If Americans have so little sense of nuances, it isn’t that they’re incapable of grasping them– after all, American reality itself is sufficiently nuanced– but that they would be troubled by them. To accept nuance is to accept ambiguity of judgment, argument, and hesitation; such complex situations force you to think. They want to lead their lives by geometry, not by wisdom. Geometry is taught, whereas wisdom is discovered, and only the first offers the refreshing certainties that a conscientious person needs. So they choose to believe in a geometric world where every right angle is set against another, like their buildings and their streets.
— Simone de Beauvoir, America Day by Day, translated by Carol Cosman, Phoenix, 1998 (originally published 1954)
Lest you assume Ms de Beauvoir turns her nose up at us all, much of her book about her travels in America describes her delight in exploring our country. If we can still refer to it as “our” country. The America of just after World War II was a conservative, awkward place, still wearing its braces and still broken out with the blemishes of a somewhat wild West. You couldn’t drink much, or late, in Los Angeles. People didn’t want to talk too much politics with her, although they felt they understood exactly what Europe needed. Ah, how could they not show some bravado, having just inherited a burden of power they weren’t sure they asked for?
But I digress. Americans still do tremble at nuance. Our pound-the- drums two-party system insists we color within the lines. Of course, I like that about us. We are bold. And it kind of makes me nuts, like when we can’t set up a reasonable national health care system because we have to pretend there are only two choices: socialized medicine and slightly tweaking our slightly imperfect current system. Yes, let’s move on to Art.
Yet at the same time his heart swelled with delight over the adventure the outside world was about to embark upon. For passion, like crime, is antithetical to the smooth operation and prosperity of day-to-day existence, and can only welcome every loosening of the fabric of society, every upheaval and disaster in the world, since it can vaguely hope to profit thereby. And so Aschenbach felt a morose satisfaction at the officially concealed goings-on in the dirty alleyways of Venice, that nasty secret which had merged with his own innermost secret and which he, too, was so intent on keeping: he was in love and concerned only that Tadzio might leave, and he realized not without horror that in that event he would not know what to make of his life.
–Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, translated by Michael Henry Heim, Ecco, 2005.
I think this novel (barely a novel) might be one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. I was so enchanted by it that I read it in one day, in a handful of sittings. Even odder, I actually underlined and later looked up the words I wasn’t sure about, so I would know exactly what Mann meant (or what Heim thought he meant). Sirocco. Eflluvia. Matitudinal. Apotheosis. I never do that. I have a vague idea, enough to keep going, and I keep going. For this book, my blundering wasn’t good enough.
Crime and passion wait for ice storms and snow days, that is for sure.
I sat at a bar and ate dinner on my white cloth napkin and had one glass of wine, and I thought when the book was over, my face would hold its expressions, and I would not know what to make of my life. That last part was killer, but this is even worse (in a Michael Jackson sense of bad):
There is nothing more curious or delicate than a relationship between people who know each other only by sight, who encounter and observe each other daily– nay, hourly– yet are constrained by convention or personal caprice to keep up the pretense of being strangers, indifferent, avoiding a nod or a word. There is a feeling of malaise and overwrought curiosity, the hysteria of an unsatisfied, unnaturally stifled need for mutual acknowledgment and communication, and above all a sort of strained esteem. For a man loves and respects his fellow man only insofar as he is unable to assess him, and longing is a product of insufficient knowledge.
That just makes me want to hide under the bed. Okay, one more:
The gods have many shapes.
The gods bring many things
to their accomplishment.
And what was most expected
has not been accomplished.
But god has found his way
for what no man expected.
So ends the play.
—The Bacchae by Euripides, translated by William Arrowsmith, University of Chicago Press, 1959
Like most regular people, I haven’t sat and read a lot of ancient Greek plays since college. I did thoroughly enjoy reading all those plays in college, though. The coolness and boldness of the language contrasts so sharply with the slung-around slyness of so much clever clever modern dialogue. It’s pert without being snotty. They did have the advantage of writing some of our first plays. They weren’t so worried about sounding stale, I’m sure.
The other advantage they had was a declining language, which freed them from having to string their sentences like a set of graduated pearls. Ancient Greek words are hippie multicolored beads you can string to any length, shape, or pattern. Which makes me slightly jealous, until I remember that we have more words. So there, Euripedes.