Archive for August, 2012

It is plausible that no translation, however good it may be, can have any significance as regards the original — Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” Illuminations

One must distrust the almost-the-same (sodium is the same as potassium, but with sodium nothing would have happened), the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates and all patchwork — Primo Levi, “Potassium,” The Periodic Table

Eugene Atget (1857-1927), The Petit Trianon

Dear friends and readers,

My theme: I’ve returned to an old love to do a new project: French-to-English and back again translations in the 18th century. I begin with Walter Benjamin and my own experiences, then cover Beebee’s book, Clary on the continent, Prevost’s different Clevelands, and various different telling individual cases (different Tom Joneses, Radcliffe’s translators); I end on Renato Poggioli’s “The Added Artificer” which deserves to be much better known.


I have a hard time remembering when I was not fascinated by translations. I think it began back in high school when at age 16 I read a probably poor translation into English of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame. I loved the book and wanted to know more about it, and especially I wanted to read it in French. Later on somehow reading a book in one language and then reading the same book in another gave me an experience of two weirdly interdependent books and thus worlds. When I was in college, I took French for all the years I could, extending my non-major following of it with one-credit courses: such courses met twice a week, but for one and one-half hours of sheer talk in French allowed using our books. We’d take turns using its conversations. Then in graduate school, I took a course in Italian over one summer to fulfill the language requirement (one had to pass two tests in two languages), and just loved the language, again enjoyed so much lining up a text in Italian aligned with its source or target text in English.

Anne Finch when young

During the 1980s I re-taught myself to read French and read French novels, and then for over 20 years starting the middle 1980s I taught myself to read and to translate Italian and translated Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara’s poetry and then wrote an essay on Anne Finch’s translations out of the Italian though the French. Just what I had done at first for Colonna (and what I’ve done since for a poem by Elsa Morante I found in the original Italian with French text facing it).

So when over the past week I dropped one of my projects for this fall term, the paper on Paranoia and Infamy, I naturally turned to the proposal I wanted to send to Chawton, and was happy, even eager to reread some of my books on translation (Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility, The Scandals of Translation, Sherry Simon’s Gender in Translation). Did you know that over 90% of translations into the world are transations into English? how little translators are paid? How women’s writing begins in translation, how they express themselves through its covering medium?

I discovered my old folders filled with essays on translation, some read, some not read, and books and essays just on translation in the 18th century, the 19th and more recently.

Charlotte Smith by George Romney (1792)

My idea was Charlotte Smith’s translation of Prevost’s Manon Lescaut, or some study of intermediary texts between her later novels and Prevost and Rousseau, but to tell the truth I was not sure I could find something to extrapolate out of a tight narrow comparison. I do have Isabelle de Montolieu’s translation of one of Smith’s Solitary Wanderer’s Tale (Corisande de Beauvilliers, and all of M. Montagne’s (whoever he is) French translation of Smith’s Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake, which I also own in English. And of course Montolieu’s translation of Sense and Sensibility (with her preface) and soon will have her translation of Persuasion.

So I went about to look for previous work on individual books I’d done. I’ve now remembered my careful comparative reading of the opening of Radcliffe’s Udolpho with Victorine de Chastenay’s translation of the same text into French, something of Chastenay’s life (she was imprisoned during the terror and lost family members and emerged somewhat shattered and depressed, and various essays on 18th century translations of classics (Riccoboni and Davaux’s Tom Jones, a French and a Dutch translation of Prevost’s Cleveland contrasted to the French texts) and of course Prevost’s Clarisse.

Victorine de Chastenay (translator into French of Radcliffe’s Udolpho)

And I’ve read away and reminded myself of what I once knew. So, I spent Tuesday I spent yesterday reading translation studies and then how women in particular use translation: how the earliest women writers began (felt they had license) by translating, how it works to free, a way to express what is otherwise forbidden (that’s how I see Smith’s translation of Manon Lescaut), a way of declaring love and wanting to share (Chastenay’s Udolpho).

Jean-Antoine Watteau, unnamed shepherdess

I read Mirella Agorni’s poignant, The Voice of the ‘Translatress’: From Aphra Behn to Elizabeth Carter Author, The Yearbook of English Studies, 28 (1998 Eighteenth-Century Lexis and Lexicography): 181-95, and I compared a literal translation of Ovid’s Oenone to Paris with Aphra Behn’s translation/adaptation. In her case (as is not uncommon among men as well as women) she did not have any Latin, so someone gave her an intermediary crib. Behn turned the poem into erotica — on behalf of Oenone, a nobody. Since reading Germaine Greer’s persuasive debunking of all the myths growing up around Aphra Behn, including that she was an aristocrat (born on wrong side of blanket), supported herself sheerly by her playwriting (when it seems rather she combined being men’s mistresses with playwriting and verse, including translations, and pop novellas), I can see why she’d identify with Oenone.

Behn is worth remembering and this unashamed revelling in idyllic
pastoral too. Some of her most moving verses defend her as a translatress:

I by a double right thy Bounties claim,
Both from my Sex, and in Apollo’Ns ame:
Let me with Sappha and Orinda
Oh ever sacred Nymph, adorn’d by thee;
And give my Verses Immortality.

Jane Austen died declaring her immortality in defiance against everyone spending their afternoon so trivially.

‘Oh! subjects rebellious! Oh Venta depraved
When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal!


The Abbe Prevost (1697-1763) translated all Richardson and Frances Sheridan’s Sidney Biddulph

Speaking very generally, as the century progressed and the novel achieved more respect, translations became more ostensibly faithful. Paradoxically at the same time (especially if you are working on the literal old model that a good translation is a sort of excellent crib — rather like those who go to movies and critique a film adaptation by how “literally” like it seemed to them to the book), translations became more creative. You can see how the author expressed her or himself through the medium.

Some of the best general essays written thus far on translation are general philosophical ones. A particularly rich one is by Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator”. He opens with what may seem a strange idea: “It is plausible that no translation, however good it may be, can have any significance as regards the original.” The analysis in defense of this is brilliant and rich with ideas. One train of argument suggests that any translation is about the encounter of the two languages and two cultures. I find this to be so in my experience of translation. I don’t own the words I use and must use the words of my time and culture and watch them interact with the words and cultural assumptions and whole world view of the other language — French or Italian. He says the desire to translate comes partly from a love of a certain language. Again I know this is so.

Lovelace just before the rape: Simon Brett’s late 20th century illustrations for the Folio Society edition

I reread some of Beebee’s Clarissa on the Continent, about 18th century to modern translations of Clarissa — and abridgements. I know now the Broadveiw edition provides a new edition of the 3rd edition of Clarissa, thus replacing the now out-of-print 4 volume Everyman.

Beebee’s book includes a close reading of two contemporary translations of Clarissa: Prevost and Michaelis’s. He compares these two texts to Richardson’s 1st and 3rd editions of Clarissa (which are themselves different, though both think they must Frenchify the text from the point of view of French taste and ethics). Beebee teaches us how to read translations. He has a chapter where he surveys later translations and abridgements. Particularly of interest to me was Dallas’s abridgement as Trollope wrote a critique of that; it was the book 19th century readers knew Clarissa. After Dallas when some 19th century person says she’s read Clary it’s probably Dallas’s Clary.

In last chapter of Beebee’s book he compares Sherburn’s 1970s and Burrell’s 1950s abridgements. Most of the time today Clarissa is read in an abridgement in the US. In France they read Prevost’s translation (quite different in a number of ways from Richardson); in the US when I was in college (1960s) we read Burrell’s abridgement for Modern Library; the last decade or so students read Sherburn’s abridgement for Rinehart. Margaret Doody has a long article lambasting Sherburn (by the way).

I had been really delighted to come across for the first time ever a close reading and discussion of Burrell. I was not sure of his full name. His edition had never been acknowledged or described in print as far as I knew. I had read Doody and Stuber’s exposure of Sherburn’s abridgement as a far too personal, rigid, a narrow take with interjections by Sherburn (!), but never came across any commentary on Burrell.

