Boon Companions on the Road to Stoicism

John Austen

Over my long reading career, I have come to esteem several fictional literary characters and consider them, if not friends, boon companions, individuals whose company I continue to enjoy. I’m talking about people[1] like Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, Joseph Conrad’s Charlie Marlow, and Richard Ford’s Frank Bascomb.  

When you come to revere such characters, finishing a novel or play becomes somewhat bittersweet because you really hate to see them hit the road. 

My favorite, given his high intelligence and depth of feeling, is Hamlet the Dane. I wouldn’t go so far as Harold Bloom and claim that Shakespeare via Falstaff and Hamlet “invented the human” by setting in motion “the spark of human consciousness.” However, to me Hamlet is as real a person as my barstool companions at Chico Feo or my Great Aunt Lou, a formidable woman, but one not nearly as self-aware as the black clad prince. 

Come to think of it, Aunt Lou is dead except in the minds of a diminishing number of Social Security recipients, whereas Hamlet has been alive now for over 400 years. The bottom line is that I feel great affection for him, and in an excellent stage performance, his death can still bring me to tears, and I don’t cry easily.

Of course, not everyone likes Hamlet as a person, which makes sense given that he is multifaceted and possesses an abundance of flaws.

Here’s the critic, director, and playwright Charles Marowitz:

I despise Hamlet. He is a slob. A talker, an analyzer, a rationalizer. Like the parlor liberal or paralyzed intellectual, he can describe every facet of a problem, yet never pull his finger out. Is Hamlet a coward, as he himself suggests, or simply a poseur, a frustrated actor who plays the scholar, the courtier, and the soldier as an actor (a very bad actor) assumes a variety of roles to which he is not naturally suited? And why does he keep saying everything twice? And how can someone talk so pretty in such a rotten country given the sort of work he’s got cut out for himself? You may think he’s a sensitive, well-spoken, and erudite fellow, but, frankly, he gives me a pain in the ass.

“Sensitive, well-spoken, and erudite,” but also witty, Churchillian in his ability to instantaneously whip up a bon mot or devastating insult. For example, here’s Polonius confirming to Hamlet that he acted in the university.

LORD POLONIUS: 

I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed i’ the

Capitol. Brutus killed me.

HAMLET:

It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf
there. Be the players ready?

Here he is in so many words calling his “uncle-father” a piece of shit:

King Claudius: 

Now, Hamlet, where’s Polonius?

HAMLET

At supper.

KING CLAUDIUS

At supper! where?

HAMLET

Not where he eats, but where he is eaten: a certain
convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your
worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all
creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for
maggots: your fat king and your lean beggar is but
variable service, two dishes, but to one table:
that’s the end.

KING CLAUDIUS

Alas, alas!

HAMLET

A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a
king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.

KING CLAUDIUS

What dost you mean by this?

HAMLET

Nothing but to show you how a king may go a
progress through the guts of a beggar.

KING CLAUDIUS

Where is Polonius?

HAMLET

In heaven; send hither to see: if your messenger
find him not there, seek him i’ the other place
yourself. But indeed, if you find him not within
this month, you shall nose him as you go up the
stairs into the lobby.

KING CLAUDIUS

Go seek him there.

To some Attendants

HAMLET

He will stay till ye come.

“He will stay till ye come” could have come out of the mouth of James Bond.

To harken back to Bloom, how’s this for a 21st Century diagnostic catalogue of symptoms of depression delivered in the early 17th Century:

HAMLET:

I have of late, —but wherefore I know not, —lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though, by your smiling, you seem to say so.

I could go on and on, but the point is that multifaceted fictional characters and poetic personae can provide for us in times of trouble some solace. One of the great fortunes of my life was stumbling into a teaching job at Porter-Gaud School where by necessity I was forced to reread time and time again great works of literature that provided vicarious lessons in the wisdom of stoicism. As I have said elsewhere:

“What I discovered in Thebes and Elsinore and Yoknapatawpha is that suffering is universal. To quote Rick from Casablanca, “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”   In other words, suffering doesn’t make you special; it makes you human.”[2]


[1] Yes, I consider them people, people with complex inner worlds who change as they strut and fret through plot entanglements, finding at last (in most cases ) resolution, whether it be at their wedding or among the carnage of a corpse strewn stage. 

[2] “The Art of Grieving.”

