Monday, June 28, 2010

Just back from Starbucks where I was reading a piece in the NYReview of Books about Deborah Eisenberg, whose complete works are just out from Picador, 980 pages! and the reviewer, Claire Messud, quotes a passage that exactly describes what life is like in the mundane daily sense, that "it wasn't really like anything--it was just whatever it was, and there was never a place in your mind of the right size and shape to put it. But afterwards, the thing fit exactly into your memory as if there had always been a place--just right, just waiting for it." And I was trying to think about what history was like, how the mundaneness, the "worn muzzle of the horse," the "wads of paer in the gutter," cannot get into history because history must necessarily be so much more distant from the sense of how life is lived internally, it is all about external relationships; and then I remembered the scene where his brother Joseph walks in on Napoleon in his bath to protest against the sale of Louisiana to the United States, and Napoleon shocks him by standing up, naked, to make his point, which was that he had made up his mind, and Joseph was not going to change it. And we miss this emphaticness for the most part because we don't know what would have shocked his brother in Napoleon's nakedness, for they were, after all, brothers--although I suppose nakedness is always a bit shocking. Anyway the not knowing is precisely the not knowing much about what life was like on a mundane level in France in 1803, and really cannot know, because you literally had to be there, that is how minute life is, a minute-by-minute thing, and therefore why fiction is so much more intimate and revealing and, ultimately, accurate than history. Lorraine has just finished reading Wolf Hall, the recent novel about
Thomas Cromwell, and even though I know the history, grew up with it in grad school, yet I was jealous that she had the time to read this novel, and I don't. But I could make time. I could read the novel instead of reading the NYReview of Books. Except that it would no doubt take me over, and I truly can't afford that.

But what life is like--that's what both historians and fiction writers are obsessed with, that question, getting it into words so we can communicate it; and it changes over time and from place to place. Life in 16th-century England was so definitely not what life is like for us now. We watched a bit of The Tudors recently and that was the disconnect for me. The actor playing Henry VIII just didn't have a clue what was going on in Henry's mind, not really; nor did the scriptwriter really get it. It is so hard to imagine the past. You can get all the details right--world lit only by fire, the heavy clothes against the winter chill inside the house as well as outside, the constant threat of deadly illness against which there were no remedies, the travel by water along the Thames, the absence of seating--and still never get close to the mental furniture. A friend gave me a CD of the music Henry had written, played on period instruments, and I listened to the delicate complexity of it and remembered the mixture of motives that went into its making, a mixture tinged by the growing awareness in England at the time of the accomplishments that men of Henry's class were supposed to be able to toss off, casually; and the music did not include the lyrics of "Greensleeves," which Henry wrote (the tune was traditional), which are exquisite. Most of this is missing from the character as played in The Tudors; that Henry is too much bluster, and thereby too uncertain. The actor misses the king.

The job for the historian is the job of any writer--getting it right. It's the fascination of what's difficult, and Yeats got that right in his poem of the same name. It's all about craft in the end, and the love of craft. I like to tell people the story of Giotto, approached by the Pope, whoever it was, to submit work for a competition, and, in the presence of the Pope's representative, took a brush, dipped it in red paint, and drew a perfect circle. Note that the Pope is a minor character in this anecdote. The tale comes from Vasari and, who knows? it may be apocryphal, but it makes the point. Popes are merely a means to an end. It is the art that matters. The I Ching makes a similar, but even more profound, point in one of its hexagrams. "Let the credit go to another. It is enough that the work be done." And in this respect, I sometimes think I might have given my soul to have written "O western wind," the little quatrain that stands at the beginning of early modern English poetry, whose author is unknown.