Sunday, February 20, 2011

"The grand test of virtue"

I finished Down and Out in Paris and London a week or two ago. Until I started reading it and saw the category "Fiction" on the back, I had assumed it was a memoir. From what I can gather, it's based on Orwell's experiences, but Orwell generally had money and family to fall back on, unlike his Down and Out protagonist. I may be the last person on earth to read it, but if you haven't: the first part is basically a depiction of the working poor (in Paris), while the second is a depiction of the homeless (in London). The book was first published in 1933, but some of his observations about poverty are no doubt still true, and the book in general felt modern - as Orwell seems to be able to do. I can't help comparing his language and ideas with those of Virginia Woolf, whose diary I'm picking back up (Volume 2). Woolf is an admitted snob and a total classist, even as she worries about money and writes some of the most beautiful and universal prose I've ever written. Orwell, on the other hand, knows the lives and humanity of all "classes" of people, and writes in a straightforward way that I also admire. It's interesting to read them so close together.

Anyway, here are some passages out of Down and Out that I found the most thought-provoking.

Orwell describes the life of a plongeur, a restaurant worker who washes dishes, among other tasks - a life with long hours and one lived day-to-day:

"...they have simply been trapped by a routine which makes thought impossible. If plongeurs thought at all, they would long ago have formed a union and gone on strike for better treatment. But they do not think, because they have no leisure for it; their life has made slaves of them." (p. 116)

If the working poor have no time to think, the homeless have been ground down to either an inability to think, or sheer boredom:

"He was probably capable of work too, if he had been well fed for a few months....He had lived on this filthy imitation of food till his own mind and body were compounded of inferior stuff. It was malnutrition and not any native vice that had destroyed his manhood." (p. 153)

These last two passages get at the heart of the class system and capitalism, and I think they apply equally to present-day America:

"Very few cultivated people have less than (say) four hundred pounds a year [middle class?], and naturally they side with the rich, because they imagine that any liberty conceded to the poor is a threat to their own liberty." (pp. 119-120)

"Then the question arises, Why are beggars despised? --for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except 'Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it'? Money has become the grand test of virtue.
A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a business man, getting his living, like other business men, in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modern people, sold his honour; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich." (p. 174)

All quotations from Orwell, George. Down and Out in Paris and London. New York: Harcourt, Inc.: 1961.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Ghosts, machines, etc.

The other day, I finished reading Matthew Zapruder's book of poetry Come On All You Ghosts. There are many reasons, both trivial and not, for me to like it. The trivial ones include our shared alma mater, and references in the poems to artists I like (Neko Case, David Foster Wallace). The non-trivial are the poems themselves and how they're written. While I occasionally lost the thread reading a poem, I always assume that's my failing. One of my biggest problems in writing poems is slavishly sticking to narrative form. This is not a problem (at least in the final product) for Zapruder.

Okay, so now I'll let the poems speak for themselves, in excerpts, anyway, below. I also recommend the poem "Letter to a Lover," one of my new favorite love poems, which can be found in its entirety on the Copper Canyon Press website.

I can't help but love this one:

"...Come home
those who love a librarian aspect. I am one,
for give her time and she will answer any question
no matter how spiral, no matter how glass,
so slow to judgment you can sit among her
like a reading room and read and think
until the docents come, they move as trained,
as trained they place a careful hand on our shoulder."
-from "Never Before," p. 38

I like these opening lines that get at postmodernism and reality TV:

"In old black and white documentaries
sometimes you can see
the young at a concert or demonstration
staring in a certain way as if
a giant golden banjo
is somewhere sparkling
just too far off to hear.
They really didn't know there was a camera.'
-from "Global Warming," p. 83

The last lines of the book refer back to Zapruder comparing a poem to a machine:

"Come on all you ghosts,

you can tell me now,
I have seen one of you becoming
and I am no longer afraid,

just sad for everyone
but also happy this morning I woke
next to the warm skin

of my beloved. I do not know
what terrible marvels
tomorrow will bring

but ghosts if I must join you
you and I know
I have done my best to leave

behind this machine
anyone with a mind
who cares can enter."
-from "Come On All You Ghosts," pp. 107-8

All quotations from Zapruder, Matthew. Come On All You Ghosts. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2010.