Tag Archives: Ralph Colp Jr.

a disservice to Walt Whitman

 

 

Walt Whitman – NY Times 9-14-2020

 

Whitman to John Addington Symonds

 

 

 

re:

“Walt Whitman, Poet of a Contradictory America: During the Civil War era, the writer emerged as an emblem of the country’s dissonance. Now, in the midst of another all-consuming national crisis, his work feels uncannily relevant.”

By Jesse Green

The New York Times

September. 14, 2020

 

 

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This article includes “pictures, the essay’s writer and T’s editors chose some of their favorite passages of Walt Whitman’s poetry — excerpted below as he published them in the 1891-92 edition of “Leaves of Grass” — which the photographer, stylist and models referenced to inspire the images, taken on July 24, 2020, at St. Josaphat’s Monastery in Glen Cove, N.Y.”

Take a look for yourself to see how tawdry and pitiful this is.

 

 

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The following are excerpts from the article, by Jesse Green, the Times’s co-chief theater critic. With thoughts/comments by me in ALL CAPS.

 

The 13-part newspaper series on manly health he wrote a few years earlier, in 1858, under the pseudonym Mose Velsor, is full of epigrammatic dictums — “the beard is a great sanitary protection to the throat” and “we have spoken against the use of the potato” — but for long passages comes off as unintentional gay porn.

Of course, so do long passages of his signed work.

GAY PORN? COME ON! I HAVE READ THE ENTIRE 1858 NEWSPAPER SERIES BY WHITMAN REFERRED TO. (IT WAS RECENTLY PUBLISHED IN BOOK FORM AS Manly Health and Training.) GREEN DELIBERATELY MISCHARACTERIZES THIS WORK OR ITS INTENTION.

 

 

Six years before the war, in June 1855, Whitman published the first edition of “Leaves of Grass,” a book of poems he would prune and shape, like a massive topiary, until his death in 1892 at the age of 72. That he believed it to be not just his masterpiece but America’s, and that America somehow came to agree, seems so wildly unlikely when you actually read it that the reading throws you into a time warp. Are we in classical Greece, as the antique cadences and references sometimes suggest? Adamic Eden? The Summer of Love in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury? Pre-Columbian America? Or tonight on Grindr? (Polar Bear, highly verbal, Masc4Masc.) Not many other masterpieces of the 19th century fill their pages with kisses among “camerados,” testicular gropes (“the sensitive, orbic, underlapp’d brothers”), hydrothermal ejaculations (“the pent-up rivers of myself”) and the scent of armpits “finer than prayer.” Even in the unlikely event that Whitman merely imagined such things, they have the authenticity of aspiration. You can see it in the portrait he chose for the frontispiece of the first edition: an engraving of the author with his hips, hat and eyebrows all cocked, with his lanky frame in a louche slouch that any gay man in Brooklyn Heights today (I live a quarter-mile from the printing house where it was typeset) would take as a welcome, a come-on, a song of himself.

TOTALLY UNJUSTIFIED INSINUATIONS/INFERENCES, “CRITICAL OBSERVATIONS” ABOUT LEAVES OF GRASS. THE REFERENCE TO ‘ANTIQUE CADENCES” SHOWS IGNORANCE. WHITMAN WANTED, CHOSE DELIBERATELY, TO AVOID ALL ECHOES OF CLASSICAL LITERATURE.

 

It is only as an icon of queerness that Whitman’s legacy is sometimes denied, as if gay people, rooting through the crypts of time, had dug up the wrong body. For decades, heterosexual critics commonly treated the homoerotic passages as metaphor or, like Harold Bloom, asserted that all those loving comrades were actually just platonic friends. (Bloom called Whitman’s sexuality “onanistic.”) And though it’s true (as Justin Kaplan tells us in “Walt Whitman: A Life,” his 1980 biography) that in old age the poet casually, even cruelly, dismissed an anguished acolyte’s plea to acknowledge the actual sex shadowing the metaphysical sex in his work — “morbid inferences,” he answered in an 1890 letter, “disavow’d” and “damnable” — that hasn’t stopped gay men since liberation from celebrating the truth for what it is and making Walt their poster boy. After all, how metaphysical can an erection be? (In the preface to the 1856 edition of “Leaves of Grass,” Whitman pledges to restore the “desires, lusty animations, organs, acts” that had been “driven to skulk out of literature with whatever belongs to them.”) Whether or not he sired six children, as he sometimes claimed, though none are known to have come knocking in search of a handout or benediction, they would not be dispositive anyway: Most homophile men have until recently also had wives and children — and Whitman called at least one of his likely young lovers “dear son.”