Lovelace attacking Clarisssa (Simon Brett again)

It was Burrell’s abridgement of Clarissa that I first read at age 18-19 and was riveted by. I had the not uncommon experience of not being able to put the book down, of being gripped to read on and on into the wee hours of the dawn. The most vivid memory I had though was of disappointment; somehow or other I had missed the rape. I still remember hunting around the text the following morning (after a little sleep) and not finding it. Later false memories began to tell me I had found it later, but now I realize that in fact I must’ve read the rape for the first time in the Everyman reprint of Richardson’s 3rd edition.

Well, guess what? Burrell omitted it! He censored out the scene. It was in the Everyman I realized that Lovelace raped Clarissa in front of the other women; there I first read the famous passage where Clary says she will be his, just give her a bit of time right here, right now.

Nonetheless, I believe that Burrell’s edition influenced me & strongly; Burrell produces a romantic (vexed word I know, but I’m trying to use it in the common sense way of overwrought individualistic emotionalism and rebellion) text. Burrell will omit much surrounding matter here and there which qualifies Clarissa’s subjective interpretations and outcries. I’ve never read Sherburn so didn’t realize he actually interjects his own interpretation and sometimes himself imitates Lovelace — falls into Lovelace’s vein. Beebee shows how both men cut the book in ways which erase some of the worst aspects of Lovelace’s character. Reading them, though, against Richardson’s books teaches us what was most deeply meant to be expressed in the original — especially after you have studied a variety of translation and adaptations.

Final duel (Brett)

I probably loved Clarissa, was more grabbed by it in Burrell’s edition than I would have been in Richardson’s whole text. Burrell omitted much of the long fourth volume, especially all the Job passages and the gruesome and to me egregiously spiteful nasty dramatizations of the deaths of wicked people. He kept Lovelace’s agon, time at the assembly ball, the lead-up to the duel. (See how vicious the Deity can get; watch out is my gut response to these Burrell thought them in bad taste.) Burrell also turned Clary into a pre-Byronic heroine and softened the presentation of Lovelace.

So I was at long last vindicated. 40 years later I learned I didn’t miss the rape after all. I had not fallen asleep over my book.


Samuel Palmer (1805-81), A Dream in the Appenines (1864)

Some of the best studies I read yesterday were about the clash between cultures, languages, created worlds through languages though having the same literal stories and denotative word content, and even syntax (at times). You do have to read more than one language to do translation studies and as the central hegemonic languages in the 18th century for new literary movements were French and English, these are the languages most studies are in. I went into Annie Cointre, Alain Lautel and Annie Rivera’s La Traduction
romanesque au XVIII siecle
, especially a long essay on Prevost’s
Cleveland — in French and English and Dutch versions. It brings home so many issues, including the way history was more valued than fiction and historians paid more, how this book applied to a naive desire to read history made easy and salacious (as in our time). This was by Ellen Ruth Moerman.

Abbe Prevost reading Manon Lescaut aloud to group of admirer (1856 painting by Joseph Caraud)

To do a translation study you must do book history. Prevost had several translators; his book came out in more than one edition and it was censored differently in different countries. The Dutch translator was quite content to translate anti-Catholic church commentary, but the Catholic French one was not. All of them stigmatize the Quakers (everyone dislikes quakers because people resent general non-conformity with the larger group). Then Prevost wanted partly to delude his British audience into thinking his book was really a history, really written first in English and had the English copy published before the French. There are two different prefaces: one published in English opens with a solemn discourse on the uses of history; the other in French is more tongue-in-cheek and he defends himself for writing a preface (what is this hypocrisy that prefaces are to be apologized for; they are needed) and insinuates if you enjoyed the Man of Quality, you’ll find him in this book again.

The 1997 BBC Tom Jones understood how important Fielding’s presence can be in the novel for the reader who wants over self-conscious wit, self-reflexive mockery

Two essays on the translations of Tom Jones, one by Kristina Taivalkoski-Shilove and another by Annie Rivara (on Riccoboni’s Amelie)
very worth while. It was fascinating to discover that the freer early translation by La Place was the Tom Jones most French readers knew and preferred; that it was a labor of love Davaux did when he translated faithfully and carefully and included all the opening narrator chapters. In the 20th century Tom Jones is reprinted in popular editions without these opening chapters. For me the book is ruined; much of the deep pleasure comes from the presence of the narrator. But apparently not for a mass readership who are said to lose “interest.” Amelia was not popular, and Riccoboni’s choice to do it came out of her deep engagement with its story of unhappiness in years of marriage.

From Christopher Cave I was delighted to learn that Andre Morellet, humane philosophe who translated Beccario’s treatise demonstrating that torture turns up no valid information translated Radcliffe’s Italian. He found in her a congenial reformist spirit, but he continually rationalized her prose. She produces a super-abundance of description which cannot depict reality so many experiences are piled into one. He choses a line of description that’s clear and readily pictured. What makes for her original depth psychologically and pictorially vanishes. It’s true you can’t make fun of her text and it’s no longer what some find tedious. I just love myself getting lost in labyrinths with endless doors and locks.

Piranesi, I Carceri (opaque)

Piranesci, I Carceri (clarified)

And I spent time with my old love, Renato Poggioli’s “The Added Artificer” (in a marvelous anthology put together by Reuben Brower, On Translation). Like Venuti, he shows that a translation is another text, and one that is creative in a different way. The translator (like an illustrator) can transcend the first text by transposing another personality into the key of his or her own. You strive after self-expression by looking into a pool of art. Instead of a translation being pouring new wine into an old or previously extant bottle, the translator is taking older wine and making a new bottle with it. The translator is herself a living vessel saturated with a sparkling spirit and recreates the container someone with whom he or she has an affinity has given a previous embodiment to. A good translation may be read for itself, without comparing it to the original work.

Eugene Atget, Grand Trianon, Pavillion de Musique (1923-24)


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Dear friends and readers,

Perhaps this blog belongs on my Austen Reveries since it is Austen’s sceptical and wise defense of novelists (in her time much despised) that is my touchstone (in the Arnoldian sense), but since my catchment area is so broad, I’ve decided to put my thoughts in response to a far from unbiased New York Times column here. It seems we must all be suspicious of on-line reviews, and bloggers in general, since David Streitfield (doubtless paid) came across a story about a man who makes just oodles of money writing fatuous blog reviews of books: The Best Book Reviews &c

Speaking generally (but remember Blake: “to generalize is to be an idiot”), Mr Streitfield is telling us home truths about publishing and selling books today, and also the tendency of reviews not only on-line but in paper. First, it’s getting harder and harder to get a book, any book, into print, and even harder (that’s why publishers are so reluctant) to make a profit: there are just so many for free texts, so many books on sale in so many different places, such an embarrassment of easy-to-reach other things to do (to say nothing of the potential reader having a full-time job, or perhaps 2 or 3 part-time ones), that selling books has become retail, one-on-one.

And I am aware of how publishers use bloggers: I’ve refused numbers of books — where the person also says it’s understood I will praise it. I especially get offers of Jane Austen sequels, which I turn down regularly. I did accept one this way, found it awful, said so, and the publishers was livid. I have done reviews for friends but only when I think well of the book. Again, speaking generally, one cannot go to most reviews for real advice on whether to buy or take out of a library, and try to read a book.

So, what’s forgotten here is how many reviews published in paper are anything but trustworthy. They are done by the writer’s friends, or someone part of his or her group. No one dares say anything adverse lest his or her book get a reciprocal treatment;the editor receives complaints from his or her friends. It is also not the way to make friends. I’ve had the experience several times now that after I’ve read the book for real and more carefully than any review I come across, write a scholarly review where I generally praise the book highly, outline its contents specifically (so as to let readers know what’s in it), but then have a paragraph or two of objections, evaluative critique or downright objections, the person who wrote the book is resentful and lets me know it. They don’t care if the reviewer at TLS or LRB didn’t read the book, appears to know nothing beyond the first chapter; all they want is praise.

Many blogs produce fatuous praise; that’s what wanted by the mass readership. Common readers don’t understand evaluative criticism. I’ve had very angry responses to those reviews I do of more popular novelists — like Ann Patchett. That one is paying a writer a high compliment by “rational opposition” (here comes Austen), genuinely engaging in central issues of conversations to which the book belongs is not understood. There are readers for whom reading a book is a version of identity politics; they also get indignant: how dare you. Who do you think you are? And the attacks one gets connect to why many writers in print and in blogs are so reluctant to tell personal details of their lives that are not conventional, upbeat.

