Oct. 11, 2014

Voices Inside and Out

by Jack Gilbert

For Hayden Carruth

When I was a child, there was an old man with
a ruined horse who drove his wagon through the back
streets of our neighborhood, crying, Iron! Iron!
Meaning he would buy bedsprings and dead stoves.
Meaning for me, in the years since, the mind's steel
and the riveted girders of the soul. When I lived
on Île Saint-Louis, a glazier came every morning,
crying, Vitre! Vitre! Meaning the glass on his back,
but sounding like the swallows swooping years later
at evening outside my high windows in Perugia.
In my boyhood summers, Italian men came walking ahead
of the truck calling out the ripeness of their melons,
and old Jews slogged in the snow, crying, Brooms! Brooms!
Two hundred years ago, the London shop boys yelled
at people going by, What do you lack? A terrible
question to hear every day. "Less and less," I think.
The Brazilians say, "In this country we have everything
we need, except what we don't have."

"Voices Inside and Out" by Jack Gilbert, from Collected Poems. © Knopf, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist François Mauriac (books by this author), born in Bordeaux, France (1885). During his lifetime, he was considered one of France's greatest novelists, and he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1952. But he was staunchly Catholic in an era when Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre were bringing existential philosophy to French culture — he was too conservative for progressives, but not Catholic enough for the Catholic establishment. Mauriac also had a tendency to get in public fights with other well-known writers.

His first major public dispute was with Albert Camus in the aftermath of World War II. Camus wrote for Combat, a newspaper of the French Resistance, and he was of the firm opinion that justice was the most important priority for France, and that every Nazi collaborator should be ferreted out and given a harsh punishment. Although Mauriac was also a member of the Resistance, he wrote for a conservative newspaper, Le Figaro, and in his column he took issue with Camus, arguing that France should focus on unity, not on punishing collaborators. A few months after their public attacks on each other, a French writer named Robert Brasillach was sentenced to death for his role as a collaborator, although his collaboration had been theoretical — he supported Nazi Germany and was anti-Semitic, but he hadn't actually done anything beyond publicize his views. Mauriac went to Brasillach's defense — he totally disagreed with Brasillach's views, but he didn't think he should actually be executed for them. Mauriac organized a petition to ask Charles de Gaulle to pardon Brasillach, and he got a lot of big names on his list, including Paul Valéry, Jean Cocteau, Jean Anouilh, and Colette. At the last minute, Camus signed it as well, but it didn't do any good, and Brasillach was executed. Camus, for his part, had a total change of heart and decided that there was never an excuse to justify execution. Several years later, he gave a speech and said, "I have come to recognize for myself and now publicly that regarding the fundamental issue, and on the specific point of our dispute, Mr. François Mauriac was right and I was in the wrong."

In 1949, after Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex, Mauriac lashed out against it, suggesting that it be investigated as pornography. It probably didn't help that 10 years earlier, Beauvoir's longtime lover Jean-Paul Sartre had written an essay called "François Mauriac and Freedom," in which he concluded: "Novels are written by men and for men. In the eyes of God, Who cuts through appearances and goes beyond them, there is no novel, no art, for art thrives on appearances. God is not an artist. Neither is M. Mauriac."

Mauriac and best-selling novelist Roger Peyrefitte also engaged in a very public dispute. It started when Mauriac wrote a letter about the recently deceased gay writer Jean Cocteau, whom he called a "tragic personality" because he was missing out on "that reassuring universe where a woman lays her hand on our forehead with the same gesture as our mother, and where children gather around us till the end." Peyrefitte, who was open about his own gay relationships, was annoyed by Mauriac's comments. Then Mauriac published another letter saying he was disgusted by a film being made out of one of Peyrefitte's novels, about homoerotic feelings between 12-year-old boys — Mauriac said that it was "a cauldron from which their souls will not emerge unscathed." That set Peyrefitte over the edge, and he published a vicious letter about Mauriac — not only did he call him homophobic, but he also suggested that Mauriac was a closeted gay man who had been in love with Jean Cocteau. The fight became the celebrity gossip of France, dividing prominent figures as they sided with one or the other.

François Mauriac continued publishing novels until his death in 1970 at the age of 84. He said: "Every novelist ought to invent his own technique, that is the fact of the matter. Every novel worthy of the name is like another planet, whether large or small, which has its own laws just as it has its own flora and fauna."

And, "If you would tell me the heart of a man, tell me not what he reads, but what he rereads."

It's the birthday of physicist and psychologist Lewis Fry Richardson (books by this author), born in Northumberland, England (1881), who was the first to apply mathematical techniques to predict the weather accurately. During WWI, Richardson served as a driver for the Friends' Ambulance Unit in France. During the intervals between transporting wounded soldiers from the front, he manually computed the changes in pressure and wind at two points. From this information, he wrote his 1922 book, Weather Prediction by Numerical Process. The problem with his theories was that it took him about three months to predict the weather for the next 24 hours. His system did not become practical until the advent of electronic computers after World War II.

It was on this day in 1962 that Pope John XXIII convened the first session of the Second Vatican Council, also known as Vatican II, with the goal of bringing the church up to date with the modern world. More than 3,000 delegates attended, including many of the Catholic bishops from around the world, theologians, and other church officials.

As a result of Vatican II, Catholics were allowed to pray with Protestants and attend weddings and funerals in Protestant churches; priests were encouraged to perform mass facing the congregation, rather than facing the altar; and priests were allowed to perform mass in languages other than Latin, so that parishioners could finally understand what was being said throughout the service.

It's the birthday of the man who founded the YMCA, Sir George Williams, born in 1821 in Dulverton, England. Williams left his family farm for London, where he got a job in a draper's shop. He was horrified by the conditions of the city. There were so many young men who came from the country to try to find jobs there, and they worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, and slept in crowded rooms together. When they did have time off, their only entertainment was whatever they could find on the streets of London — streets filled with gamblers, drunks, and prostitutes. Williams wanted to create a place for young men to hang out and make friends, a place free of temptation. So he and some of his fellow drapers started a group for recreation and Bible study, and that was the first Young Men's Christian Association, the YMCA.

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




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