RE WHITMAN AS AN ICON OF QUEERNESS, SEE MY COMMENTS BELOW.

RE “In old age the poet casually, even cruelly, dismissed an anguished acolyte’s plea,” [ITALICS ADDED], THE LETTER OF WHITMAN TO AN ENGLISH ACOLYTE (JOHN ADDINGTON SYMONDS) IS PRESERVED IN DRAFT FORM — I.E., A DRAFT BY WHITMAN. SYMONDS’S LETTER (I.E., FROM WHITMAN TO HIM) HAS NOT BEEN PRESERVED APPARENTLY. (IT HAS NOT BEEN PUBLISHED.) I HAVE POSTED HERE (ABOVE) AS A WORD DOCUMENT MY TRANSCRIPTION OF WHITMAN’S DRAFT. TO CALL THE LETTER OR ITS TONE CRUEL AND TO SAY THAT IT AMOUNTED TO CASUAL DISMISSAL IS OVERREACH — TO SAY NOTHING OF BEING INACCURATE.

GREEN DID NOT STUDY WHITMAN’S DRAFT LETTER CLOSELY. HE LEARNED ABOUT IT FROM JUSTIN KAPLAN’S BIOGRAPHY OF WHITMAN. KAPLAN STATES THAT WHITMAN’S LETTER (DRAFT OF SAME) TO SYMONDS WAS “CALCULATINGLY CASUAL,” WHICH IS NOT THE SAME AS CASUAL. IN FACT, WHILE WHITMAN DID TRY TO KEEP THE TONE MEASURED, IT IS OBVIOUS HOW CAREFULLY HE DRAFTED THE REPLY. WHITMAN, IN WRITING TO SYMONDS, CLEARLY WAS ON THE SPOT, FELT DEFENSIVE. HE WRITES WITH RESERVE AND ISSUES A FIRM DENIAL. NOTHING LESS AND NOTHING MORE.

 

What he isn’t, at least at the time he went on his milk diet, nor during the years when he produced the first editions of “Leaves of Grass,” is amatively mature. “The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,” he admits in the same poem. “Many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word.” Despite their enthusiastic (and unquestionably transporting) wide-world embraces, these early writings often suggest high school aesthetes pining in diaries for high school athletes. They want more from others than they dare say directly.

THIS IS PSYCHOBABBLE TRIVIALIZING THE WORK OF A GREAT POET (AMERICA’S GREATEST), AS IF HE WERE THE WRITER OF LYRICS TO POP SONGS OR PERHAPS GRAPHIC NOVELS.

 

… his need for the “comradeship and sometimes affection” of stevedores, farmhands and omnibus drivers begins to make sense when you recognize that unresolved split in him. Here was a nascent voice of the common man but also a mama’s boy, theater buff and opera freak who shared elderberry wine with Oscar Wilde. Wobbling like an adolescent between wanting to possess the other and be him, Whitman — and, because he represented America, America — did not yet know what destiny held or how to find it. In that way, his diet was spiritual: a means of annealing his body for the great work ahead.

MORE JEJUNE PSYCHOBABBLE.

 

 

Whitman embodied cognitive dissonance. His freethinking coexisted with a lifelong project of self-editing, literal and otherwise, in service not just to his art but his ambition. “Leaves of Grass” was no less ruthlessly pruned and reshaped over the decades than his own public persona; he could not have become The Good Gray Poet without sanding down his pervy edges in deference to prejudices he may or may not have outgrown himself. It remains impossible to say whether his denial of gay affairs, like his denial of full personhood for Black and Indigenous people, was unexamined prejudice or savvy self-promotion.

“COGNITIVE DISSONANCE” … “PERVY EDGES”: MORE PSYCHOBABBLE AND DEMEANING WITH CANT.

 

 

How different he sounds from his contemporaries, even American ones, except for Emily Dickinson, whose similarly pioneering and proto-queer work would not become widely known until after her death in 1886.