I demur not only at the unqualified singling out of bloggers as somehow inferior (stupider), more corrupt than people paid by institutions and businesses, but also the over-glamorizing and supposed success, the amount of money this man (who stands as an example), it’s implied, bloggers can make if they write ecstatic to vapid (“how wonderful”) reviews. I’ve read numerous tales of the real living or even huge sums a blogger can make; if these stories were true, a lot more bloggers I know would be making good money; they are not. Bloggers who are paid a living wage or more work professionally on line for a conventional publication. Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a decent living because he is blogging for the Atlantic. How many people write books? is it probable that anyone would have such notice as to attract so many people a day. $5 a review. The idea that one can write them out as if one were a programmed machine is behind this kind of aspersion.

Streitfield is not exactly a disinterested witness.


My good friend, “Frisbee” who has an excellent blog on her life as a reader, she sometimes talks about the complaints and false perceptions of bloggers that she has to deal with when it comes to readers (E-attention spans, blogging and culture) and then has asked, Should or Shouldn’t We? (blog). Clarion call with Jane: yes we should.

Fellow bloggers, we are in the position of classic book film adapters today, of novelists yesterday: Let us not desert one another:

We are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded as much and more and continual extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world [once you own a computer and are attached to the Net, for free], no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers


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From the summer 2012 American Century Theater production

Dear friends and readers,

Insofar as we can by this time, we returned to our usual lives, and last night saw a remarkable play which was a kind of re-enactment. A large group of actors from the American Century Theater participated in enacting one of these (hideous eventually) dancing marathons adrumbrated in the 1920s, in supposedly “innocent” college stunts weher young people jumped out windows. (I wonder about that — was it a form of sorority or fraternity hazing?) When the depression really began to destroy lives, create widespread abysmal povetry in the early 1930s, these jumping parties were turned (I don’t quite get the connection) into organized dance marathons lasting literally days on end. Couples were first tempted and then pressured and finally humiliated into enduring long hours of “dancing” to win a prize of money.

I’d liken this to a cruel form of performing circus; the audiences are characterized as vulgar and awful, enjoying the spectacle of suffering and desperation for money, and (unlike TV or movies), they were literally there, but the pleasures of this experience reminds me of what is said to be gained from watching today’s TV reality shows. For those actively dancing, if any couple won a prize, the cost of good, laundry, medical care, lodging was deducted. A widely-known secret was that acting professional did this and that’s what we see in this enactment too.

It was an unusually long play — the experience took about 3 hours (with one 15 minute intermission during which some of the actors sung before a mike). The company were trying to make the time passed as realistic as they could with a slow opening (including fights, insults and bickering among the actors, managers, food people, physicians, band players). Everyone dressed in 1930s outfits in the cast, and the audience sat the way they would have been. Actors also played audience members. A concession stand we could buy from was set up too (alas, 2012 prices). A band.

It took time for the dancing to degenerate into suffering, and intermixed with the dark drabness, they would put on strobe lights that sparkled and threw a gay light over the proceedings. The 1930s songs during intermission, and pretended 10 minute rest periods emerged as creepy, or gothic, or perversely hypocritical. Little cruelties got to me: a man called the coach who blew on a whistle and had a hard wooden switch would hit the contestant’s feet and legs to stay dancing (like a football coach, no?). The sarky talk from the introducer and announcers, the way they sneered and shamed people was unpleasant and my first response was “let’s go home.” But Jim said, no, stay, it’s not real remember, but an enactment. The Washington Post reviwer loved it, called it a “slow burner.”

They managed a story line by having three couples emerge more individually; one actress played June Havoc herself and she made explicit her anger at how she was exploited and yet had to endure this to find a company to be in continually and eat. She and her partner (played by Bruce Alan Rauscher, an excellent actor I’ve seen in other companies) enacted a wedding in front of the audience — quite like a reality “match game” show. A kind of phony Marlene Dietrich stops by — and actors famous becuase they are famous were there too (again anticipating TV). Each couple were at first dressed to the nines, but gradually re-dressed and grew filthy, exhausted, with their clothes sweaty-ruined, torn. They began to quarrel bitterly as they collapsed, blaming one another for losing, jealous between couples.

The nagging MC boss

June Havoc who wrote the piece was Gypsy Rose Lee’s sister and she did participate in these. She wrote two autobiographies also, Early Havoc and More Havoc.

The group doing this called themselves the American Century Theater and they make a specialty out of American plays – do nothing else so you can sometimes see remarkable and rarely done stuff. So, it’s a fair question to ask: given our present depression, the present use of reality and football shows, what in American culture breeds this? Is it connected to the popularity (apparently) of figures like Romney, Ryan and their ilk — is this somehow connected to the paranoid element of the TeaPartyBaggers (or whatever they are called). The sobering thought that there were no marathons in places outside the US occurred in the company’s notes (fake wrestling does not occur outside the US either). Having gone to an exhibit of the war of 1812 early this summer reminded me how early on the American way became aggressive, violent. After all enough people enable the distribution of guns across the US, go to super-violent movies at midnight where the crazed person is dressed like the people in the movie), sexualized horrible talk continues in campaigns and over the media which finds acceptable violence against women’s sexuality and pretends to idolize figures like brides and Dietrichs.

Apparently the movei, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is an account of a dance marathon. An early Jane Fonda film it shows her at her acting best in the central June role:

I shall try to rent it from Netflix. I recommend this play to all; what happens in it, its norms and what’s allowed as acceptable behavior may make you think about the cool competition (which can turn into psychological warfare), tricky rules which can become sabotage and big cash prizes, together with scorn for “losers” that make up the worst aspects of US culture and yet dominate our elections and much of pop public media, to omit the money marketplace competitive job worlds, increasingly what’s taught implicitly in schools, and for some courtship and sex and marriage too.


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Those who are left are different people trying to live the same lives — Winston Graham speaking as Demelza, Warleggan

Give sorrow words — Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing

William John Garbus (1944? age 23), my father

Evelyn Garbus (1943? age 21?), my mother

Dear friends and readers,

My mother died this past Friday afternoon, between 4 and 5 in the afternoon in a room in what was once called Booth Memorial Hospital, now New York hospital, located in eastern Queens county, NYC. My mother’s younger sister, my Aunt Barbara (77); me (65) & Jim (63); Barbara’s two sons (my mother’s nephews), Paul and Mark (in their early 50s); Paul’s wife, Kathy (straight from the airport by cab); and my mother’s paid home-companion-attendant, Neli, were in the room. The nurse came in and said “We are unable to find a heartbeat.” I asked, “Does that mean she’s dead?” The nurse replied that we must wait for the doctor to come in and see and he was on his way. He came in and said yes (the exact wording escapes me) and proceeded to direct a set of questions to me as the “next of kin.” My mother would have been 91 this November.

More than a month before (mid-July), six of us, this time my aunt, her husband, Erwin (78), Paul & Mark, Jim & me had met in my mother’s apartment to discuss whether she would like to go into assisted living. The next Saturday Paul had driven my mother to a place called Bear Creek to see the buildings, living quarters, costs, activities. My mother had appeared to be delighted with the place. We all made plans to help her re-settle, expecting her to live for several more years. Paul thought she might begin to thrive in a place with a social life with people like herself. In the event, about a week and a half before (August 8th?), when I called to ask my mother when she was going (so as to figure out when Jim and I could go see the place, which was not far from my aunt), my mother asserted that she did not know what was happening (something she had said before), and then when I pressed, that she did not want to change her arrangement of living in a largish rent-stabilized apartment with Neli to care for and companion her 24/7. She was unwilling to explain further (I should call my aunt), but appeared determined, & was going with Neli to sign a lease for another year in her apartment (!). They had reached a new understanding. They had not been getting along: my mother hated paying the large sum 24/7 care cost, Neli had been paying someone else to work for the weekend in order to keep a secondary job as back-up, but now my mother agreed to be pleasanter and Neli to stay all 7 days & nights. So I called my aunt, told her what my mother had said, and we left it I would now be the one to phone my mother and cope. My aunt would send me the paperwork I needed.

