translations and commentaries on Buddhist poems and sutras. The interview is by China correspondent Ian Johnson, and can be read here.
Yellow River Odyssey is published by Chin Music Press.
I’ve still not let go of reading and rereading new and old essays of Vidal. He’s fearsomely prescient and usually right in interpreting US history and forecasting where the world is heading, in some cases fully 40-50 years before recent events and popular opinion confirmed and caught up with him. Here he is in the essay “The Day the Amercan Empire Ran Out of Gas (1986)” from Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia (2004).
“When Confucius was asked what would be the first thing he would do if he were asked to lead the state – a never-to-be-fulfilled dream – he said, ‘Rectify the language.’ This is wise. This is subtle. As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: You liberate a city by destroying it. Words are used to confuse so that at election time people will solemnly vote against their interests. Finally, words must be so twisted as to justify an empire that has now ceased to exist, much less make sense. Is rectification of our system possible for us? Henry Adams thought not. In 1910, he wrote: ‘The whole fabric of society will go to wrack if we really lay hands of reform on our rotten institutions.’ Then he added: ‘The whole system is a fraud, all of us know it, labourers and capitalists alike, and all of us are consenting parties to it.’”
Is it really too late to right the system more towards the people rather than the oligarchical class? I hope not, but certainly effort is all and it could make a difference as it has throughout America’s history. US history is nothing if not a sustained attempt by hardy souls to come closer to a more egalitarian, just society not controlled by an elite, wealthy oligarchical class. A wise Jewish saying from The Sayings of the Fathers, a compilation of the ethical teachings and maxims of the Rabbis of the Mishnaic period, offers sage advice:
“It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” – Rabbi Tarfon, Pirke Avot 2:21.
Ruben Habito, my Zen teacher for many years, who will always be a core presence in my life, continues on his path, bringing Zen to Texas, writing his many books on Zen, and opening himself and his zendo to teaching anyone who seeks a way into Zen practice or a way to experience their own religion more intimately. Over the years, his students have been agnostics, Jews, Christians, and members of other faiths, all seeking to experience life more deeply and simply. This interview, which appeared in Tricycle, is typical of Ruben, gently building bridges that can lead Christians and others into Zen practice, pointing to the connections that bind us all to each thing. I wrote a chapter on Ruben in my travel/memoir, which is sitting silently now unable to find an agent or publisher. If for no other reason, I would like the book to be published if only to spread the word about Ruben’s unique life, profound understanding of people, and his unwavering commitment to compassion. As more years pass without seeing him, I miss him more and more while at the same time feeling his presence grow even deeper.
I found a clean copy of a Modern Library edition of The Complete Works of Tacitus at the Lost Bookstore, picked it up, and put it on top of Gore Vidal’s last three essay collections. In his snappy, trenchant prose, Vidal tells us how the US methodically cast itself as savior and circus-master of the world, while neatly positioning itself to dominate the world economy and thereby emerge as an empire far surpassing Rome but sharing many of the same traits. Our empire truly began in 1949 with the end of WWII. Unfortunately, our course has led to a state of perpetual war, overt and covert, around the world and weakened us morally and economically.
Vidal, citing stats from the American Federation of Scientists, lists more than 200 overt or covert military operations around the world from 1949 until the 2000s, and we’re still at it. The number of US military bases in foreign lands stands somewhere around 730. And now the US and China are in danger of reheating the Cold War.
Empire translates to control of resources in order to sustain itself: read oil, gas, key minerals, water, basic food sources, etc. The thought-processes involved in creating an empire can be benign and enlightened (bringing better days to some client states) but also entail darker deeds (reversing or thwarting the legitimate will of a client state) which build up the very things that lead to an empire’s collapse. The myth sustains the doing, but the darker deeds belie the myth and lead to dysfunction when the citizenry tires, sees through the myth and set out for themselves to go their own way, or to try to change the system through legitimate or illegitimate means.
What I like about Vidal is his Man of Letters approach. His essay collections, spanning 60 years, focus on literature, people, history and politics. He is America’s truest popular historian, constantly debunking myths and pretensions. His historical fiction chronicles key decades and figures in American history. The most bracing wit since Oscar Wilde, his ice-like prose glides over the surface of key events and figures, throwing off dazzling phrases and insights that light up serious, core issues.
On the issue of empire, even deeper and more rigorous – but equally clear and compelling – is the work of Chalmers Johnson of the University of California at San Diego, whose final books in the 2000s established the case for an American foreign policy which has been based too often on means that would not be countenanced by the American people: political assassinations, derailing liberal movements in foreign countries, supporting brutal regimes and on and on…the approach has been patriarchal and condescending, assuming we know better than the people themselves in foreign countries. Doing less would have saved the US from many disgraceful acts and led to more respect in the world, but that has not been the way of the US in this century or the last.
“Summarizing the series in “Dismantling the Empire,” Dr. Johnson said that “blowback” means more than a negative, sometimes violent reaction to United States policy. “It refers to retaliation for the numerous illegal operations we have carried out abroad that were kept totally secret from the American public,” he wrote.
“This means that when the retaliation comes, as it did so spectacularly on Sept. 11, 2001, the American public is unable to put the events in context. So they tend to support acts intended to lash out against the perpetrators, thereby most commonly preparing the ground for yet another cycle of blowback.”
“To maintain its empire, he said, the United States “will inevitably undercut domestic democracy.”
In a review of “The Sorrows of Empire” in The New York Times, Ronald Asmus, a deputy assistant secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, wrote that the book was “a cry from the heart of an intelligent person who fears that the basic values of our republic are in danger.” He added that it “conveys a sense of impending doom rooted in a belief that the United States has entered a perpetual state of war that will drain our economy and destroy our constitutional freedoms.”
Here are the last books each for Johnson and Vidal, which taken together spell out how the US sank to the current pitiful state of affairs, and, by implication, point to the way out – how things can be reversed and the people can regain control of the political system, taking it away from the wishes of the few – corporate America and secret bureaucracies – who are accountable only to lax, Congressional overseers who essentially ignore the values and conscience of the American people.
Now, I’m ready to return to Tacitus, who, in telling us how the Roman Empire fell, tells our own story. Character and conscience are all. I’ll give Vidal the last word:
“Those Americans who refuse to plunge blindly into the maelstrom of European and Asiatic politics are not defeatist or neurotic,” he wrote. “They are giving evidence of sanity, not cowardice, of adult thinking as distinguished from infantilism. They intend to preserve and defend the Republic. America is not to be Rome or Britain. It is to be America.”