In the undeploy’d moments of the day’s madding dispersal, between walks with the dog and pitchings-forth into the arcades of the metropolis to hire a man to hack “at” my semi-grey’d hirsutulousness—I love a sentence freight’d like heavy water (with delirium’s own deleterious onus—“Toda afectación es mala,” says Cervantes, a man, however, fond of its dissembling heart)—in such moments I read Edward Dahlberg, collector and purveyor of the aphoristick (see “A sneeze absorbs all the functions of the soul as much as the sexual act.” —Pascal.”), and squinch my rictus grin. Of late: Alms for Oblivion (1964). The pleasures: Dahlberg’s “goatish appetite”; the joy-inflect’d damning of “philisters,” “sophisters,” and “noddies”; the certainty that style is “but” another name for wisdom; the—as Herbert Read notes in a foreword—“conviction he shares with Henry James, namely, ‘the very obvious truth that the deepest quality of a work of art will always be the quality of the mind of the producer’”; Dahlberg’s unstinting sympathy for the orphans of American letters; the refusal of the usual categorical mulct and mummery: “Like Rabelais, he will list a hundred particulars, but never risk a generalization” (Read). He calls money “a species of senilia,” laments the “purblind hysteria which is making us automobile barbarians and a nation evilly cursed by actors, or what Plato called the vileness of a theatocracy,” and damns the “malignant sodality of commercial litterateurs that govern ideas, reputations, renown, and whose index expurgatorious is dictated by bile and mammon.” (Sounds exactly like the “preferred norm” of “Strategic Silence”—ruse of the “literary merchant” and the “Parnassian grammar boy” alike.) Herbert Read: Dahlberg’s “pose is Gargantuan . . . Like Rabelais, he will list a hundred particulars, but never risk a generalization. It is not possible to define pleasure or truth.” And quoting Dahlberg: “Since knowledge is chimerical, the academic stench is more horrid when the cabal of grammar is passed off as metaphysics.” How succinct (and apt, and prescient) Dahlberg is considering “the American poet”: quoting Samuel Butler here (“The reason that dullness is so much farther advanced than genius . . . is that it is so much better organized . . .”), or, there, offering a look at the braying protean “outsider” beast tout à coup “in”:
The American poet is double, his character chameleon, and he has double moral hands, unlike the philosopher Charles S. Peirce who wrote out his questions with one hand and answered them with the other. As for [to update with an exemplary contemporary cake-eater used to having it, too: Charles Bernstein], it is impossible to know what his affections or his morals are; he so constantly changes his shape that he is like that ever-changing debtor in the comedy of Epicharmos who refuses to pay his creditor because he says he is no longer the same person who borrowed the money. We cannot be in moral debt to [Bernstein] because we do not know what he owes us either in negations or in a strait honest yes. . . . The distinction between art and ethics cannot be so considerable as to make it almost impossible to know the difference between the false and the true, between Acheron and the tender growing earth. Either we are to get health from a poet or else all this sick water-verse will drive us mad.Ah, Dahlberg. He wrote to Jonathan Williams (1957): “As I belong to no literary merchants’ sodality I do not know what will happen to my own book or where it will be reviewed. I have fought too many pecuniary street-gamins of literature to get balm or even the smallest moiety of justice from most places.” Guy Davenport, who recognized that “If a man works in a disjunct mode it goes hard with him,” wrote of Dahlberg’s one-two punch-up of “whore Publicity”—that shaky guarantor of “our best literature”—“in cold blood and with bewildering authority”:
He is that most difficult of things to be in the United States, a man of feeling. Nor is he sweet or compromising or hypocritical: the secondary modes we most frequently use to run interference for any sensitivity whatsoever. In a world that counts more the manners with which a thing is said than the sentiment or fact itself, he is gloriously boorish . . . He is earthy and overcivilized all at once, smooth and bristly by uncalculable turns, and wildly melancholy at all times. We do not know what to think of such an Habbakuk; he does not play the game. Politics, religion, fads, movements, groups, styles, editorial boards: they have all failed to touch him. Like all stubbornly personal men he seems fetched on, decidedly curious and unaccountably outlandish.And Davenport proceeds to corral him off with honor’d misfits—Doughty, Zukofsky, the American geologist and explorer Raphael Pumpelly. A Dahlberg reading list (found in the 1970 Jonathan Williams-edit’d Edward Dahlberg: A Tribute):
Shestov, In Job’s Balances.[NB: A kind reader’s point’d out that the final item’s likely Hazlitt’s Winterslow: Essays and Characters Written There.] Lacking: one of Dahlberg’s heroes—the repeatedly tout’d Randolph Bourne. Unclear whence precisely cometh the list. Williams, in notes to the volume, says: “The reading list is one of many that Dahlberg might quickly prepare for students and friends. Such a list as the present one reminds us that Mallarmé was dead wrong when he said: ‘La chair est triste, hélas, et j’ai lu tous les livres.” Nobody has read all these books, perhaps including even E. D.” Of the snips of letters (E. D. to Williams), Williams writes: “I would have been more interested . . . in the letters of Dahlberg to the young Charles Olson. They well may no long exist—I am in no position to ask. As Mae West tells us: ‘The first thing to learn is to use what’s lyin’ around the house.’” And, in a fine shuffle-off, says of himself (after hinting that the recent “An Ear in Bartram’s Tree . . . would probably sell better as A Queer on Batman’s Knee”): “To quote Dahlberg: “I don’t know what I’m doing, but continue to do it.” He’s shipboard, compiling contributor’s notes, seeking the reader’s indulgence: “because (1) the seas are running very high, (2) there is not even a paperback dictionary on the ship, (3) the Bols gin is marvelously cheap, and (4) I am surrounded by Midianites, Laodiceans, cordial Dutchmen, Plastic Hydrangea People and jabbering admirals’ wives from Jacksonville, who make the editing of a Festschrift seem an odd business indeed.” On y va.
Shestov, Penultimate Words.
Grote, History of Greece.
Diogenes Laeritius, Lives of the Greek Philosophers.
A. B. Cook, Zeus.
La Bruyère, Characters.
I. D’Israeli, Curiosities of Literature.
I. D. D’Israeli, Miscellanies.
Charles Lamb, Letters.
Ruskin, Unto This Last.
Postgate, Out of the Past.
Kropotkin, Mutual Aid.
Rosa Luxemburg, Letters.
Pausanias, Description of Greece.
Theodor Gomperz, Greek Thinkers.
Lucian (tr. Jasper Mayne).
Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy.
Diodorus of Siculus.
Maxim Gorki, Remembrances of Leo Tolstoi.
Merezhkowski, Tolstoi: Man and Artist.
Book of Psalms (tr. Christopher Smart).
Morris Jastrow, The Book of Job.
Plautus, The Comedies.
Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (tr. Mackail).
William Hazlitt, Liber Amoris.
Franz Oppenheimer, The State.
J. A. Stewart, The Myths of Plato.
Erasmus, Familiar Colloquies.
P. F. Brissenden, IWW.
Sylvanus G. Morley, The Ancient Maya.
Morris Jastrow, The Gentle Cynic.
Morris Jastrow, The Song of Songs.
Livy (tr. Philemon Holland).
Wallis Budge, The Book of Treasuries.
Wallis Budge, The Mummy.
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities and the Jewish Wars (tr. Whiston).
Charles Baudelaire, The Intimate Journals (tr. Christopher Isherwood).
Thomas Traherne, Centuries.
Alexander Gilchrist, The Life of William Blake.
Montaigne (tr. Florio).
Buffon, Natural History (1603 edition).
Gustave Flaubert, Letters.
Pío Baroja, Egolatry.
Miguel de Unamuno, The Soliloquies and Conversations of Don Quixote.
Garcilaso de la Vega, Royal Commentaries of the Incas.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities.
Sir Thomas Browne, Enquiries into Vulgar and Common Errors.
Sir Thomas Browne, The Garden of Cyrus.
Hazlitt, Lectures on the English Comic Writers.