Inside the TLS: John Donne edition

The September 22, 2006 edition of the TLS has been sitting around the house for a while. Donne is on the cover. He is a writer whose poems I don’t know well, a great writer about whom I’m not all that curious. I feel a little sheepish about this. And, feeling this way, it’s long interested (and artificially confirmed) me that Woolf’s essay on John Donne—a lead essay for the TLS as it happens—seems so dutiful.

In any case, I’m glad I hung on to the issue. A. S. Byatt’s essay on Donne, “Observe the Neurones,” is a revelation: smart and crazy. I’ve gotten obsessed by it in the couple weeks since I read it. Byatt opens by “trying to work out why [Donne] is so exciting” and she finds the answer in neurology. (I am embarrassed to confessed how slowed I was by not realizing “neurones” is simply the British spelling of “neurons.”)

Thought really is physical, Byatt reminds us, and each thought lights up a neural pathway. Building on this, Byatt seizes on another’s hypothesis---that perhaps “we delight in puns because the neuron connections become very excited by the double input.” That is, a pun lights up two paths at once, giving our brain an extra jolt of electricity. In short, there may be a physical pleasure to some kinds of thinking.

For the rest of the essay, Byatt develops this neurological hypothesis with regards to Donne and another “exciting” poet, Wallace Stevens, using neurology and the work of Harvard literary critic Elaine Scarry. (Scarry’s most famous for The Body in Pain but Byatt is working with Dreaming by the Book.) If puns bring pleasure, might metaphysical poetry, too, be “exciting” for similar physiological reasons? I think that’s a good guess.

In graduate school, we each had moments of great enthusiasm for our own projects. It comes to seem, at a certain moment, that you are writing the argument, the key ot all mythologies. Of this, my friend would say, “Oh, she’s at the phase where everything is everything.”

That phrase became a kind of limit and warning to me: anytime I felt on fire with the sense that everything fit, that “everything is everything,” I would pause, check my pulse, and back down.

Byatt describes a Donne poem, “The Cross,” that suffers from the enthusiasm of the everything is everything moment: having compared his own body to a cross (and thus, to Christ on the cross), he moves to what she calls “a mad bravura demonstration of the brain’s power to detect—or confer—abstract forms.” As she notes, after listing the many crosses in Donne’s poem, “this is nonsense at any level of logic except the brain’s pleasure in noticing, or making, analogies.” Ultimately it seems that the pleasure of reading Donn is like that of the pun: Donne ignites a spark. Reading this gives me a way to enter his poems again.

Inside the TLS, 9/1/06 edition

What got me excited in the September 1, 2006 TLS?
  • A negative review of David Lehman’s Oxford Book of American Poetry by Marjorie Perloff. Her expertise, her vast knowledge of the field and, most importantly, of the anthologies of the field, allows her to compare his approach against others. His attempt to side-step identity politics in favor of aesthetic criteria is revealed to have serious blind spots and deficits of its own. (That passive is weird--I don't have the patience or energy to rise to Perloff's operatic grandeur. I don't have the knowledge to do anything other than stand back and admire. The review has great power--but I'm powerless to put my finger on its source. I think it's because Lehman is trying to sidestep a p.c. approach and she attacks him on other grounds where the easiest thing to have done would have been to call him out for not beign p.c.--a charge he anticipates.)
  • A very funny account by Michael Greenberg of the monthly polyamory meeting down in the West Village: “I pull The Kreutzer Sonata from my shelf, Tolstoy’s diatribe against sex, to read on the subway ride downtown…:”
  • A great review of Claire Messud, whose book awaits.
  • A strong review of Rachel Cusk, too, whose book sounds good, but I read Tom Perrotta’s Little Children already. Do I really need another book about how dull it is to be a mom in the suburbs?
  • A totally gorgeous photo of Miriam Makeba in the “In Brief” pages.

Somehow, more than any other book review, reading through a week's TLS makes me feel smart and hopeful. It's that New Year's Day feeling I sometimes get: the one in which I actually believe that I'm going to be the better person of my resolusions.

Inside the TLS

I am a big fan of the TLS. I like its former editor, John Gross, and his book on the "man" of letters. I know a bit about its history and origins through my work on Virginia Woolf. For Woolf, the TLS was the major outlet for her short essays and reviews. Many, many of the essays in The Common Readers began their life as TLS pieces. And, as a privilege accorded to Woolf and Woolf alone, the editors doubled their usual fee for a contribution from her. In the 1920s for a woman to be held in such esteem by a totally mainstream publication is really cool and remarkable.

I got a deal on the TLS this year, so it's been coming for about ten weeks now. I've read two or three of those ten issues. I gobble them with delight and am full, bursting, with the desire to tell everyone--to at least blog--about what I read, what new book is coming out, what catty thing got said (Jenny Davidson had a great post recently about an appallingly mean review there--I may be less kind toward authors than she because there's something I like about the energy of a bad review.), etc. I just can't believe that this conversation has been going on all this time without my attending to it. And I can barely find the time to attend to it now...