NOTE THE SNARKY, CONFIDENT ASSERTION THAT EMILY DICKENSON’S POETRY WAS “PROTO-QUEER.” THIS IS MORE CUTE GLIBNESS. SERIOUS LITERARY SCHOLARS HAVE RECENTLY WRITTEN ESSAYS INVESTIGATING WHETHER EMILY DICKINSON HAD LONGINGS FOR WOMEN AND RELATIONSHIPS WITH THEM. IT MAY BE TRUE. IS IT PROVEN?

 

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My former therapist, Dr. Ralph Colp Jr. – a highly literate and well-read person and a scholar in his own right, how many MDs and psychiatrists or therapists can this be said of? – made two significant observations to me about Whitman. First, that gays were very eager to claim him as one of them, and that this reflected something gays tend to do. Second, that he (Dr. Colp) felt that Whitman handled questions about his sexual orientation very well – meaning discretion, not disclosing more than he wished to – as Whitman’s way of dealing with such inquiries.

A comment (responding to the Times article) that was posted on the Times site yesterday reads as follows:

Samuel, Denver

Sept. 15

It’s not that anything this article says is wrong. It’s just that because of the lens the writer writes through (proud gay) and the contextual pictures (over-expensive clothing), there is nothing quite right here either. Whitman celebrated sexuality — all sexual desires and behaviors — and he celebrated freedom, including the freedom to NOT be defined by any particular bent of those sexual desires. This is the exact opposite of modern gay movements, which insist on the definition of the self by one’s sexual preference. This is why Whitman denounced “an anguished acolyte’s [John Addington Symonds, not named by Green] plea” – because the acolyte got it wrong and wanted to pigeon-hole a man whose manifesto was freedom.

Whitman’s poetry isn’t gay. It’s pan-sexual, free to ever cross borders and return back — completely free of being defined by the preference of the moment. This sort of freedom is almost entirely unknown today in a world where people want to loudly define themselves by all sorts of preferences, and do not seek or admire the freedom that comes with refusing to be defined by one definition and embracing a multitude of possibilities. That is what Whitman continually did: he included everything in his self-definition; he “contained multitudes.”

As for the pictures with the article . . . really? How tone-deaf can you be?

I completely agree with Samuel. I don’t care whatsoever whether Whitman was gay or not. I think he probably was gay. But there is no conclusive proof. And, anyway, as I just said, I don’t care.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   September 16, 2020

the poet (Walt Whitman)

 

 

Walt Whtiman, from ‘Song of the Broad Axe’

 

 

His shape arises!
Arrogant, masculine, naive, rowdyish,
Laugher, weeper, worker, idler, citizen, country-man,
Saunterer of woods, stander upon hills, summer swimmer in
rivers or by the sea,
Of pure American breed, of reckless health, his body perfect,
free from taint from top to toe, free forever from headache
and dyspepsia, clean-breathed,
Ample-limbed, a good feeder, weight a hundred and eighty
pounds, full-blooded, six feet high, forty Inches round the
breast and back,
Countenance sun-burnt, bearded, calm, unrefined,
Reminder of animals, meeter of savage and gentleman on equal
terms,
Attitudes lithe and erect, costume free, neck open, of slow
movement on foot,
Passer of his right arm round the shoulders of his friends,
companion of the street,
Persuader always of people to give him their sweetest touches,
and never their meanest,
A Manhattanese bred, fond of Brooklyn, fond of Broadway, fond
of the life of the wharves and the great ferries,
Enterer everywhere, welcomed everywhere, easily understood
after all,
Never offering others, always offering himself, corroborating his
phrenology,
Voluptuous, inhabitive, combative, conscientious, alimentive,
intuitive, of copious friendship, sublimity, firmness, self-
esteem, comparison, individuality, form, locality, eventuality,
Avowing by life, manners, works, to contribute illustrations of
results of The States,
Teacher of the unquenchable creed, namely, egotism,
Inviter of others continually henceforth to try their strength
against his.

 

— Walt Whitman, “Song of the Broad-Axe” (1856 version)

 

 

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For a discussion of this passage — and of Whitman’s brilliant use of –er nouns, formed from adding suffixes to verbs — see James Perrin Warren, Walt Whitman’s Language Experiment (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990), pp. 56-57,

Note Whitman’s genius in creating his own “grammar” in which the repetition of these nouns functions to create what the Whitman scholar Gay Wilson Allen* (drawing upon the work of the Italian scholar Pasquale Jannaccone, in his La Poesìa di Walt Whitman e L’Evoluzione delle Forme Ritmìche) calls “grammatical and logical rime.”

