Denis Johnson, my generation’s Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway, a prolific and beautiful writer who had a key to the confused hearts and minds of people derailed by life and who lived in worlds filled with tragedy and oftentimes transcendent beauty died at his home in California on May 24, 2017. He wrote many books which will stay with you forever. His own life started as a spiritual and mental struggle that was dominated by the fringes of American evangelical religion. He understood its believers’ rock solid spiritual search, their urge for apocalypse, their assurance that we live in a fallen, irreparably damaged world. He left us luminescent novels and nonfiction (See Angels, The Stars at Noon, Tree of Smoke, Jesus’ Son, Seek (nonfiction) . Read any book he wrote as if it’s a holy testament to flawed humanity, a paean to each soul’s blind rush to mortality, a prayer to language to reveal truth, and you will have come a small distance to where his spirit and art lived.
I’m nearly finished reading Caesar and Christ, Part III in the estimable Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization. It’s what he termed “synthetic history, which studies all major phases of a people’s life, work and culture in their simultaneous operation.”
“We shall learn more about the nature of man by watching his behavior through sixty centuries than by reading Plato and Aristotle, Spinoza and Kant,” he said. Durant agreed with Nietzsche, “All philosophy has now fallen forfeit to history.”
Durant’s magisterial history (11 volumes) is measured, movingly written and full of distilled wisdom, drawn from the lessons of people’s actions and words, and Durant’s determination to put events in proper context. Above all, he is wise and pragmatic and he sees humankind whole, both the weaknesses and strengths. Written with his wife, Ariel, the books were published between 1935 and 1975, and are an essential read for a seasoned overview of world history.
Here are some gleanings from Caesar and Christ:
“What increases with civilization is not so much immorality of intent as opportunity of expression.”
“The older Romans used temples as their banks, as we use banks as our temples.”
“News reached [a Roman] when it was old, so that his passions could not be stirred everyday by the gathered turmoil of the world.”
“…who could punish robbery among his fellows when half the members of the Senate had joined it violating treaties, robbing allies and despoiling provinces. “He who steals from a citizen,” said Cato, “ends his days in fetters and chains, but he who steals from the community ends them in purple and gold [robes].”
“From the moral standpoint, which is always a window dressing in international politics, …”
“Men begin by seeking happiness and are content at last with peace.”
“…in philosophy all truth is old, and only error is original.”
“Around the immoral hub of any society is a spreading wheel of wholesome life, in which the threads of tradition, the moral imperatives of religion, the economic compulsions of the family, the instinctive love and care of children…suffice to keep us publicly decent and moderately sane.”
This painting, by Ava Milner Hamm, is one of my earliest memories, a landscape of country that starts west of Fort Worth. The painting was always in the two houses where I grew up. I have lived with it in sight (or memory) for all of my life. It always tells me I’m home.
Walt Whitman, An American by Henry Seidel Canby, published in 1943, is an intimate look at the poet’s long struggle to create Leaves of Grass, which Emerson so famously hailed as the rising of a truly new American poet, of a type he had called for in his essays which urged readers to cast off European ways and forge a new consciousness based on the new American land and spirit. Canby is good on Whitman’s early life as a respected journalists and editor of several weeklies in Brooklyn and New York City where he cut a compelling figure among the writers and artists of the times. He was far ahead of his time, with a cunning understanding of publicity, a theatrical presence, and a sophisticated understanding of politics. He was viewed as a sophisticated political journalist who also had a flair for essays and portraits of people and events. All the while, his inner world, his meditative link with the unfolding of his daily experiences, was secretly putting down deep roots which around age 35 burst forth in epiphany-like awakenings, calling out the first poems celebrating himself:
From his notebook:
I am the poet of the body
And I am the poet of the soul…
I am the poet of reality
I say the earth is not an echo…
I am the poet of equality
I dilate you with tremendous breath
He saw himself as nothing less than a divine, incarnate prophet-teacher. He fully assumed the role – braving decades of public outcries of indecency because of his frankness (so tender and mild) when writing about sexual relations between women and men, the actual extent of which are shrouded in personal reticence. His service later in life as a volunteer hospital worker in Washington D.C. during the Civil War years stands out because it called forth and displayed his saint-like character. A touching moment: when Lincoln and Whitman confronted each other on several occasions, there seemed to have been a bow given my both men without an exchange of words.
The record he left of his volunteer service to the injured soldiers, Specimen Days, and his notebooks from that period, are a close second to his final, completed version of Leaves of Grass, which is now our national song of the 19th century America spirit (which, alas, lived and lives only in literature). Wth Emerson, Thoreau, Melville and Whitman we had a calling forth for an America which was never to be and four artful testaments to the causes of that failure: and yet, there is both an America which continues to live up to their ideals and an America which blusters along oblivious to the transcendence they called for to achieve a better human nature during our time on Earth. Even so, it was a bright era for American letters. Looking at Whitman’s life, you can’t help but see the link with Allen Ginsberg, a continuation of Whitman’s spirit and energy who lived in a time when the materialism and cynicism, foreseen by the 19th century writers, was firmly entrenched. It dominated Ginsberg’s time, but he did, indeed, Howl against it. Ginsberg’s public acceptance had obvious parallels to Whitman’s. A public misapprehension of his poetic style and widespread establishment shock at his unabashed homosexuality and willingness to assume a political role (something Whitman never did). And here we are, in hope, awaiting the emergence of another quartet of writers who will raise the banner in this century.
3.3421 A particular method of symbolizing may be unimportant, but it
is always important that this is a possible method of symbolizing.
And this happens as a rule in philosophy: The single thing
proves over and over again to be unimportant, but the possibility
of every single thing reveals something about the nature of
the world. – From the Tractatus