A Malcontented Blogger Turns His Back on Aggression: Roman Empire/Super Bowl Edition

If ever an event exists that epitomizes Late Empire decadence, it’s the Super Bowl, the trashy teenage illegitimate daughter of Walt Disney and Joan Rivers.

First, there’s the obscenity of the salaries of these gladiators who essentially entertain us through ritualistic war, a string of overhyped “battles,” each becoming less memorable as the Roman numerals march on into Super Bowl oblivion.  Admittedly, it can be fun to watch these impressive specimens of predatory machismo smash into one another, sidestep tackles, propel perfect spirals, and make acrobatic diving fingertip grabs (though their inability to master the snap count can become tedious).[1] Nevertheless, you can’t help but wonder if the over-compensation for these essentially physical skills is indicative of some sort of skewed cultural atavism that harkens back to Spartacus.  Why, for example, does the secondary coach of the Baltimore Ravens, whoever he is, earn considerably more per annum than Pulitzer winning novelist Richard Ford?  Not to mention Deion Sanders[2] whose career earnings undoubtedly dwarf Cormac McCarthy’s, Toni Morrison’s, and Philip Roth’s combined?

Because our priorities are fucked-up perhaps?[3]

Can you guess which house belongs to Deion Sanders and which to Robert Frost?

Second, there’s the Roman circus of the halftime show, which began innocently enough in the late Sixties with marching bands, but now features antediluvian rockers like Steve Tyler and the Who or commercial hiphoppers like the Black-Eyed Peas.  These performances nearly always end up flat (Prince and Springsteen being exceptions) and occasionally can be painful to watch (Grandpa Jagger frenetically cavorting back and forth across the stage as if it were strewn with red hot coals).[4]  I’m far too lazy to research the cost of these extravaganzas, but I suspect we could coax the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn to meditate on the artificial turf at halftime for free, which would be more entertaining than 90% of the halftime shows I’ve suffered through.

Brittany Spears passing gas at the 2008 spectacle

What, may you ask, binds together all of these facets of this undeclared national holiday – the verbal jostling of the interminable lead-ins (Terry Bradshaw bickering with Howie Long) – the game itself, the outsized attempt at halftime entertainment, the pratfalls of the commercials?

Aggression, that’s what.  Aggression is what separates the winners from the losers, those who pay sticker price from those who browbeat the salesperson into surrender, those who claw their way to the top from those who rely on honor and integrity to guide their lives, those who bury their helmets into the runner’s chest from those who wanly attempt an arm tackle.

Aggression is what fuels capitalism, and sports is a wonderful training ground for aggression, from the bestial grunting of tennis players returning volleys to the narcissistic celebratory endzone fandangoes of wide receivers.  These gladiators are worshipped in their high schools and wooed by head coaches who during recruiting banter with mothers they would never actually associate with otherwise. No wonder most professional football players possess Caligula-sized egos. These mannish boys have clawed their way to fame and fortune (the latter thanks in part to their labor unions).  

Who can blame them for copping the Conan the Barbarian look?

Mike Roemer Photography Inc

[1] When I played junior varsity football for the mighty Summerville Green Wave, we were so collectively stupid that we could only go on “hut one.”

[2] I had the misfortune to share an elevator with Deion once, who exuded all of the warmth of a Secret Service agent as he avoided eye contact with the children asking for his autograph.

[3] Here’s a longish quote copped from Business Insider website that discusses one of the reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire: 

The richest 1 percent of the Romans during the early Republic was only 10 to 20 times as wealthy as an average Roman citizen. Now compare that to the situation in Late Antiquity when an average Roman noble of senatorial class had property valued in the neighborhood of 20,000 Roman pounds of gold. There was no “middle class” comparable to the small landholders of the third century B.C.; the huge majority of the population was made up of landless peasants working land that belonged to nobles. These peasants had hardly any property at all, but if we estimate it (very generously) at one tenth of a pound of gold, the wealth differential would be 200,000! Inequality grew both as a result of the rich getting richer (late imperial senators were 100 times wealthier than their Republican predecessors) and those of the middling wealth becoming poor.”

[4] To be fair, I saw the Stones in 2019, and they were terrific. The Supper Bowl performance was an aberration.

Frank Speaking

“Well, I try not to hope for too much [. . .] It puts pressure on the future at my age.  If you know what I mean.  Sometimes a hope’ll slip in when I’m not paying attention [. . .] That I’ll die before my wife does, for instance.  Or something about my kids.  It’s pretty indistinct.”