 

*Gay Wilson Allen, Walt Whitman Handbook (Packard and Company, 1946), pg. 408

 

 

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My former therapist, Dr. Ralph Colp. Jr. said, exclaimed, to me once, that Walt Whitman was a wonderful, a marvelous, PERSON. How true. How much I would like to be able to say I partook of some of these personal qualities.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   August 2020

the true intellectual …

 

 

 

Something brought the following thought to the forefront of my consciousness this morning.

That the true intellectual knows his or her strengths and weaknesses.

I would imagine that this is true of people in other fields — say, an actor or athlete whom everyone raves about, who knows better than anyone else what they excel at and what their weaknesses are — what they can and can’t do, so to speak.

Relatives — which is to say, people who know me well — have often accused me, unfairly, of braggadocio in my writings, in these posts.

 

 

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I was thinking this morning about intellectuals and writers I have known personally.

I became a close friend of Charles Pierre, a New York poet and author of five books of poetry, in my early days in New York. There was a meeting of minds, and there were many deep discussions. From Charlie, I learned much about poetry, and how little I knew. I also learned that some people are more well read than me. His reading was prodigious, deep, and wide in scope: poetry, classic and contemporary (I had never head of Hart Crane, Frank O’Hara, or John Ashbery); classical and modem fiction; and philosophy. There was no way I could ever match his knowledge of poetry. Or of contemporary literature, including the avant-garde and the poets who were reading their works in the bars of Manhattan at Sunday poetry readings. I had dipped into James Joyce’s Ulysses. Charlie was reading it when we were first becoming acquainted, assiduously.

He gave me a learned, extemporaneous “lecture” in one of our chats on the “Oxen of the Sun” episode. He told me about his admiration for the poetry of the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (whom he was reading at the time) and how difficult it was to translate poetry. About what he thought the best translations of Dante (whom I had never read) were. About the Roman poet Sextus Propertius (whom I had never heard of) and Juvenal’s satires. About how much he admired the Romanian philosopher and essayist Emil Cioran (whom I had also never heard of).

And, then there was my therapist, Ralph Colp Jr. MD. I was a history major. Dr. Colp (doctor, scholar, and writer) was a walking encyclopedia. His knowledge of history was encyclopedic; his mastery and recall of the facts near total. He put me to shame. He caught me in faux pas, such as placing Frederick the Great in the wrong century.

And, yet, Dr. Colp once said to me, “There are great gaps in my knowledge,” by which he meant his knowledge in general (his book learning). He had the humility of a true intellectual.

Guess what. So do I.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    May 6, 2020

new post: “I am my own best editor and critic.”

 

 
Please see my new post:

 

“I am my own best editor and critic.”

 

on my rogers-rhetoric site, at
I am my own best editor and critic.

 

 
It is of general and biographical interest, along with the focus on writing.

 

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    April 2020

“the four things that no human being can endure” (a question to answer which was torturing me)

 

 

 

Roger W. Smith email to Sherwood Waldron, MD, February 20, 2017

Dear Dr. Waldron,

I am a writer living in Queens, NYC.

I hope this query is not a nuisance.

I am trying to find the answer to a question that has been torturing me.

I was seeing a therapist, Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr., in Manhattan over a long period of time. Dr. Colp passed away in 2008.

I tend to remember practically everything Dr. Colp said, word for word. That was the value his words and observations had for me.

But, I can’t quite remember one thing he told me. We were talking about my experience of loneliness, and how I had managed to overcome it.

Dr. Colp said to me, quoting some well known psychoanalyst or writer (I think it was a psychoanalyst), that there were four (?) things that no one — no human being — can stand or endure: loneliness, anxiety (?), and _________.

I can’t recall the source of the quote. I doubt it was Freud, because I would have remembered it if this were the case. It was probably someone more recent whose works Dr. Colp was acquainted with.

I have Googled the quote to no avail. I thought it might have been Alfred Adler, Erich Fromm, or Harry Stack Sullivan.

It could have been Abraham Maslow, but I don’t recall that Dr. Colp mentioned him. It seems I would have remembered, since I knew of Maslow, who taught at Brandeis University when I was a student there. Maslow said similar things.