Then sometime this past Thursday (the afternoon of the 18th), I phoned my mother thinking to be on the phone briefly and be told all was fine. But no, she was breathless, bewildered and said she had been in pain for two weeks. She could not keep in her mind who I was. I asked if she had phoned my aunt and she asserted they phone every day. I asked for Neli to get on the phone, and Neli said, this was not so, but the pain only started the day before and was the result of diarrhea, and (as usual) my mother would not eat, this time not even rice which would help. (Neli later said my mother had stopped taking her vitamins since the last time I called — on grounds of expense.) I stayed on the phone with my mother for a while and felt something was profoundly wrong, but didn’t know what to conclude was happening as her stories didn’t make sense. I began to think I would phone my aunt the next morning after 11 am after all.

I get up early and at 7 my aunt phoned me. It seemed Neli had become badly frightened around 3 am (my mother often had bad nights) and phoned my aunt (as Neli often did), and both my aunt and uncle said “Call an ambulance.” My mother was taken to the hospital, and the people there said she’d die within the hour if they did not put a tube down her to make her breath and perform other resuscitation measures. My mother had signed a Do Not Resuscitate order long ago, but they needed someone to confirm. My aunt and uncle both were unwilling to confirm the DNR alone so they phoned me. I have spent literally years teaching a course called Advanced Composition in the Natural Sciences & Technology and devoted 1/3 of it to the practice of medicine today, read many books & essays about what happens to a person when the breathing tube is put in (it’s very painful and they must be under continual heavy sedation to endure it), the violence of real resuscitation. I know what happened to my father who endured this as the climax of his dying at 68 (his heart wall’s crumbled), remembered Wiseman’s Near Death, Mike Nichols & Emma Thompson’s Wit, and they were telling me about how frail she was, and her various systems shutting down. I confirmed.

Tellingly my aunt called back, saying the hospital was asking us to re-confirm. Were we sure? We were told that an oxygen mask was on her, she was now in an ordinary ward (not ICU), and sleeping. I reconfirmed. Then my aunt said that Paul, who lived the closest, was going to the hospital to see what’s happening. She began to make funeral arrangements and we began to call back and forth, with me talking on the phone to a cousin of mine, Carol, my father’s niece. My mother had made plans to be buried next to my father and Carole had the name of the funeral home, and cemetery. A little while later, my aunt Barbara called again, and Paul’s news was my mother had rallied soon after she arrived in the hospital and when he first saw her. Blood tests had turned up nothing, no reason for all this, and they were doing more tests. I asked Barbara would she re-open her talks with the woman at Assisted Living, and she replied she had beat me to this idea. She’d phoned the AL lady about 10 minutes ago.

I got off the phone and remembered this was a group of people who probably never saw my mother before in their lives, and thought to myself, maybe she’ll end up going home with Neli at the end of the day. Too many times I’ve seen and read of medical people wanting to do something now and proposing all sorts of technical solutions (injections whose power lasts a year) to someone they’d talked to for 10 minutes. (I recently met a psychologist of the new socially coercive pill-administering school who after 20 minutes talked absurdly to me in knee-jerk textbook fashion.) But I phoned again (I forget why) and then asked my aunt if I should come, and she thought I should this weekend, so after securing a room at the Princeton for one night, Jim and I set out for a 6 hour drive. Perhaps if I saw her, I could withstand the panicked nagging with a calmer conscience.

In the event when I got there, my aunt and Mark and Paul’s wife were there (something I didn’t expect) and my mother looked unconscious. She was also every bad color (discolored, yellow, all shrivelled), and Paul began to talk the way I’d heard people in Wiseman’s Near Death talk. I can’t remember the spiel, but it seemed her lactic acid was up very high, her kidneys shutting down, criteria about her breathing alarming (he has a degree which makes him partly a physician, an MD and Ph.D. in psychology too) and after he finished his technical talk, he looked at me and said awkwardly style, “She’s not doing so well.”

I walked over to her and tried to make contact but all I could see what one eye looked a bit open, slit, I told her I was there, who I was, tried to hug her a bit, but no response. I got closer but no response. I went over to the other side of the (small) room area where my aunt and the others were. Jim told me to notice the machine was breathing for her and making her chest move up and down. Her neck was not moving. So I asked Paul some more questions and got the same kind of response, and then I asked, “Are we watching her dying?” Well, he wasn’t sure, he couldn’t say, but then he said, “yes, probably.”

And so it was.

A nurse had come in to ask us questions as if she was going to take care of my mother. She asked me if she should take the catheter out. I didn’t know. She asked again, and after she said maybe my mother would be more comfortable, I said yes, but then Paul said he thought that was a bad idea since she could soil herself. So I agreed with him. I asked the nurse if my mother was dying. The nurse said she was not God. I replied I knew that but from her expertise in natural happenings, what were the probabilities. She said something to the effect it could turn around. She couldn’t say. She asked me what should she do. I said I had no idea. She was the nurse. She said it was up to me. I repeated I didn’t know what she should do. Meanwhile other nurses and technicians appeared to come and go and do things with the IV and machine and listen. At one point Paul’s wife left and we began to talk about how long we would stay that night and when we’d return tomorrow. I asked if the oxygen mask was prolonging this. Paul said, no, it made no difference. It just made it easier for her to breathe when she tried. (So it was a comfort measure.)

Around then the nurse came in with her comment that they were unable to find a heart beat. (Not that it had stopped. How careful all the language was throughout.) But then when the doctor came and left, the machines were turned off, things disconnected and tossed about, and we knew. The changes in her corpse were an unnerving sight (as had my father’s embalmed remains when I had seen them 23 years ago). A dry wizened body, a frozen face, expressionless. Look down and see what death is doing.

We didn’t very much. We all went in and out of the room, discussing the funeral arrangements which my aunt said we should do on Sunday. We would have a Jewish ritual, a rabbi. She and Paul got on the phone using the numbers my cousin, Carol, gave us, and since Paul again lived nearest (he lives on Long Island and the cemetary and funeral home are in Wading River, near Riverhead, Suffolk), he would go discuss what we’d do and what would be the cost face-to-face, but keep in continual contact by phone with my husband, Jim. I phoned my older daughter, Laura, to ask for her and my younger daughter, Isobel, to come tomorrow.

Neli began to cry. She had had a hard year (though well-paid) and was in shock. On Tuesday she and my mother had gone for a walk, dressed up, all seemed well.

A doctor came in and talked and told us the body would be taken down to the morgue within an hour. I asked him “What did she die of physically?” He said the tests showed she had had a viral infection, and because of her age and weak state, the infection had overwhelmed her.

What did she die of, how did she come to this beyond age? A year ago her handbag had been grabbed from her as she stood outside her apartment house. She had (in character this) chased after the man, yelling at him, but was no match in speed or strength. When she came upstairs to her apartment, unnerved, she fell off a stool. She broke some part of her ankle but not badly. But when she was taken to a hospital and told she could go home that night with a boot on the ankle, she refused. Suddenly after 22 years of living alone (from the time my father died), apparently fearlessly, going to spas, to colleges for adult ed classes, at first traveling to see cousins, and now at least staying lively (shopping even driving), something welled up within, an intense sense of vulnerability, loneliness and she refused to go home alone. The only way she could stay was to have her leg put in a cast. Alas, she decided on that and was put into a rehabilitation home for six weeks. She began to lose a lot of weight.

When she came out, she was too weak to walk, needed physical therapy, help at night (really care 24/7 — someone to cook for her, dress her, clean for her); the cleaning lady who had come 4 times a week was dismissed (my aunt and mother did this) and Neli found, hired 24/7. She never accepted Neli as a companion (in my presence called Neli “the aid”), but sat in a corner of the room, not watching TV or listening to the radio with Neli (claiming Neli did not understand it when she did, enough at any rate). She would not turn it on. She did not like the two options (home companion or assisted living), she obsessed over her money and what things cost her, gave my aunt migraine headaches and Jim and I frantic conversations in which he’d demonstrate to her she had tons of money. Sometimes she did seem better physically but basically over the course of the year she would say she was depressed & just continually declined & deteriorated. And so the thing went on until she made the recent decision she found she couldn’t live with.


