Friday, August 31, 2018

A Lifetime of Reading: Sweet Marjoram: Notes & Essays by DeWitt Henry

A Lifetime of Reading: Sweet Marjoram: Notes & Essays by DeWitt Henry

by Michael Steffen

One of the many virtues of DeWitt Henry’s new book Sweet Marjoram (ISBN 978-1-941196-72-4, MadHat Press, 2018) is its liberally associative arrangement. It allows us, like our favorite books of lyrical poetry, once we’ve read it through and are on to this welcoming element, to open its pages where we will and just start reading. Skipping through a book is a good way to allow its individual passages to surprise us, to get by or around, in some cases, the author’s control freak editor and modesty, to get at the book’s heart, or “meat.” In the case of Sweet Marjoram, one may even on a first perusal jump to the 17th essay, “On Meat,” where our sources of fascination knock against our weaknesses and guilt.

la carne, in Spanish and carne in Italian, echoing the Latin carn- or caro (flesh), as do carnal in English (having a relation to the body as opposed to the soul), carnival (a time of feasting and fleshly indulgence as opposed to Lent and fasting), carnivorous and carnivore…Among flora, the carnation is a flower as red as raw meat, as blood.

Meathead suggests more muscle than brains. Sexual organs are called meat… (Antony even calls Cleopatra cold leftovers on dead Ceasar’s trencher)... [page 94]

I’ve left ellipses instead of A1 sauce. The line of thought cools down in the course of the essay with sobering references to Benjamin Franklin and his pragmatic advice, “Rarely use Venery except for Health and Offspring; Never to Dullness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’s Peace and Reputation,” Saint Augustine’s spiritual sense of love with allusion to another kind of “meat,” and further discussions involving Noah, Henry’s daughter, Tolstoy, a grad-student memoir of a friendly neighbor meat butcher, and more. In the wake of any one of the essays, on reflection, we marvel again and again at the variety of Henry’s sources and multiplicity of his angles of consideration on his subjects. The logo for NPR’s flagship news program, All things considered, would be a good subtitle for the book.

This is true, and so its opposite: an uneasiness at the seeming authorial absence, a lack of point of view, an omission of agenda, of logical or narrative sequence. Topics are announced in the titles: “On Weather,” “On Conscience,” “On Falling”…“On Privilege”…“On Cursing”… Henry’s meditations encompass a wide topical range, from the ordinary, “On Handshakes,” to the lofty, “On Dignity,” and the ironic, “On Folly.” A source of inspiration, it may soon dawn on the reader, lies in the 16th Century, in the French and English essayists Michel de Montaigne
(“Of sadness,” “Of friendship,” “Of cannibals”) and Francis Bacon (“Of Truth,” “Of Death,”
Of Revenge”).

The epigraph of the book, taken from Shakespeare, citing the origin of the author’s title, is telling of this inspiration from the Renaissance, an age in its writers characterized by a spirit of the revival of classical philosophy and literature and its attitudes of open inquiry into all subjects, its copious and liberal curiosity. The title comes from a recognition scene in the beginning of the denouement of King Lear, as blinded Gloucester’s inward senses are being restored to him, and Lear is still simmering after the storm:

Lear: Ha! Give the word.
Edgar: Sweet marjoram.
Lear: Pass. (4.6.93-95)

Sweet marjoram” (Marjoran hortensis) refers to a mint-like herb, which annotators believe was used as a medicinal cure for madness or mental illness. The title’s useful to its author also because it echoes the title of an earlier book, Sweet Dreams, a memoir of Henry’s youth and family, centered around his father who owned and operated a candy factory.

Literature and commonplace phrases and sayings serve as springboards for a good deal of the texts, offering a wide range in citations from the Bible to contemporary films, novels, essays and science, references of expressions spanning from early English, “Fair-weathered friend,” to our day’s greetings with fist bumps. Sven Birkerts praises the book’s display of “the accrued benefits of a lifetime of reading, teaching, viewing and thinking,” noting its “Shakespearian breadth of interest subjected to a steady inquiring pressure.”