It could have been Erik Erikson. But, again, it seems that I would have remembered.

Others who come to mind:

Bruno Bettelheim

Rollo May

Schopenhauer

Karl Menninger

It could have been the psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom, who wrote about “ultimate existential concerns,” namely death freedom isolation, and meaninglessness.

Would you have any idea where the quote might have come from, or how I might go about researching or inquiring about it?

 

 

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Sherwood Waldron MD email to Roger W. Smith, February 20, 2017

Sorry, I don’t recognize the quote.

 

 

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Roger W. Smith email to Sherwood Waldron MD,  January 31, 2020

Dear Dr. Waldron,

I do not expect you to reply to this email unless you wish to.

However, since you were kind enough to reply to me (almost three years ago), I now know (through my persistence) where the passage Dr. Colp was referring to came from.

It is in the works of Irvin D. Yalom, reprinted in The Yalom Reader (Basic Books, 1998), pp. 172-173. What I recalled was that there were four ultimate concerns that Dr. Colp spoke of: they are (Yalom’s four concerns) existential conditions faced by all persons that if not faced inspire dread. One of the four existential concerns is isolation (which I recalled as aloneness, which is the same thing. but I wasted a lot of time Googling using the wrong words).

I am certain that Dr. Colp was familiar with Dr. Yalom’s works — given that he often purchased books from this publisher and that he and Dr. Yalom published, at least once, articles in the same issue of the same journal, Free Associations: Psychoanalysis and Culture, Media, Groups, Politics.

 

Sincerely,

Roger W. Smith

 
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THE ULTIMATE CONCERNS OF HUMAN LIFE

 

Existential therapy is a dynamic approach to therapy which focuses on concerns that are rooted in the individual’s existence.

 

[T]he primary concerns are deeply buried, encrusted with layer upon layer of repression, denial, displacements, and symbolization.”

The existential position emphasizes a conflict that flows from the individual’s confrontation with the givens of existence.

 

 

This book deals with four ultimate concerns: death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. The individual’s confrontation with each of these facts of life constitutes the content of the existential dynamic conflict.

Death The most obvious, the most easily apprehended ultimate concern is death. We exist now, but one day we shall cease to be. Death will come, and there is no escape from it. It is a terrible truth, and we respond to it with mortal terror. “Everything,” in Spinoza’s words, “endeavors to persist in its own being”;’ and a core existential conflict is the tension between the awareness of the inevitability of death and the wish to continue to be.

Freedom Another ultimate concern, a far less accessible one, is freedom. Ordinarily we think of freedom as an unequivocally positive concept. Throughout recorded history has not the human being yearned and striven for freedom? Yet freedom viewed from the perspective of ultimate ground is riveted to dread. In its existential sense “freedom” refers to the absence of external structure. Contrary to everyday experience, the human being does not enter (and leave) a well-structured universe that has an inherent design. Rather, the individual is entirely responsible for–that is, is the author of–his or her own world, life design, choices, and actions. “Freedom,” in this sense, has a terrifying implication: it means that beneath us there is no ground-nothing, a void, an abyss. A key existential dynamic, then, is the clash between our confrontation with groundlessness and our wish for ground and structure.

Existential Isolation A third ultimate concern is isolation-not in­terpersonal isolation with its attendant loneliness, or intrapersonal isolation (isolation from parts of oneself), but a fundamental isolation–an isolation both from creatures and from world–which cuts beneath other isolation. No matter how close each of us becomes to another, there remains a final, unbridgeable gap; each of us enters existence alone and must depart from it alone. The existential conflict is thus the tension between our awareness of our absolute isolation and our wish for contact, for protection, our wish to be part of a larger whole.

Meaninglessness A fourth ultimate concern, or given, of existence is meaninglessness. If we must die, if we constitute our own world, if each is ultimately alone in an indifferent universe, then what meaning does life have? Why do we live? How shall we live? If there is no preor­dained design for us, then each of us must construct our own meanings in life. Yet can a meaning of one’s own creation be sturdy enough to bear one’s life? This existential dynamic conflict stems from the dilemma of a meaning-seeking creature who is thrown into a universe that has no meaning.