Photo take by Laura with her ipad

The funeral. I had been to this place before, 23 years ago to be precise: when my father died (aged 68). Again the death had been unexpected if you looked at it from an immediate standpoint or long over-expected, in his case at least since he was 62 when he had experienced cardiac arrest, been advised to have open heart surgery and refused. The surprise was not that he had died, but that he had been enabled to live so long with a heart that beat irregularly since he was 47, and 20 years of gradually accumulating symptoms, each one worsening the other, and medicines that themselves caused multiple problems. I do not mean to imply he made the wrong decision when he decided against the surgery; he had too much imagination to live with the statistics which he said were near 50% death on the table or soon afterward.

Again an aunt (this time my father’s eldest sister) had taken charge. My aunt Helen had arranged for a Catholic ceremony of sorts for him. She said that if she didn’t, the relatives would not be satisfied, and as for cremation (which my mother to give her credit here brought up), it was out of the question. No one would come. Later my mother regretted the amounts of money she had been led to spend, feeling her sense of shame had been exploited for absurd things like “eternal care” and inner steel in the casket. We had discussed Jessica Mitford and she said she knew all that about the American way of death and yet could not help herself somehow. It was apparently a somewhat shorn or short one since he had not been in a church since an adolescent. He had been an atheist and so some things were lacking that were used in the ceremonies.

I had been traumatized by grief and unable to take in what I was seeing, but I had vivid memories of little bits. I had not been in control and at one point during the ceremonies inside the funeral home, got up and just talked plainly about how much I and others had valued my father and recited a litany of all the generous and good things he had done for others in his life and I described a little of what he was. I just could not stand the ritual which did not seem to talk about him as a person or our missing him at all.

At graveside I was much worse. It was a freezing cold day in December and the ground could not be dug up. A large crowd of people seemed to be there, but not much was said and the funeral director said (rightly enough), that it was so cold we should go back. But when I saw the others turn to leave, I lost it. I cried out, crazily, “We’re not going to leave him here, like this!” I made hysterical gestures, but the funeral director (I realized later) must have been watching me and was prepared. First he handed me this gold cross and said, my father wasn’t there. I didn’t insult the man or the other people around me, held the cross (in law silence is construed as consent) in my hand, but while I was perhaps thinking of something to say against this object and hand it back, there was Bobby, my father’s youngest sister’s youngest son, coming over, hugging me, and saying something or other, and putting his arm around me to pull me away. The funeral director had somehow found out something of my relationship with my cousin. He couldn’t know that I had slept in a crib with Bobby as a baby, and my father, fond of Bobby, helped Bobby now and again over the years, and would joke “let’s go rescue Bobby” when Bobby would arrive at the airport. But he had found out enough from someone. My uncle Erwin said something sensible too, was on the other side of me, and I did walk away.

This time I was determined to do better. I asked Laura to bring Tennyson’s poems but upon looking at “Crossing the Bar,” I decided against it: the feeling was right, but the words mushy, and it ended with religion. Stanzas from In Memoriam were too particularized. And then I thought of the poem R.L. Stevenson had engraved on his gravestone and Jim found it using his ipad, I wrote it out and practiced it and decided I’d read it before or after (or at some time during) the rabbi’s speech. I’d be careful to ask first and make sure it was understood I’d do this by the rabbi. After all I was paying for this ($8260). Unlike my mother I didn’t and don’t regret the money; I was doing it for everyone else as the daughter, providing this, sort of a minimum I could do as I knew and know there is much I couldn’t do and others had done in my stead. It was understood (or thought) I would inherit ample to cover it. Still American-like I was paying and indeed the Rabbi asked me several times what I wanted, and I kept saying, do what my aunt would want and as he seemed to be dissatisfied with this, I told him, I was an atheist and my aunt Jewish and he should do all the Jewish things regularly done, which she would want. I added that for she was central to was my prime motivation at this ceremony.

But this time I did want to say something appropriate for my father which I had not last time, and I knew, know my mother was not a practicing Jew; though she was a Jewish person in culture and shared many American Jewish attitudes, I never in all my life saw her do any ritual that could be called religious. She never claimed to pray. She told me that once when she and my father thought I was near death after giving birth to Isobel, she asked him if she should pray. He said something about the uselessness of such behaviors, and so she didn’t.

The rabbi did leave an interval for me to say the poem. I got up and said that my mother and father were buried in one grave appropriately as they had shaped one another’s existences since the time they married (in November 1945 about a year or more after the photos at the head of this blog were taken). I didn’t say for better or worse (though I meant this to be understood). I did say it was short, strong, and they would probably find lines in it familiar:

UNDER the wide and starry sky
    Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
    And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you ‘grave for me:
    Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
    And the hunter home from the hill.

Continued in the comments. See also my description of our walk in High Line Park and Sondheim’s Into the Woods.


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Hogarth, the first of 9 engravings, “The Heir”

Stravinsky, Auden, the last scene, “Madness”

Dear friends and readers,

In the last couple of days I’ve watched two operas based on 18th century sources: Kim Witman’s production of Igor Stravinsky & W. H. Auden’s adaptation of 9 engravings by Hogarth, The Rake’s Progress, as performed at Wolf Trap, this summer, and Kaija Saariaho and Amin Maalouf’s Émilie as performed at the Spoleto Festival and Lincoln Center via DVD. Both productions took material very difficult to make appealing thematic dramatic narrative out of, and attempted to make the audience sympathize with the central characters.

The Wolf Trap Rake’s Progress was intended to be a companion piece to the Don Giovanni they did earlier this summer. As with the earlier production, Witman’s half-hour talk gave the game away. Again there was no mention of what the opera could mean, no attention to content.

When I watched the opera, I found the way the narrative developed gave us a story which stigmatized and made the women characters ridiculous and abject (in one case, that of the Baba the Turk, stupidly evil as well as physically distasteful) and we were (somewhat absurdly) asked to regard the wastrel drone upper class male at the center as earth-shakingly important. We are supposed to care whether this guy gambles, drinks, marries an (unacceptable) middle eastern-dressed prostitute, loses all his money. This is the later 1940s after a horrific war across the world. The fable lesson as presented reminded me of Orwell’s famous punitive story, Eric or Little by Little, maybe the 1790s Road to Ruin. Jim said you find no understanding sympathetic interest in women in Auden, and in the 1950s a retreat from politics for religion. There is a certain kind of misogyny and grotesque humor about sexuality typical of male homosexual work found in Auden. But Stravinsky presumably commissioned this libretto.

I was bored in the first act with its moralizing, irritated, grated upon in the second with its focus on an ugly over-sexualized orientalism. Behind me someone said how “hysterical” Margaret Gawryslak was — I’ve learned that is a ill-understood euphemism for expressing amusement at what makes you uncomfortable. The music and acting was distancing. The last act finally had some depth of feeling that was not controlled by puerile didacticism.

Jim said the opera was padded. There is just not enough narratable (capable of turning into a coherent story) material in the 9 engravings. I thought the hollow center of the opera came from the people doing it ignoring the content. The best thing about it was the costumes. Anne Truelove’s hair-do was 1940s big rolls on her head up front with longish page-boy length hair in a net; her clothes looked like an attempt at imitating 18th century clothes using a thrift shop. The chorus at one point were redolent of Guys and Dolls.

The performers were directed to present themselves as emblems: 2 of the young women had men’s suits on and 2 of the young men were in evening dresses, heavy make-up and high heels.

And what shall I say of a company run by three women (beyond Witman at the Barns there’s Beth Krynicki who is production stage manager) who twice this summer have given us productions which have no sense of real contemporary women’s lives or social types. Don Giovanni’s rapes were treated as trivial joking. Last summer they gave us a Goldoni play turned into an opera where we had these misunderstood men and harridans of women.

If next year Witman and company give us Cosi Fan Tutte with some other misogynistic story, I will begin to suspect there’s a hidden agenda at the Barns. Let’s do all we can to hide the reality the place is run by women. Let us not allow anyone to call our work typical of women’s art or point of view. I felt what I saw at the Barns this summer represented a lost opportunity and betrayal.


Emilie: as opera opens she is writing and thinking

Her anguish as she contemplates coming childbirth

The opera takes place a few nights before Emilie du Chatelet went into labor; she died soon after and the child did not live much longer either. One reviewer insists the opera is about how biology is not destiny; in fact it’s about how a woman’s body cut a young highly gifted woman off in her prime so she never achieved what she could have done — and not just mathematically. I was badly handicapped as I watched the DVD as it did not have subtitles, and the way it was filmed kept the singer at a distance from the viewer. There were too many candles and mirrors and gauzy curtains in the way — though I liked the triangles.

