What I Did on My First 8 Months of Lockdown
Updated: Feb 23
Oh, Dear Friends, Dear Readers, where have we been and what have we been doing and thinking and wishing and fearing and forgetting and reading and writing and eating and dreaming and neglecting and remembering and almost catching a glimpse or tail-end of all of these strange, quiet, special and dreadful, lovely, and strangely reflective months? Much of it seems to have passed in a sort of fog, our limbs weighed down by the miasmatic collective trauma, our brains slowed down by cognitive dissonance too static-riddled to disentangle.
I know I have read some books and written some scant words and there was once a garden, of flowers and also of vegetables and then came the leaves falling down and some early snow even that melted and revealed the leaves again, most of them un-raked. There have been walks (more or less safely distanced) from good neighbors and visits in the garden with friends, even a bacchanalian outdoor birthday party for Rachael in August, with a handful of people who camped on the lawn....She lined the paths with candles and some of us sat up very late philosophizing and the next day went swimming in the mysterious emerald green quarry.
But mostly, books were read. Of all the wonderful books I have been reading, here are a few that shimmer up to the surface:
Perseus in the Wind, by Freya Stark. She is a great writer, rich in surprising images, both metaphoric and concrete, blending experiences from her travels in the middle east with her life in Italy and England with her wide reading in literature and philosophy. I had bought the book a while ago, not rightly knowing who she was, but it was a lucky chance.
Small Lives, by Pierre Michon (translated by Joy Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays). This was a little revelation of a book, that moved gradually from tender portraits of rural French peasants to dark, maudlin 1960's debauchery and then back again. Filled with regret and gorgeous writing.
Malicroix, by Henri Bosco (translated masterfully by Joyce Zonana). The book that led me to Small Lives (as recommended by Greg Gerke), Bosco had been lauded by Bachelard in The Poetics of Space and it turned out that Bachelard was correct to lavish him with praise. A rich, mysterious, dream and nightmare landscape of the wild, desolate, and mythic set against an equally mythic picture of the unreal happy domesticity of French country life.
The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe, by Robert J. Richards. This book explores the connection between the Romantic Naturphilosophen (Fichte, Schelling, Goethe, Humboldt) and the beginnings of Darwinian Evolutionary theory, consciously blending the romantic histories of the philosophers with their related theorizing about self, other, nature, cosmos. Splendid!
Anne Carson's An Oresteia (translations of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles). I read these with my mother, to keep each other company during the lockdown. We were both enchanted by Carson's translations and her introductions to these savage and fate-ridden plays. We also read and loved her translations of other Greek plays (Grief Lessons). Pure, spare, shimmering, bloody, magic.
(With mom, I also read a few delightful Murdoch novels, some Natalia Ginzburg, Olga Tokarczuk, Magda Szabo, and more).
The Odyssey (translated by Emily Wilson). Read this with mom, too. A lovely, lovely translation.
Yeats' Reveries over Childhood and Youth & The Trembling of the Veil. This is one of the marvelous books that Stephen and I read/reread aloud to each other (along with the Stark, Max Beerbohm's essays, William Beckford's Dreams, Waking Thoughts, Incidents, parts of Plutarch's Lives; parts of Robert Graves' The Greek Myths. We are now reading Herodotus' Persian Wars--my first time and I am ravished). Yeats, as ever, is deep, wise, lyrical, sensitive to all the worldly and otherworldly nuances, fascinating and delightful ....
For those of us who like to be alone and who have a lovely place to be alone in, or even a lovely person to be alone in the lonely lovely place with, and who have correspondents who write letters and also virtual friends and interesting strangers, and who treasure the newfound silence of a shut-down world and the lack of obligation to go and be somewhere else, it has been a good time, despite all the bad and scary. We, many of us lucky ones, cannot help but note the dichotomy between the chaos of much of the world and our own relative peace and safety. Transmissions from the world send shocks through our bodies; seep into our nightmares; compel us to consider and reconsider our roles, our responsibility, our lives and their significance. But they also confirm our commitment to our quiet lives and our modest work. To the cultivation of our gardens and minds and communities.
Although I have not done very much writing in all these months (projects still in the works include an essay on the idea of the good and the dangers of moral certitude and another on morphologies, i.e., the relationship between the shapes and structures of things and their meanings, and, still, yes, that novel I have been struggling with all these years) these few bits and bobs (with most recent ones last) have surfaced in the virtual and physical publishing universes:
I participated in this plague year project: https://www.enneadecameron.com/lady-wilhelminas-tale/
With Greg Gerke, whose brainchild it was, I co-wrote an epistolary essay on Faulkner's novel, The Hamlet, published by 3 a.m. magazine: https://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/reading-faulkners-the-hamlet-in-2020-usa-part-i/
I finished a long translation, of over 600 pages of Musil's plays and writings on theater, which was rather a labor of love and, by the end, after repetitive copy-editing with Rainer and Alessandro, rather a strain; and it will be out in the world in about a month: https://www.contramundumpress.com/theater-symptoms !
Two essays of mine were re-published:
I drew a cover image for my father's first poetry chapbook! Congratulations, dad, on a remarkable achievement and a beautiful, moving collection of new poems! Here it is:
A little new essay, called "Fascination," has just come out in a lovely print anthology called Zahir: Desire and Eclipse, a collection of pieces inspired by Borges' story, "The Zahir," and edited by Christian Patracchini:
And today, this essay about Robert Musil and the challenge of the autonomous artist in times of totalitarianisms is out at On The Seawall: https://www.ronslate.com/robert-musil-the-crisis-of-the-artist-in-times-of-ideological-polarization-the-1920s-2020s/
One of the things that is giving me great pleasure and peace of mind is that I am studying Ancient Greek, with the help of a fantastic tutor, Abby, found via the marvelous Catherine Project, spearheaded by Zena Hitz, author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life: https://zenahitz.net/
Rusticating, we have books aplenty in the little farm house to get us through the approaching winter, and books to write, too; and letters coming and going, I hope. And we now have shutters on the windows, ones that open and shut for real, so if the winds blow too hard or the mobs and militias come marauding on our rural dirt road, demanding allegiance to some side or other, we can retreat even further into our quarantine island of ambiguity (only sneaking out for stacks of wood for the stove and an occasional trip to replenish the cupboards), in hopes of coming out in the spring, like the bears, hungry for a glimpse of our beloved friends, and for sweet little green buds and blades of bulbs; and, hopefully, with some pages covered with words, words that attempt to make some provisional sense of the world outside.