 

— from Irving D. Yalom, “The Four Ultimate Concerns,” Essential Therapy; The Introduction; reprinted in The Yalom Reader (Basic Books, 1998), pp. 169-173

 

 

 

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Persistence, doggedness pay off in research.

I never give up.

My wife often says, “You can find ANYTHING.”

My former therapist, Dr. Colp, an independent scholar, used to ask me to do research for him pro bono. I used to wonder, was it his way of sort of exacting payment in kind to make up for his very low fees? Sometimes the research was very tedious. But, I told him that I was flattered to be asked.

The questions he asked me to research were never easy ones. They were minuscule things which he couldn’t find the answer to. Such as who wrote a certain poem that Charles Darwin knew of because he liked a song  composed by Sir Arthur Sullivan in which the lyrics of the poem had been set to music? It was some Victorian poet. I found the answer to that one (Adelaide Procter).

And, who was the author of a bestselling women’s novel that Darwin liked? I never did find the answer. The novel (entitled The Fair Carew) was published anonymously, and it appears that even to this day the author’s identity has never been discovered. (Doctor Colp read the novel in a library in London during a visit there.)

 

 

— posted by Roger W Smith

   March 2020

“we are literally nothing …”

 
“Two of the great poverties of modern psychological thought, it seems to me, are its inability to see human beings related to other forms of life: flowers, water, leaves, mountains, etc., and its failure to affirm that we are literally nothing without family and loved ones.”

 

 

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The above words were written by a poet whom I befriended in my mid-twenties, in a letter to one of his friends. He had sent his friend a copy of his first book of poetry, along with his own commentary on references and allusions in the poems; and a brief account of their major themes.

He was very well read — steeped in literature classic and contemporary — and seemed to have read all the poets and modern philosophers.

A deep thinker, and he rarely wasted words, much as was the case with my former therapist, Dr. Colp.

 
Roger W. Smith

   February 2020

“Faith Healing”; “Indian Culture”; review of “Mayor” by Edward I. Koch (three journalism school papers by Roger W. Smith)

 

 

Faith Healing

 

Indian Culture

 

review of ‘Mayor’

 

 

I wrote these three papers in 1986-1987 for courses in the Graduate School of Journalism at New York University. The topics, which I chose, were “Faith Healing” and “Indian Culture,” for an introductory reporting course; and a review of Mayor Edward I. Koch’s book Mayor, for a course in city reporting. It should be noted that the second paper was on American Indian culture; the term Native American did not seem to be widely used then.

In any profession or avocation where skill is required, no instruction or practice is ever wasted. This was true of these assignments. And, they were interesting ones.

 

 

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A few additional comments.

I had some vague acquaintance with spiritual or faith healing as something that had become popular, but no prior experience of it as a participant or observer. My friend Bill Dalzell, who was interested in charismatic religion, had told me about father Ralph DiOrio, the healing priest, whose home base was in Massachusetts. My friend Bill believed in the psychic or mystical as they apply to the real world and to the body. I believe that he attended one of Father DiOrio’s healing masses.

The healing mass that I attended was on a Friday evening in Bayonne, New Jersey. I called ahead to ask if I could attend the service in a reportorial capacity. I was told that I was welcome to. But, on that evening, at the mass, the priest seemed almost angry that I was there; he was not willing to be interviewed.

The parishioner whom I interviewed for my story, Sal, was a truly nice guy. He was very willing to talk, eager to tell his story. He was with his wife, who let Sal do the talking.

Sal said we should talk in a pew in the back, which we did, he speaking very softly, quietly, presumably because he didn’t want to disturb the service.

In my Monday morning therapy session, I told my therapist, Dr. Colp, all about the healing mass. Dr. Colp, the man of reason and science–he was a non-practicing Jew — was very interested. He did not scoff at what Sal (as I told him) had to say. He said there was reason to believe that what Sal had to say about healing masses having resulted in the remission of his cancer might be valid. This was consistent with Dr. Colp’s envisioning a day when “more is learned about the mind-body interaction,” as he put it in his book To Be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin.

 

 

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The only interview I conducted in person for my story about American Indian culture was with Yvonne Beemer, a Cherokee Indian about my age who lived in New York City. The rest of my interviewing was done by phone.

I never had met a Native American person before.

