Nov. 24, 2009

What the Dark-Eyed Angel Knows

by Eleanor Lerman

A man is begging on his knees in the subway. Six-thirty
in the morning and already we are being presented with
moral choices as we rocket along the old rails, through the
old tunnels between Queens and Manhattan. Soon angels
will come crashing through the ceiling, wailing in the voices
of the castrati: Won't you give this pauper bread or money?
And a monster hurricane is coming: we all heard about it
on the radio at dawn. By nightfall, drowned hogs will be
floating like poisoned soap bubbles on the tributaries
of every Southern river. Children will be orphaned and
the infrastructure of whole cities will be overturned. No one
on the East Coast will be able to make a phone call and we
will be boiling our water for days. And of course there are
the serial killers. And the Crips and the Bloods. And the
arguments about bilingual education. And the fact that all
the clothing made by slave labor overseas is not only the
product of an evil system but maybe worse, never even fits

so why is it that all I can think of (and will think of through
the torrential rains to come and the howling night) is
you, sighing so deeply in the darkness, you and the smell
of you and the windswept curve of your cheek? If this
train ever stops, I will ask that dark-eyed angel, the one
who hasn't spoken yet. He looks like he might know

"What the Dark-Eyed Angel Knows" by Eleanor Lerman, from The Mystery of Meteors. © Sarabande Books, 2001. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the publisher and editor of The Little Review magazine, Margaret Anderson, (books by this author) born in Indianapolis (1886), who never fit in when she was growing up in the small town of Columbus, Indiana. She said, "I saw no reason why I should continue to live in Columbus, Indiana, and not breathe." So she moved to Chicago and founded a magazine called The Little Review, which she described as "A Magazine of the Arts, Making No Compromise with the Public Taste." She had a hard time getting financing and eventually had to move in with her parents to save money, but she kept it going.

In 1918, the poet Ezra Pound was trying to get James Joyce's new novel Ulysses published in the U.S., but most publishers thought it was too obscene. Anderson accepted it and serialized the novel over the course of three years, and later said: "The care we [took] to preserve Joyce's text intact … the addressing, wrapping, stamping, mailing; the excitement of anticipating the world's response to the literary masterpiece of our generation … and then a notice from the Post Office: BURNED."

She was charged with obscenity for publishing the book, was convicted and had to pay a fine, and issues of The Little Review began to come out less and less frequently. The last issue came out in 1929. Margaret Anderson said, "I believe in the unsubmissive, the unfaltering, the unassailable, the irresistible, the unbelievable — in other words, in an art of life."

It's the birthday of an 18th-century Anglican priest, well known for his love affairs, Laurence Sterne, (books by this author) born in County Tipperary, Ireland (1713), best known for his book The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which revolutionized the novel. The first two volumes came out 250 years ago, in 1759. Sterne's use of stream of consciousness and his comic metafictive writing were forerunners of works by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Flann O'Brien, Thomas Pynchon, and especially of Nabokov's Pale Fire (1962) and Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981). Goethe called Laurence Sterne "a model in nothing, in everything an awakener and suggester."

The book is a playful spin-off on the genre of fictional autobiography, which had been highly popular in Sterne's day. In Tristram Shandy, though, the narrator is unable to tell his own story, constantly being sidetracked by various absurd digressions on all sorts of subjects, questioning accepted ideas in ethics, theology, philosophy, sex, and politics. The book also contains a black page, excerpts of obscure theological debates, and a graphic representation of its own plot line.

Laurence Sterne was 46 years old when Volume 1 of the book appeared. Before that, he'd published only a few sermons. Tristram Shandy made the aging clergyman famous. Though contemporary critics did not give him high marks, the London public loved his bawdy humor.

Laurence Sterne was unhappy with his own marriage from the start, and soon didn't try to hide his affairs. In some of his trysts, he adopted the persona of his famous novel's protagonist; in a 1765 letter to "Lady P" he wrote, "There is a strange mechanical effect produced in [being] within a stonecast of the lady who engrosses the heart and soul of an inamorato — for this cause have I, Tristram Shandy, come forth from my lodgings to a coffee-house the nearest I could find to my dear Lady's house."

And then Sterne, the Anglican clergyman, concludes: "It is but an hour ago, that I kneeled down and swore I never would come near you — and after saying my Lord's Prayer for the sake of the close, of not being led into temptation … and now I am got so near you — within this vile stone's cast of your house — I feel myself drawn into a vortex, that has turned my brain upside downwards … I know nothing but sorrow — except this one thing, that I love you (perhaps foolishly, but) most sincerely, L. Sterne"

His health began to fail soon after the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy were published, but he produced another seven volumes of the work before he died at the height of his fame in 1768 of pleurisy at age 54.

Laurence Sterne, who wrote, "Courtship consists in a number of quiet attentions, not so pointed as to alarm, nor so vague as not to be understood."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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