Hugh Kenner, 1923-2003.
His command of any subject was such that he could lecture without notes or script. He usually had a folder of blank pages, or letters from friends, that he pretended to be reading from, to assure audiences that he'd written out what he was saying. When he gave the Alexander Lectures at Toronto and was asked for the manuscript, so that they could be printed, he had to say, "Well, there isn't one."
Nor did he own a comb. His hair over the years became Einsteinisch. Being very hard of hearing, he repeated carefully what interlocutors said to him, to make certain he'd heard correctly. He therefore did most of the talking in a conversation. He once talked for three days at my house, when he was planning The Stoic Comedians. Part of his discourse was a recitation of Beckett's unpublished novel Mercier et Camier that he'd memorized. There was also much about Alan Turing (about whom information at that time was largely anecdotal) and Charles Babbage, the Stammvater of the computer. Lewis Carroll, too; Hugh decided that he was the Emile Zola of England.
The English he could not abide, an animus apparent in his book about twentieth-century English literature, A Sinking Island, where his distaste is made articulate, damning, and not a little Swiftian. A mot going around at the time of the three-day visit ("Wagner is the Puccini of music") turns up twenty-seven years later as "W. H. Auden is the Graham Greene of literature". Hugh forgot nothing.
But back to the book about geodesic math. I have a feeling that it was the book Hugh found most interesting to write. It was in a previous book about R. Buckminster Fuller that he saw how Pound's ideogrammatic method in The Cantos works (supplemented later by a fascination with Benoit Mandelbrot's fractals). Pound had tied identifiable fragments of interesting cultures into self-interfering karats that float in a magnetic field. You read them by looking at them. The meaning is in the geometry.
Hugh singled out strong, complex minds to explain. Pound was gratifyingly counter-Liberal, as was Bucky Fuller and Joyce. And Wyndham Lewis and Beckett. These were writers who studied the deployment of energy, and its failure. They do not all fit a pattern. They all had genius. "I only write about people smarter than I." So that when, for the sake of history he had to write about Virginia Woolf, he wonders why, daily chatting with the English translators of Freud, she never consulted a psychiatrist. He points out that there is no sex in Lady Chatterley's Lover, only sodomy. There is a kind of civilized Schadenfreude in his having modern English writing be the work of the Americans Pound, Eliot, and Lewis; the Pole Conrad; and the Irish Joyce, Beckett, and Flann O'Brien.
On William F. Buckley's "Firing Line," Hugh resolutely refused to sanction the banning of the Marquis de Sade, whom Buckley was holding up (accurately) as a devil with seven horns and a lashing tail. "He wrote grammatical French" said Hugh, and had to repeat himself thrice. Buckley was forgetting that he was interviewing the most literate defender of Ulysses on the planet, who had once calmly explained that Joyce's soldier's calling Edward VII "my fucking bleeding king" was the right demotic for an adulterous hemophiliac. Hugh was modest rather than prudish; once, looking through my life-class drawings, he quickly flipped past the male nudes and lingered over the female ones. He admired Cocteau, but thought Allen Ginsberg a public nuisance. I had the feeling that Hugh was a displaced member of Samuel Johnson's circle (Pope was for him the poet for inexhaustible study). I have heard him anatomize a paragraph of Johnson's, showing how its words consistently answered to their Latin derivations. I don't know all that many people who have paragraphs of Johnson off by heart.
He was Canadian, the late-born child of a schoolmaster and a teacher, Welsh immigrants. "I don't think I had a childhood," he once said, though he let drop that he first heard the poetry of Baudelaire recited around a campfire by his scoutmaster, Pierre Trudeau. But at that time Hugh planned to be a mathematician. He was later interested in Verlaine and Theophile Gautier, not Baudelaire.
Strangely, his first intellectual excitement was ignited by Herbert Marshall McLuhan, who was nuttier than we've been told about. But McLuhan had imagination and lively ideas. He showed Hugh how Finnegans Wake got written, and took him to St. Elizabeth's to meet Pound. He insisted that Hugh do a doctorate at Yale. They drifted apart, later. Around the 1970s McLuhan had written that maps came in at such-and-such a date in the Renaissance, before which we had no geographical sense. I watched Hugh type a postcard to McLuhan: Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres. Yours, Hugh.
The Pound Era is his masterpiece. The Poetry of Ezra Pound was written in two months (on a picnic table outside a cabin in the Canadian woods); The Pound Era took ten years. While it was in the making, he published two wittily perceptive diversions, The Stoic Comedians and The Counterfeiters. If The Pound Era is a symphony, these are string quartets. There are enough insights in them to fuel a dozen associate professors for a year. Hugh wrote them while driving his children to school. In those heroic days he typed, making carbons. He'd lucked onto a ton of typing paper at a warehouse clearance.
Inside his mastery of a critical technique was a sensibility of great chromatic range. His sense of humor delighted in the incongruous and ridiculous: "O to be a dean, and ride in triumph through Periphrasis!" The other end of the spectrum was rage: at incompetence, slipshod scholarship, the bogus. Wound up about Bloomsbury, Yale, or the California legislature, he could be as eloquent as Swift or Mencken. He glared at Deconstruction and Theory.
His telephone calls about specifics were for vital information he thought I might have: the sonnet Wordsworth wrote about prehistoric cave-painting, the Greek for Jocasta's brooch, the likelihood that Jesus's having been a carpenter is an assumption, as teknon meant practically any trade (mason, tile-layer, smith).
Hugh's prose remains the envy of everybody who has ever tried to write. It is elegant in its hard simplicity, in its diction, and in its adherence to tradition. It modulated from book to book. The compact density of his first Joyce book gave way to the fluid periods of The Pound Era. The Beckett book is written in Beckett. In later books he took to hiding perfectly invisible poems inside the prose: a Yeatsian sonnet, a limerick, a lively lyric in the book about Bugs Bunny and the Roadrunner. This last sticks out; only the dullest reader could miss it. The others are discreetly hidden, and yet they are there. I have a feeling that most of Hugh's prose is on two levels. The upper one is as clear and forthright as Hazlitt; the second one is Hugh talking to himself more intelligently than he is willing to share with a half-literate public. He spent years teaching illiterate students, and did not recognize a high degree of literacy in public print of any sort. Not even Bill Buckley escaped his censure. Only Christian charity allowed him to say a good word about my own.
The writers he chose to explicate are not a phalanx. Wyndhana Lewis ("Tom Eliot doesn't come around here disguised as Westminster Abbey!") had alienated everybody by the time Hugh met him. Beckett had despised Pound for years; Eliot kept his own counsel; Pound alone was accessible, and Hugh emulated him in taking people as they were, thinking for himself, and observing keenly. Hugh could play billiards with Beckett and savor cheese with Eliot in a London club. He had a suit made by Eliot's tailor ("Nothing ever quite in excess, Mr. Eliot") and a pair of shoes by Yeats's cobbler. I have seen William Carlos Williams removing passages from the proofs of Paterson. "Hugh Kenner says they don't fit."
Forthcoming in The New Criterion:
Lengthened shadows: a series essays by Robert H. Bork, David B. Hart, Roger Kimball, Jay Nordlinger & Eric Ormsby
Somerset Maugham by Anthony Daniels
Charles Murray's achievement by Denis Dutton
The novels of Alan Furst by Brooke Allen
Who reads George Gissing? by Judy Stove
Benvenuto Cellini by James F. Penrose
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
|Next Article:||Notes & comments: February 2004.|
|CENTRAL LINN HIGH SCHOOL.|
|Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett; the Stoic comedians. (reprint, 1962).|