I did meet one other Native American person by chance once, shortly thereafter, at a wake. He was a Mohawk who worked in high steel with one of my wife’s relatives, who was a rigger. His first name was Joe, and his coworkers–this was in the 1950s when such things would not have been thought (which they now would be) derogatory or insulting–called him Indian Joe.

My wife made a point of introducing us. Joe (whose last name I was not told) was very receptive to conversation. I was getting into it and was eager to talk with him, but an officious busybody relative of the deceased who was at the wake interrupted us about something stupid and ruined the conversation. (I had read Joseph Mitchell’s New Yorker article “The Mohawks in High Steel” and all or part of Edmund Wilson’s Apologies to the Iroquois.)

I also read (mostly skimmed), with great interest (with regard to the parts of the book I read), a book which I purchased at the Museum of Natural History: Lewis Henry Morgan’s magnificent and groundbreaking study League of the Iroquois. I believe that all this reading came after I wrote the journalism school paper.

The major influence on me, what stimulated my interest in American Indian culture (especially Iroquois culture), was the works of Francis Parkman, which I read in their entirety in the mid-1980s before attending journalism school–particularly Parkman’s The Jesuits in North America, which was a fully engrossing and stark narrative: what the Jesuits experienced, suffered, and went through in Canada. The nobility and ultimately tragic futility of their endeavor seems to be mostly unappreciated and largely forgotten.

 

 

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I enjoyed Mayor Koch’s book. And I liked the mayor. For his feisty personality and as a quintessential New Yorker, though I didn’t necessarily or always agree with his politics.

Some fifteen or twenty years ago, I was walking at midday during lunch hour on a gravel path in Bryant Park, right behind the New York Public Library. Oddly at that hour, there was no one else on the pathway; the park was quiet.

A man was walking in the opposite direction, towards me. Our paths crossed. It was Mayor Koch. He was retired then.

We made eye contact, with Mayor Koch looking at me, for a moment, inquisitively or intently. I felt certain that he knew that I knew who he was.

We were not that close distance-wise (something — as a factor in human interaction — that the anthropologist Edwin T. Hall brilliantly studied in his book The Hidden Dimension), but we were close enough, as I have said, to make eye contact, and Koch gave me a friendly and inquisitive look as if he found or conceived of me to be an interesting person. I should have said, “hello, Mr. Mayor.”

 

 

— Roger W Smith

   February 2020

 

 

 

Scan (2)

frontispiece, Francis Parkman, “The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century”; France and England in North America, Volume Two (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1910)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

an intellectual adventure

 

 

“My father never judged people by what they wore, how much they earned or what school they attended. He wanted to know if someone was an intellectual. By that, he meant someone who read books and thought about ideas. That was his kind of person.”

— Judith Colp Rubin, eulogy for Ralph Colp Jr., MD, November 2008

 

 

i In my first two brief therapy sessions with Dr. Ralph Colp Jr. at Columbia University, he asked me some standard questions for a psychiatric interview and I shared with him in general some of the problems and anxieties I was having, such as feelings of frustration in dating and romantic relationships and with my job.

In our third session, I said something which I can’t recall precisely — something along the lines of I am not just a bored, frustrated office worker living a life of quiet desperation; I have a rich intellectual life.

“Tell me about them,” he said. (I seen to recall that I had mentioned books.)

I told Dr. Colp that I was reading Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection and — as has been the case with me through my life; there are books that come along, so to speak, that overwhelm me — about how Resurrection overwhelmed me on so many levels: the story, the writing; the underlying moral and human questions addressed. I think I said something to him about how I had always thought that I would be likely to prefer Dostoevsky (whom I had already read) to Tolstoy, and here I was bowing at the altar of Tolstoy.

As was usual, Dr. Colp did not say all that much. But he was never a passive listener, never cold, bored, or indifferent (He was simply reserved and very thoughtful.) I could tell that this “disclosure” by me had him thoroughly engaged and was giving him a truer picture and appreciation of me. It was another level for us to connect deeply on: the intellectual or “thought” sphere.

A few sessions later, I said something to Dr. Colp that I knew he appreciated very much as feedback. I could see and sense it. I told him, “I can feel the interest [in me, his as a therapist] on your part. That in itself, that alone, is therapeutic.”

 

 

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Dr. Colp’s whole life was that of an intellectual. I realize now, at this stage of my life, that this is now, and has always been, true of me. It has given my life meaning and purpose, and whatever achievements or value it has involved or amounted to.