While the choice of inclusion in the essays is arbitrary, though familiar, these are not “personal” essays, nor so much in academic terms thesis essays, for their lack of method and inclusion of biographical material. Announced topics are also freely digressed from, sometimes at ̊180 as in the essay “On Silence,” which more or less meditates on the impossibility of silence.

Buddhist teasers: The sound of one hand clapping. A tree falls in an empty forest. Sunyata.
There is no absence of sound, except for the deaf, who feel vibrations through the floor or other surfaces of touch.

Listen carefully, and even in scientifically designed anechoic chambers, in the absence of most sound, you’ll hear the roar and pulse of your own blood. (This, of course, is amplified in ultrasound exams of the heart, which, when I heard mine from a speaker, sounded like kicking in a bath, glug, wash, glug.

Our industrial and technological revolutions have increased ambient noise, especially in the cities… [page 15]

Again, the risk run in this manner of leaping from instance to instance is the impression it may leave the casual or unfamiliar reader that the author is writing simply to hear the ink blot from his pen, that he’s not getting to the point. Like Gertrude to Polonius, we may prove an itch to say, “More matter, with less art.” Or do we want to ask for More art, more structure…?

Maybe readers of today, used to clicking here and jumping from partially read story to partially glimpsed ad, will be very much at home in Henry’s paratactic discourse.

We are given fair warning on the title page these are not just essays, but “Notes & Essays.” Often “paragraphs” or separate units consist simply of one sentence. Or just a fragment.

Speak now, we say, or forever hold your peace.

Enfolding silence, thick silence, heavy; moments filled with silence.

Dead silence.

We mute the familiar, annoying commercial.

Philomela, the rape victim, tongue-less, hand-less.

Brier Rabbit and Tarbaby.

Hold your tongue.

Tongue-tied?…[page 16]

Passages like these can induce a sort of reader’s vertigo. What—where in…

Yet Henry stirs our curiosity in this difference from the bulk of writing which is very agenda- or purpose-driven. Harkening back to an age whose poet characterized the function of his art “to hold the mirror up to nature,” Henry’s writing attains in manner and example a wide scope and variety of our sources for thought. When these are juxtaposed, hovering, side by side, often intentionally for contrast—old/new, ordinary/exotic, common/lofty—the reward for the effort is comparative, a glimpse of objectivity and tolerance rather than a dedicated referential orthodoxy to justify some argument.

This has been one of the primary reasons for studying Michel de Montaigne in World Literature classes, often his essay “Of cannibals,” for its refutation that “other” people, the natives of what was then considered “Anarctic France” (Brazil), were inferior as humans to the seemingly infinitely more sophisticated Europeans who were at that time just discovering this new world and its inhabitants.

I am sorry that Lycurgus and Plato did not know of them; for it seems to me that what we actually see in these nations surpasses not only the pictures in which poets have idealized the golden age and all their inventions in imagining a happy state of man, but also the conceptions and the very desire of philosophy. They could not imagine a naturalness so pure and simple… [“Of cannibals”].

The essay “On Appetite” in Sweet Marjoram gives us the nutshell passage from Montaigne’s essay: “I am sorry that, seeing so clearly into their faults, we should be so blind to our own.” [page 77]

Henry, too, is aware of other lands and other people with their customs which differ sharply from our own. Not unlike Montaigne:

Islam discourages handshakes between men and women, probably to ensure chastity. In Switzerland, when an Imam’s sons recently refused to shake their teacher’s hand—a Swiss tradition—authorities imposed a $5,000 fine and provoked an international controversy… [page 11]

The discussion occurs in the essay “On Handshakes.” Ordinarily, the contrast, even conflict, between Muslim and Western customs and ethics would by far outweigh the simple gesture of a handshake. Instead of getting engulfed in all of that, Henry proceeds with his topic, to unearth a very contemporary Western oddity in the consideration of the gesture.