So, I’ll be brief. In a nutshell, we see an adult sensibility of someone who was aware that many people didn’t believe in a traditional life after death facing death. We see her remember her ambiguous experiences across a lifetime. The emphasis on her beauty and gifts was strong and I thought the point of piece was to say, here is this extraordinarily gifted woman just thrown away because she was pregnant, so as to make us think of all the women over the ages similarly wasted and themselves put through agons.

Repeatedly I’ve seen eighteenth-century material not lend itself to the conventional so-called realistic or naturalistic narrative which 19th century operas thrive on. But Emilie’s story could have been treated this way. I’m not sure I would not have preferred to see her coerced marriage, her complicated attempts to become educated mathematically and achieve respect and position, her love affairs, her relationship with Voltaire and then this final scene. She was turned into a passionately enthralled heroine, especially when she seemed to be remembering Saint-Lambert.

For the English reader the books to read about Emilie are Judith Zinsser’s Dame d’Esprit: A Biography of the Marquise du Chatelet and David Bodanis’s Passionate Minds: The Great Love Affair of the Enlightenment. I found Elisabeth Badinter’s Émilie, Émilie, L’ambition féminine au XVIIIe siècle (the other Emilie is D’Epinay) which presents Emilie as an aspiring scientist persuasive.

Surrounded by scientific objects and instruments


To conclude, I cannot say I liked the music of either opera; they were not lyrical, nor was there a warm feel to vocal sounds. Rake’s Progress was well sung, especially by Anne Trulove (Corinne Winters) and Nick’s Shadow (Craig Coldough as the tempter devil at Rakewell’s ears). Elizabeth Futal as Emilie was far more moving; we knew she had been a real person who had really died in Voltaire’s estate of a dread pregnancy gone wrong. Her case was treated as an adult experience not a punishment); it was a sung one-woman play, raw in tone.

Emilie is the fragile presence with fleeting knowledge seeking to understand life; like Theodore Adorno I found The Rake’s Progress coming at experience from an unreal wrong direction.

And so our summer theater going for this year has come to an end.


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Tizdal my beautiful cat
Lies on the old rag mat
In front of the kitchen fire.
Outside the night is black.

The great fat cat
Lies with his paws under him
His whiskers twitch in a dream,
He is slumbering.

The clock on the mantlepiece
Ticks unevenly, tic toe, tic-toe,
Good heavens what is the matter
With the kitchen clock?

Outside an owl hunts,
Hee hee hee hee,
Hunting in the Old Park
From his snowy tree.
What on earth can he find in the park tonight,
It is so wintry?

Now the fire burns suddenly too hot
Tizdal gels up to move,
Why should such an animal
Provoke our love?

The twigs from the elder bush
Are tapping on the window pane
As the wind sets them tapping,
Now the tapping begins again.

One laughs on a night like this
In a room half firelight half dark
With a great lump of a cat
Moving on the hearth,
And the twigs tapping quick,
And the owl in an absolute fit
One laughs supposing creation
Pays for its long plodding
Simply by coming to)his-
Cat, night, fire-and a girl nodding.

Drawing by Stevie Smith for her poem, Nodding

Dear friends and readers,

This is at least my fifth blog on a text about or with cats. Marge Piercy’s memoir, Sleeping with Cats, Doris Lessing’s On Cats, Boswell and Piozzi on Dr Johnson and Hodge, not to omit Temple Grandin who reminded me how much animals love to eat, how happy it makes them (Animals in Translation) and various poems (Elsa Morante’s “Minna the Siamese” comes to mind).

They’ve been multiplying since I adopted two cats, Clary (green-eyed tortoiseshell) and Ian (yellow-eyed male ginger tabby). I’ve learned that one knows nothing about why people like cats until one owns one. Cats are private creatures, showing their selves only to their “persons” or special friend and family. You can’t get to know a cat unless you live with him or her, and then it takes time. They do not perform for strangers. Stevie says we have made them nervous. I know they do not like changes in routine; we should do precisely the same things each day at the same time. If we deviate, they marginalize themselves, watching suspiciously until we all return to our routs again.

I told a friend about the 1978 movie, Stevie, with Glenda Jackson, how quiet and truthful it is about a writing life. My friend had noticed my Lessing and Hodge blogs and told me about a review Stevie Smith had written about a book intended to make as permanent as photos and books can a beauty contest among cats, Cats in Colour. It’s in her Uncollected Writings, Me Again, made up of poems, short prose, pictures by herself. Smith’s several-page review’s delightful, intriguing, melancholy, like her writing, has so many moods all at once, and (most unusual for a review) includes drawings and poems. It’s very hard to do justice to this prose, it’s genius-level, the points of view so much at variance and yet the perspectives all coming together to focus again and again on how there are two worlds here: “the Human Creatuere and the Animal” and how we do not respect “the Animal World.”

This descriptive section will have to do:

It is not only the cats of antiquity that seem so peculiar (3,000 years may allow some difference in form) but … scaled to the size of a thin mouse, as we observe an Egyptian puss, couched beneath his master’s chair? The Grecian cats, though better scaled, seem dull and the cats of our Christian era not much better. There is a horrible cat drawing in Topsell’s The Historie of Four-Footed Beastes, dated 1607; there he sits, this cat, with a buboe on his hip, frozen and elaborate. In every line of this drawing, except for the cold sad eyes, the artist wrongs cathood. Quick sketchers do better, by luck perhaps. We all know Lear’s drawings of his fat cat Foss. There is true cathood here, though much, too, of course, of Mr Lear, so ‘pleasant to know’. Quick sketchers too can catch the cat in movement, and, though much addicted to, and fitted for, reclining, the cat moves-gallops, leaps, climbs and plays-with such elegance, one must have it so. Yet only this morning, I saw a cat quite motionless that looked so fine I could not have disturbed it. Hindways on, on top of a gray stone wall, its great haunches spred out beyond the wall’s narrow ledge,this animal was a ball of animate ginger fur; no shape but a ball’s, no head, no tail that was visible, had this old cat, but he caught all there was of winter sunshine and held it.

She leaves the book of glossy photographs, the excuse for her reverie, way behind. It does seem as if this review was actually intended to be printed as the introduction to said book.

She opens by saying cats reflect the egoism and ambition of their owners, even those not engineered into breeds and made expensive because rarer. She just wished this book had had photos of ashcan and ordinary poor and feral and wild cats “alongside” the beauties. Not that misery reveals cat-nature any more than beauty. Its cat-nature, cat-facts, cat-intransigence she’s on about in her review — as these impinge on and affect us. She concentrates and repeatedly returns to cat’s eyes: “blank and shining,” enigmatic, in themselves the eyeball expressionless. Finally or ultimately we can’t reach them nor they us, no matter how hard either side tries. She finds embarrassing and distressing how the cat does try so hard to reach us — it’s yearning gestures, its needs, and she’s more comfortable with its savage ruthless behaviors, predatory, play-bites.

As she launches into her descriptions of cat-lives, she inhabits the same territories as Lessing. She thinks we do cats a disservice by “fixing” them. We are depriving them of a real experience of cat-life — maternal duties, sexual prowess. She does know many live tragic lives, die helplessly. Nervous creatures they are, “like all tamed animals” given reason to be by us, our love as well as easy cruelty, power over them.

The last portion of the review provides what we know of cats in history, from the earliest figures to today, and writes with real plangency when she talks of how cats were burnt with women as witches — their helpers you see (an aspect of misogyny though she does not use such terms since cats are associated with women living alone). Our cruelties to cats:

witchcraft is too grim a story for here and its rites too cruel for our pampered pets. Yet I remembered the witch legends of history, as when the Scottish witches were accused of attempting the death of the King and Queen on their sea-passage home to Scotland. The witches swam a cat off the coast of North Berwick, having first christened it ‘Margaret’, they cast it into the sea to drown and thus-they said-raise a storm-wind to sink the King’s ship. For this they were convicted and burnt, for the Scots law was crueller than ours and sent witches to the stake, while we only hanged them. But in both countries the poor cat that belonged to the witch, if he was ‘apprehended’, might also suffer death by burning or hanging.