Frank Bascombe from Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank With You

Bill Walsh of Live-5 Weather

Bill Walsh of Live-5 Weather

It’s a bleak morning, the day before Thanksgiving. Last night on the side porch when I sensed a drop in temp, I boldly predicted that our tubby foppish weatherman Bill Walsh was wrong. The chill in the air meant that high pressure was pushing the dismal, life-negating, leaden, dripping sky turds out to sea and that we’d awake to blue skies and the possibility of the Moore/Birdsong nuclear family foursome enjoying a beer at my favorite meeting place, the open air bar known as Chico Feo, home of the $2 PBR, the $3 All Day IPA, home of homeless, Greg and Odie.

But I was wrong, and Bill was right. Today dawned — if you can even call it that — as bleak as ever — with low dark clouds scudding in the same direction as the river and a wind so strong it’s sloshing the water in the birdbath.

Despite the mournful weather, I’ve been enjoying the company of a very old friend, Frank Bascombe, the protagonist of what now are known as the “Frank Bascombe books” — The Sportswriter, Independence Day, The Lay of the Land, and Let Me Be Frank With You, the last a surprise gift from Judy Birdsong.

Richard Ford

Richard Ford

Although the phrase “Frank Bascombe Books” might suggest to the uninitiated tales of detection or spydom, these novels follow the quotidian life-journey of a once-promising fiction writer who turned to the easier craft of sportswriting but even abandoned that for the even easier money of real estate sales, at which he excelled. Their author, Richard Ford, like his protagonist, for a while worked as sportswriter, but praise be to whatever he didn’t give up fiction-writing for real estate. The second book in the Bascombe series, Independence Day, got him a Pulitzer and a Faulkner Pen award.

Now, in this latest book, a collection of four interrelated stories, Frank is 68, retired, and living in post-Sandy Haddam, New Jersey, a city name that conjures in the echo chamber of my juke-box-like mind Wallace Stevens’ great lines:

O thin men of Haddam,

Why do you imagine golden birds?

Do you not see the blackbird

Walks around the feet

Of the women about you?

imagesFrank Bascombe has taken Stevens’ advice about jettisoning the wanna-be for the what-is. He seeks to see things as they are, un-misted by sentiment. Here he is in the last story “The Death of Others” talking about simplifying his life:

Indeed for months now — and this may seem strange at my late moment in life (sixty-eight) — I’ve been trying to jettison as many friends as I can, and am frankly surprised more people don’t do it as a simple and practical means of achieving well-earned, late-in-the-game clarity. Lived life, especially once you hit adulthood, is always a matter of superfluity leading on to less-ness. Only (in my view) it’s a less-ness that’s as good as anything that’s happened before — plus it’s a lot easier.

In addition to paring down friendships, Frank is also eliminating certain words and phrases from his vocabulary, words that he believes “should no longer be usable – in speech or any form.” He continues, “Life’s a matter of gradual subtraction” and “a reserve of fewer, better words could help, I think, by setting an example for clearer thinking.”

Here are some of the words and phrases on the chopping block:

poop

friggin’

We’re pregnant

What’s the takeaway

awesome

no problem (as a substitute for thank-you)

soft landing

sibs

hydrate (when it means drink)

reach out

It’s been quite a pleasure growing old with Frank, who in The Sportswriter at 38 tried to overcome the death of his son Ralph by willing away irony but succumbed to what he calls dreaminess and the temptations of extra-marital embraces, which wrecks his marriage and to a lesser extent his writing career.

I’d call him a practical existentialist,* a nephew of good ol’ Binx Bolling from The Moviegoer. What I really love about Frank, though, is his voice, his way with words, how he expresses what I sometimes think so much better than I ever could, for example this description of a mealy-mouthed preacher — “Fike’s morning devotionals all have the tickle-your-funny-bone, cloyingly Christian pseudo-irreverence calculated to make God Almighty as just one of the boys” or this description of searing pain: “my neck had started zapping me, and I’d begun feeling the first burning-needles-prickle-stabs in the soles of my feet, sensations that now [. . .] had travelled all the way up my groinal nexus and begun shooting Apache Arrows into my poor helpless rectum.”

Alas, I’m afraid this book may be the last we hear from Frank, another notable subtraction from the subtractions that old age brings.

If so, so long, pal. It’s been great knowing you.


*I don’t look in mirrors anymore. It’s cheaper than surgery.