n i g h t i n g a l e s h i r a z / blog
Nel mezzo del cammin di Costa San Giorgio...

december 2019
october 2019
july 2019
june 2019
may 2019
april 2019
march 2019
february 2019
january 2019
december 2018
november 2018
october 2018
september 2018
august 2018
july 2018
june 2018
may 2018
april 2018
march 2018
february 2018
january 2018
december 2017
november 2017
october 2017
september 2017
august 2017
july 2017
june 2017
march 2017
february 2017
january 2017
november 2016
october 2016
september 2016
august 2016
july 2016
june 2016
may 2016
april 2016
march 2016
february 2016
december 2015
november 2015
october 2015
september 2015
may 2015
march 2015
february 2015
january 2015
december 2014
november 2014
october 2014
september 2014
august 2014
may 2014
april 2014
march 2014
february 2014
*april 2013
*march 2013
*february 2013
*january 2013
*december 2012
*november 2012
*october 2012
*september 2012
*july 2012
*october 2011
*september 2011
*august 2011
*july 2011
*june 2011
*may 2011
april 2011
march 2011
april 2010
march 2010
february 2010
january 2010
december 2009
november 2009
september 2009
june 2009
may 2009
february 2009
january 2009
december 2008
october 2008
september 2008
august 2008
july 2008
june 2008
may 2008
april 2008
january 2008
december 2007
november 2007
october 2007
september 2007
august 2007
july 2007
june 2007
may 2007
april 2007
march 2007
february 2007
january 2007
december 2006
november 2006
october 2006
september 2006
august 2006
july 2006
june 2006
may 2006
april 2006
march 2006
february 2006
january 2006
december 2005
november 2005
october 2005
september 2005
august 2005
july 2005
june 2005
may 2005
april 2005
march 2005
february 2005
january 2005
december 2004
november 2004
october 2004
september 2004
august 2004
july 2004
june 2004
may 2004
april 2004
march 2004
february 2004
january 2004
december 2003
june 2003
april 2003
march 2003
 
Turning and Turning

Romolo writes to wish me a happy passport-birthday.  (Don’t ask.  Or wait, no, ask.  It’s a good story...)  He tells me how he and Eric spent Christmas week in Rhode Island, where they did a guided tour of some of the Gilded Age mansions up there.  “I now understand the USA a lot better,” he says, especially “it’s love of billionaires, even by those who are poor...”

I think of those Rhode Island mansions and I think of course of that Joan Didion essay, “The Seacoast of Despair.”  I could get up and find it in my long-loved and much-marked copy of her collected nonfiction, but instead I let Google find it for me.  (I tell you this because it will matter in a minute...)  And even before I begin to re-read, I remember already the feel of the writing, like letters chiseled into flint, with a razor dipped in Everclear.  I remember already that this is the essay with that line about happiness, so maddeningly short and unexplored—she says it almost in passing, like it is a given, like you have been careless your whole life, not to have known it already—and yet it is a line, a half-line, that you could spend hours thinking about:

“Happiness” is, after all, a consumption ethic, and Newport is the monument of a society in which production was seen as the moral point, the reward if not exactly the end, of the economic process.

But I do not remember the beginning, or at least and anyway, I have forgotten it enough that it rasps deliciously, like the first time:

I went to Newport not long ago, to see the great stone fin-de-siècle “cottages” in which certain rich Americans once summered.  The places loom still along Bellevue Avenue and Cliff Walk, [...] monuments to something beyond themselves; houses built, clearly, to some transcendental point.  No one had made clear to me exactly what that point was.

I think of that bit in John Leonard’s introduction to Didion’s collected nonfiction (and now I do get up, to get my copy...).  That lone moment in which he admits to having sometimes taken furious exception to her ruthlessly scintillating condescension, for example about “the kind of jazz people used to have on their record players when everyone who believed in the Family of Man bought Scandinavian stainless-steel flatware and voted for Adlai Stevenson,” and then admits too, that nevertheless, he is a partisan, mostly because I have been trying forever to figure out why her sentences are better than mine or yours ... something about cadence.  They come at you, if not from ambush, then in gnomic haikus, icepick laser beams, or waves.  Later he says it even better, in that Didion’s is a prose that moseys from sinew to schadenfreude to incantation [...], seasoned sarcastically.