She also tells stories of individual cats she has known — like Lessing again. She describes one costuming of a cat as an angel which is really a debased bridal picture and rightly calls it “depraved.” She liked to see galloping cats (and has a poem in her the Collected Poems on “Galloping Cats”). To watch them in movement, streaking, hunting. Apparently she enjoyed teasing her cat. I can’t do that. At the very end there are stories of “good cats” and a poem reminding me of Dr Johnson and Hodge, about “Major” “a very fine cat.”

The Story of a Good Cat. This was the cat who came to the cruel cold prison in which Richard III had cast Sir Henry Wyatt when young. Because of his Lancastrian sympathies Henry had already beenimprisoned several times, and even put to the torture. The cat saved his life by drawing pigeons into the cell which the gaoler agreed to cook and dress for the poor prisoner, though for fear of his own life he dared not by other means increase his diet. There is a picture of Sir Henry as an old man sitting in a portrait with the prison cell for background and the cat, a peculiar sad-looking little cat, drawing a pigeon through the prison bars. Underneath is
written, but so faintly it is difficult to read, ‘This Knight with
hunger, cold and care neere starved, pyncht, pynde away, The sillie
Beast did fee de, heat, cheere with dyett, warmth and playe.

Remember how Christopher Smart’s cat, Geoffrey comforted him?

We have cat fables and fairy stories where all the characters are cats. And she skilfully recreates the atmosphere of an Algernon Blackwood gothic story whose center is a feel for the presence of cats:

there is a young man of French descent who is travelling in France on holiday. Suddenly the train he is on pulls up at a little station and he feels he must get down at this station. The inn he goes to is sleepy and comfortable,the proprietress is also sleepy and comfortable, a large fat lady who moves silently on little fat feet. Everybody in this inn treads silently, and all the people in the town are like this too, sleepy, heavy and treading softly. After a few days the young man begins to wonder; and at night, waking to look out over the ancient roof-tops, he wonders still more. For there is a sense of soft movement in the air, of doors opening softly, of soft thuds as soft bodies drop to the ground from wall or window; and he sees the shadows moving too. It was the shadow of a human being that dropped from the wall, but the shadow moved on the ground as a cat runs, and now it was not a human being but a cat. So in the end of course the young man is invited by the cat-girl, who is the plump inn owner’s daughter and serves by day in the inn, to join ‘the dance’ that is the witch’s sabbath. For this old French town is a mediaeval witch-town and bears the past alive within it. Being highminded, as most ghost-writers are, Blackwood makes the young man refuse the invitation and so come safe off with his soul, which had been for a moment much imperilled.

Me I like to watch them looking happy and also when they play with one another games which show them capable of semi-planning and tricking one another. I enjoy how they have favorite toys they carry about in their mouths. Ian has a string, Clary a furry looking object once meant for a mouse. Poor pussycats when they get themselves in trouble. I enjoy when they vocalize at me. I say “miaow” back and “I know” and “just so” and “I agree.” They are talking. Smith in Collected Poems has this love lyric to cats, the “eth” verbs turning it into a hymn:

The Singing Cat

It was a little captive cat
    Upon a crowded train
His mistress takes him from his box
    To ease his fretful pain.

She holds him tight upon her knee
    The graceful animal
And all the people look at him
    He is so beautiful.

But oh he pricks and oh he prods
    And turns upon her knee
Then lifteth up his innocent voice
    In plaintive melody.

He lifteth up his innocent voice
    He lifteth up, he singeth
And to each human countenance
    A smile of grace he bringeth.

He lifteth up his innocent paw
    Upon her breast he clingeth
And everybody cries, Behold
    The cat, the cat that singeth.

He lifteth up his innocent voice
    He lifteth up, he singeth
And all the people warm themselves
    In the love his beauty bringeth.

Someone said to me when I praised Lessing’s book as non-sentimental, nonsense, it’s all sentiment. Quite right. So too Smith’s essay. We try not to be but do not succeed.

Here’s my free translation of Morante’s poem, applying it to Clary. I told myself I liked the non-sentimental ending but probably I found appealing Morante’s attempt to capture cat-behavior.

Clary the tortie

I’ve a tiny beast, a cat named Clary.

Whatever I place on her plate, she eats
Whatever I pour into her bowl, she drinks.

Onto my knees she comes, gazes at me,
turns, sleeping tranquilly, so I forget
she’s there. If, remembering, I name her,
sleeping, her ear quivers, trembles, this name
then casts a dark shadow athwart her rest.

Blitheful, she has by her a muffled
tinkling stringed instrument, crinkling thanks
so sweet in play, I pet and I scratch her
turning neck & small upheld head, nudge, nudge.

If I consider history, time, things
separating us, disquiet comes. Alone:
of this she knows nothing. If then I watch
her play with string, her eye color tinted
by the sky, I yield. Laughter re-takes me.

When days off, for people, for us, make time
festive, pity comes to me for her who can’t
distinguish. That she too may celebrate,
for her meal I give her canned tuna fish.
She doesn’t understand why, but blissful
with her sharp teeth snips, gnaws, swallows away.

The Gods, to offer her some weapon, have
given her nails and teeth, but she, such her
gentleness, has adopted them for games.
Pity comes again for her whom I could
kill with impunity, no trial, no hell
thought of, no remorse, prisons. Just not there

She kisses me so much, licks and licks, I’ve
the illusion that she cherishes me.
I know another mistress or me to her
is all the same. She follows me about
as if to fool me that I am all to her
but I know my death would graze her but lightly …

(from Elsa Morante, Alibi, Poèmes, Édition bilingue, French translations by Jean-Noel Schifano)


A New Yorker cartoon from a couple of weeks ago

I will though end on some unsentimental poetry and warn my reader these demand a strong stomach. They are not by any of the above writers. First up, an post-WW1 & 2 German poet, Marie Luise Kaschnitz (1901-74). This Rufus (I allude to Lessing’s Rufus), like some of us when so badly hurt, enraged, could not be brought back:

Die Katze

The Cat

The cat that someone found sat in a construction site and screamed.
The first night and the second and the third night.
The first time, passing by, not thinking of anything,
He carried the scream in his ears, heard it waking from a deep sleep.
The second time he bent down over the snow-covered ditch,
Trying in vain to coax out the shadow prowling around there.
The third time he jumped down, fetched the animal,
Called it cat, because no other name occurred to him.
And the cat stayed with him seven days.
Her fur stood on end, refused to be smoothed.
When he came home at night, she leapt on his chest, boxed his ears.
The nerve in her left eye twitched constantly.
She leapt up onto the curtains in the hall, dug in with her claws,
Swung back and forth, so the iron rings rattled.
She ate up all the flowers he brought home.
She knocked vases off the table, tore up the petals.
She didn’t sleep at night, sat at the foot of his bed
Looking up at him with burning eyes.
After a week the curtains were torn to shreds,
His kitchen was strewn with garbage. He did nothing anymore,
Didn’t read, didn’t play the piano,
The nerve of his left eye twitched constantly.
He had made her a ball out of silver paper,
Which she had scorned for a long time. On the seventh day
She lay in wait, shot out,
Chased the silver ball. On the seventh day
She leapt up onto his lap, let herself by petted, and purred.
Then he felt like a person with great power.
He rocked her, brushed her, tied a ribbon around her neck.
But in the night she escaped, three floors down,
And ran, not far, just to the place where he
Had found her. Where the willows’ shadows
Moved in the moonlight. Back in the same place
She flew from rock to rock in her rough coat
And screamed.

(from The Defiant Muse: German Feminist Poems from the Middle Ages to Now, ed. trans. Susan Cocalis)

Smith says it’s better to love your cat to the point of folly than not to love them at all. And she has a passage that takes into account the same insight as Kaschnitz:

We were now swimming above a sandbank some half mile or so out from the shore. Presently the sandbank broke surface and we
climbed out and stood up on it. All around us was nothing but the sea and the sand and the hot still air. Look, I said, what is this coming? (It was a piece of wreckage that was turning round in the current by the sandbank and coming towards us.) Why, I said, it is a cat. And there sure enough, standing spitting upon the wooden spar was a young cat. We must get it in, said Caz, and stretched out to get it. But I saw that the cat was not spitting for the thought of its plight — so far from land, so likely to be drowned-but for a large sea-beetle that was marooned upon the spar with the cat, and that the cat was stalking and spitting at. First it backed from the beetle with its body arched and its tail stiff, then, lowering its belly to the spar, it crawled slowly towards the beetle, placing its paws carefully and with the claws well out. Why look, said Caz, its jaws are chattering. The chatter of the teeth of the hunting cat could now be heard as the spar came swinging in to the sandbank. Caz made a grab for the spar, but the young cat, its eyes dark with anger, pounced upon his hand and tore it right across. Caz let go with a start and the piece of wreckage swung off at right angles and was already far away upon the current. We could not have taken it with us, I said, that cat is fighting mad, he does not wish to be rescued, with his baleful eye and his angry teeth chattering at
the hunt, he does not wish for security.