In addition to religious customs, there are also health and safety concerns. Handshakes spread germs. No one shook on deals with the germaphobe Howard Hughes. Supermarkets offer wipes to sanitize shopping cart handles as a precaution against epidemics of flu or AIDS. Dentists and doctors wear latex gloves… [page 11]

Here we have a case where Henry’s stylistic boldness of laying instance out after instance comes into a powerful statement, revealing virtue in the madness of his method. In a sense, it is writing as showing rather than telling. These things, the conservative manner of Muslims, Howard Hughes’s mania over germs, today’s assimilation of that mania into expected, habitual use of sanitary wipes and latex gloves, our somewhat de-humanizing (don’t touch me!) scientific awareness, all emerge from the discourse as evoked in our daily experience. The author has done little more than arrange the images and notions together under the marginal awareness of our hands and how we use them. Terrible importance is trivialized. The simple unassuming takes on poetic weight, even to the point of farcical proportions. The ant is a centaur in its dragon world, wrote Ezra Pound. Or, more recently, The feet of an ant make their own sound on the earth—Jane Hirshfield.

Sometimes, as with questions of handshakes, social attitudes shift swiftly, within one’s lifetime. Other beckoning changes can take generations.

Medieval nobles were celebrated by gisants, sculpted on their coffin lids… The knight lies at rest in full armor… On the Smith College campus, I loved Leonard Baskin’s gisant of a factory worker in this traditional pose, reclining on a slab, pot-bellied, care- and work-worn, aged, but noble also in his way… [page 21]

By disregarding temporal as well as spatial and topical parameters, the Renaissance/Henry essay assumes the power to see History, what is beyond our ordinary senses, reminding us of our society’s roots in revolution. Baskin’s gisant, elevating a common worker, may be a memorial for Democracy and its valuation of the individual, or for Communism and its proposed elevation of the working class. There are spoilers of both systems of government which are not included in Baskin’s sculpture. Further in the book, in the essay “On Privilege,” Henry will make mention of how “the redistribution of wealth under Communism privileged bureaucrats, commissars, and Stalin.” [page 28]

If America’s foundations hold up ideals for our aspirations, our history is not without its ironies.

All men are created equal, writes the slave-owning husband and father, Thomas Jefferson, philosopher, scientist, architect, statesman, politician, patrician. [page 25]

As to himself? I noted when writing about Sweet Dreams the paradoxical unselfishness—for a memoirist—of DeWitt’s manner, with a diligent regard for those around him. He bears himself with personal objectivity. It persists in Sweet Marjoram, with references to himself coming off as a sociological type:

Male and white, straight, employed and able-bodied, I should mind my manners, consider others, and reexamine my attitudes towards “difference.” [page 27, “On Privilege”]

Quietly siding with Harold Bloom’s notion, with respect to literature, of the Western Cannon, Henry entertains the opposing view:

Here is Terry Eagleton: “There is no such thing as a literary work or tradition which is valuable in itself… ‘Value’ is a transitive term: it means whatever is valued by certain people in specific situations…” [page 27]

But Henry also goes about quietly defending the values of a humanist body of writing by citing and so including Toni Morrison (“A criticism that needs to insist that literature is not only ‘universal’ but also ‘race-free’ risks lobotomizing that literature…” [page 28]) and Albert Camus (“Those who find no rest in God or in history are condemned to live for those who, like themselves, cannot live: in fact, for the humiliated. [page 28])

The tendency—altruism, evasiveness—belies Henry’s fondness for commonplace language, and his persistent eye for his nuclear others. From “On Appetite”:

Your eyes are bigger than your stomach. Biting off more than you chew. Clean your plate. I binge on wafer-thin Pringles, unable to eat just one. It’s better to eat smaller portions more often than to stuff yourself. Our oldest brother Jack, however, the only naturally thin one in our family, came home for Thanksgiving from his life 2000 miles away. He did the carving. We marveled while he out-ate all of us, three or four portions of turkey, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and even the roasted vegetables. [page 74]

It is one of the foodier-for-thought books I’ve come across recently. Henry wins our regard for settling into this tradition of essay writing, and our admiration for making the genre useful as his own to unlock a lot of needed conversation for our times.

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