I go back to the “The Seacoast of Despair,” and find that I had forgotten too, how quickly she can move in for the kill.  How swift the ambush.  No one had made clear to her exactly what the point was, but less than a paragraph later she has found it herself:

Something else is at work here.  No aesthetic judgment could conceivably apply to the Newport of Bellevue Avenue, to those vast follies behind their hand-wrought gates; they are products of the metastasis of capital, the Industrial Revolution carried to its logical extreme, and what they suggest is how recent are the notions that life should be “comfortable,” that those who live it should be “happy.”

...her sentences are better than mine or yours...

I have known for years, because I have adored Didion for years, that she taught herself to type (and in a way, to write), by typing out the sentences of Hemingway.  In her Paris Review interview she called them perfect sentences:

Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.

(Years later, a certain self-proclaimed “White Privileged Male” would do something similar with her.  Though I happen to know for a fact he’s not the only one...)

And so it feels like some kind of full circle to find, among the results that come up when I search for “joan didion essay rhode island mansions” (remember how I said it would matter...), this bit from a book about Hemingwayan style, that points in Didion’s direction:

To view Hemingway’s performance in Green Hills in this way is to uncover a uniquely American shame, since he would then have converted the experience of killing in Africa into an allegory about the consumption ethic at the heart of the pursuit of happiness.  As Joan Didion writes in her mordant essay about the empty mansions crowding the seacoast at Newport, Rhode Island, “‘Happiness’ is, after all, a consumption ethic.”  In promising pursuit, not arrival, our founding document imagines American life as an unending process of creative destruction, since the getting and the having of a thing — in this case a dead animal — produces only the desire for more getting and having.

Hemingway’s Africa book then invites a reading in which it can be taken as a complex gloss on the meaning of one of his favorite adjectives, happy, as well as an investigation into how shaming our various pursuits of happiness can turn out to be.


The line of the circle comes around, but instead of closing it spirals out a little—or maybe it spirals in a little?—as I think of a favorite quote from Susan Sontag’s In America:

“I give thanks to America,” said Ryszard, “a country insane enough to declare the pursuit of happiness an [un]alienable right.”

(Elsewhere in the book, someone remarks on how it is entirely possible that wine will become American, with an American standard of excellence, just as happiness is destined to become American, with an American standard of what it is to be happy.)

Meanwhile I finish reading “The Seacoast of Despair.”  It is exactly 1220 words long, and it takes less than six minutes to read (not counting all these circles, tangents, spirals and whorls).  Less than six minutes, therefore, to get near the end, and lean into a reflecting pool of a paragraph like this one, some fifty-three years after it was written:

The world must have seemed greener to all of them, out there when they were young...  More than anyone else in the society, these men had apparently dreamed the dream and made it work.  And what they did then was to build a place which seems to illustrate, as in a child’s primer, that the production ethic led step by step to unhappiness, to restrictiveness, to entrapment in the mechanics of living.


[nightingaleshiraz] [?]
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[lunedì 30 dicembre 2019 ore 18:02:01] []

Jolts of Consciousness

These days I’m helping out as assistant editor for the prose poetry section of the very awesome Pithead Chapel, a literary magazine I have loved a long time.  And so every month when the new issue comes out, I find that I love the feeling that comes from having had some small thing to do, with putting some beautiful things out in the world.

This month there’s Terese Robison’s “Buses Named, Among Other Things, Desire,” from the December issue, just out.  I have not loved a line in a while, the way I love the woman in a walker in whom 80 years have suddenly taken place.

And from previous issues, there is Nicole Mason’s “In Which I am a Nesting Doll.”  When I first read that in the submissions queue, I had to step away from my desk and go sit somewhere for a whole half-hour, so I could hear it humming inside.

And “The Pair of Married Mimes” by Benjamin Niespodziany.  If nothing else, that last line...


[nightingaleshiraz] [?]
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[mercoledì 04 dicembre 2019 ore 10:50:00] []

On an index card from September 2015

Sometimes in walking through a room I think I can smell my mother.  But maybe it’s just me.


[nightingaleshiraz] [?]
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[domenica 02 dicembre 2019 ore 16:12:02] []