And second, Hilary Mantel, her final devastating critique of life in Saudi Arabia is in her last paragraph of Eight Months on Ghazza Street: how relieved she is not to have to see the state of their cats, like ours, an emblem of us:

The street cats swarmed over the wall, looking for shelter, and dragged themselves before the glass. She watched them: scared cats, starving, alive with vermin, their faces battered, their broken limbs, set crooked, their fur eaten away. She felt she could no longer live with doing nothing for these cats. Slow tears leaked out of her eyes.


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Dear friends and readers,

This is to urge everyone who reads this blog to rent, buy, or go to see in theaters or watch on TV Susan Saladoff’s Hot Coffee. A friend on WWTTA told me about it last week:

I just saw it and recommend it to everyone. It’s a remarkable look at corporate power and the attempt (more successful than you likely realize) to deprive American citizens access to our civic justice system.

The director, Susan Saladoff, does a superb job of presenting the reality behind the infamous McDonald’s coffee lawsuit–it was really shocking to learn the truth not only about that case but about the right-wing/corporate effort to limit constitutionally guaranteed rights.

Netflix has it for rental. My local library has it–check yours, too.

I rented it from Netflix within the next couple of days, and when we returned from Vermont, watched it and was just thunderstruck. It’s a startling eye-opener. Saladoff explains how wealthy corporations, powerful institutions and organizations in our society are successfully cutting off from the average person the US civil criminal justice system in the US intended to help individuals get redress or help when they have been hurt or harmed by these bodies of people.

Saladoff shows us first of all that the judiciary across the US is nowadays filled with mostly reactionary judges put there through well-funded campaigns for Republicans and conservative Democrats. When they lose a campaign against a fair judge as in Oliver Diaz’s case, they then pursue the judge as they hounded Diaz) by indicting him for accepting bribes, corruption, whatever will stick. From a detailed review of Hot Coffee by Kenneth R. Morefield:

The third story is that Oliver Diaz and it frames the issue of judicial elections. The film illustrates how judicial elections on the state level are particularly susceptible to vast spending discrepancies, and political action committees (PACs) funded by the Chamber of Commerce spend huge amounts of money to blanket electorates with negative attack ads. (In Diaz’s case the ads were even repudiated by his opponent yet continued to run by the Chamber of Commerce.)

I did not begin to know the extent of the reach of these corporations, their lobbyists and the political people they have bought.

The film shows that many cases of individuals seeking redress are consequently today just obliterated by a judge reversing a jury’s findings (so that no settlement or a very limited one of money can come to aid the person), how relentless and successful the corporations have been in convincing the US public most lawsuits brought by individuals are frivolous and cost the taxpayer money. Ironically, it’s the failure of these individual to find redress and help from those with deep pockets who caused the harm that leads them to come to the public for what help they can.

When the number of winning cases goes down, and when the amount of money award goes down, the insurance companies do not lower their rates. And you cannot get people to change their behavior unless you force them through fear of monetary damages.

Three stories are told Stella Leibeck who was the lady who spilt searingly hot coffee on her lap spent literally years trying to cope with severe burns. The price was outrageously high (our medical non-system is another story). Here is a photo of her legs some time after she had had some treatment:

Macdonalds keeps the temperature of their coffee so high because it saves them money. They waste less coffee that way.

We are told the story of a Colin Courley’s parents where the wife was unaware that one of a pair of twins was being radically damaged in her uterus. Her boy is severely crippled. The couple do not begin to have the money to offer him adequate treatment and schooling. They are worried sick what will happen to him after they die. They were originally awarded a large enough amount to enable them to cope. The judge put on the case lowered it to an amount that is wholly inadequate. Consequently they have to come to the taxpayer and public agencies (underfunded) for help:

The case of Colin Gourley, a Nebraska boy who requires a lifetime of care and physical therapy after suffering brain damage due to medical malpractice but was unfortunate enough to be conceived in a state (Nebraska) with a hard cap on damages, illustrates the dangers of liability caps. Two especially strong points made in this segment are that states that enact liability caps do not experience reductions in the cost of malpractice insurance nor medical costs and that costs incurred by victims of malpractice and not covered by damage awards are most often absorbed by Medicaid, meaning any “savings” created by lower judgments are essentially in the form of liability subsidies paid by tax payers. The second point is particularly ironic because a linchpin of tort reform arguments is the claim that frivolous lawsuits (supposedly eliminated by hard caps) are what are driving costs up and making things more expensive for everyone.


Colin, his family — his twin brother stands next to Saladoff

Far from people going to court lightly, it takes money and courage to go to court, time, energy and the willingness to undergo personal attacks. Jamie Leigh Jones was promised a good job by Halliburton with reasonable living quarters. She found herself in a set of rooms filled with males where she was the only female. That first night she was brutally raped, beaten, sodomized; when she tried to complain, she found herself imprisoned in a crate. Only by reaching her father and his instant action in going to his senator was she released and sent home. She has spent years trying to expose this company. Her problem is she signed a mandatory arbitration contract which removes her right to go to court; she is by law required to appeal to an abritrator hired by Halliburton. How much redress do you think she would get?

The story of Jamie Leigh Jones, a woman who was brutally raped after KBR/Halliburton ignored her pleas that she was being sexually harassed on the job (and forced to live in coed trailers rather than, as she was promised, with other women) frames the film’s final issue, that of mandatory binding arbitration clauses in contracts. In these contracts employees and, increasingly, consumers are required to waive their right to pursue civil relief for any problems that might result in the future and accept instead binding arbitration from an arbiter selected by the company.

Jamie Leigh Jones

Everything has been done that can be to smear her: the story is one that exposes our pro-rape culture. She lost her case ultimately because at each round the conservative judge voted against her.

What was chilling here was how many lawyers and academics line up in support of these mandatory arbitration contracts. They shamelessly justify these in court as for the public interest. People will say anything.

Tort reform is not a boring subject. We have Orwellian language here: what’s happening is not reform, but destruction of rights that ought to be inalienable from our constitution and bill of rights.

It’s so well done too, the explanations so clear. It made me remember all the contracts and fine print I’ve signed and of the cases of individual judges and others destroyed by the ruthlessness, relentless and bottomless pocketbook corporations and their lawyers (Karl Rove). I am aware from my personal experience of how high and powerfully placed and ordinary academics too support these people. The idea the university is a bastion of leftism is a bleak joke.

We need to know that mandatory arbitration clauses in contracts are ways of depriving us and most people of their right to sue when hurt or cheated. How many contracts I’ve signed where I can barely read the small print.

We need to know that the US chamber of commerce is a front for corporations.

The pro-choice forces in the US have found themselves crippled, outdistanced and now repressed and increasingly without anywhere for a woman to get an abortion. Why? They have let the Catholics and those who would make women submit to repression, exploitation, take over the dialogue. Pro-choice people are put on the defensive because of the ceaseless presentation of women as turned neurotic if they don’t have a child or have an abortion. Nonsense. Some are upset; some are relieved, some are empowered.

I did puzzle over why the rhetoric of family scenes of happiness trumps even these scenes. I did wonder why the liberal democrats have so much trouble winning cases and elections.

My friend offered this explanation: The wish to not have to face responsibility for causing the suffering of others is at the root of the “tort reform” movement, on which the film focuses.

Tort reform not a dull bore. “Reform” here means depriving you and me of access to the courts for redress and help when we’ve been hurt, taken advantage of, need monetary help and want to prevent the same cruel acts from being perpetrated on someone else. See Hot Coffee by Saladoff and then tell others to see it.


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