At some point, much later, I told Dr. Colp that I had been reading Samuel Johnson’s essays and that they were a revelation for me: the depth of penetrating insight, the practical wisdom that one could take away from them. (Dr. Colp once complimented me with having the gift of “rapid insight.”)

Dr. Colp belonged to a reading group. He told me that my comments about Johnson were illuminating. He said that a man in his reading group had once said, “The only reason that Johnson is of any interest is the book Boswell wrote about him.”

I told Dr. Colp that (I had already read Boswell’s biography, about which I had talked at length with Dr. Colp) Johnson’s own writings assuredly were well worth reading.

“I guess he was wrong,” Dr. Colp said of the past remark. He always welcomed the opportunity to learn something new.
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I told Dr. Colp once, ruefully, that I had bought quite a few expensive books, including multivolume sets of the works of writers such as Whitman and Parkman. (And a multivolume set: The British Empire Before the American Revolution by Lawrence Henry Gipson, which I still have not gotten around to reading. Dr. Colp told me that he had been told that it was a great read). I felt rueful because I had “overbought” and would probably never be getting around to reading most of the books. My appetite was bigger than what I could consume.

“You’ll get around to reading them,” Dr. Colp said emphatically. I wondered if that was true, but I felt better about my indulgences.

 

 

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Right now, I am having a sort of intellectual adventure. I love to map out such intellectual endeavors for myself, and then try to follow through on them. I am reading Samuel Johnson’s works in the Yale Edition. They are splendid books, superbly edited and annotated, and beautifully produced. There are twenty-three volumes, of which I own all but two.

I probably won’t read them all. I have already read, in their entirety or in part, Johnson’s Diaries, Prayers, and Annals, his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, many of the essays (which are a must), a portion of his Lives of the Poets, and other miscellaneous writings by Johnson.

Johnson is, I would suspect, not in fashion nowadays, and his style is often said to be dated. His political views would probably be regarded as retrograde. He has typically been portrayed as a stodgy Tory conservative, if not an arch-conservative. This is simplistic and amounts to making Johnson a caricature (as Boswell has been accused of having done.) Books such as Donald Greene’s The Politics of Samuel Johnson (which I have read) demonstrate this. I think it is more accurate to say that Johnson was a contrarian who hated political cant and what today might be called liberal smugness.

 

 

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So why go through this self-appointed intellectual task, this “journey” of plowing through Johnson’s works? Because there is so much to be learned — so much that I am learning as we speak — from him, both from his writings, the excellence of which I can only hope to emulate; and his deep thoughts, which cause me, in the words of Charles Darwin (Dr. Colp’s alter ego), to “think energetically.”

The other books can wait.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   January 2020

Roger W. Smith, “thoughts about reading”

 

 

 

‘thoughts about reading’

 

 

“I seek in books only to give myself pleasure by honest amusement; or if I study, I seek only the learning that treats of the knowledge of myself and instructs me to die well and live well.”

 

— Michel de Montaigne, “of books” (The Complete Essays, translated by Donald M. Frame)

 

 

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“Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. … as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye. … a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

 

Areopagitica: A speech of Mr John Milton for the liberty of unlicenced printing to the Parliament of England

 

 

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I am very desirous to receive letters from You, and hope You will write to me very freely, both about your brother [Charles Cornelius Chambers] and yourself. Pray tell me very particularly the title of every book that You have read at school and every thing that You have learnt since You went thither. Tell me also what books or parts of books You have read for your pleasure, and what plays or exercises You and Charles are fondest of. For my part, when I was of your age, I was fonder of reading Robinson Crusoe and the Seven Champions of Christendom, than I was of any kind of play whatsoever; and, as I suppose that You may probably have the same taste, I have ordered those books and some others to be sent to You.

— Sir Robert Chambers, letter to his son Robert Joseph Chambers, February 12, 1790; in Thomas M. Curley: Sir Robert Chambers: Law Literature and Empire in the Age of Johnson (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998). pg. 516. (Chambers, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal, India, was then residing in Calcutta, and his sons Robert and Joseph in England. The Famous Historie of the Seaven Champions of Christendom was a late-sixteenth, early seventeenth-century romance by the English writer Richard Johnson.)

 

 

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Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? … They are for nothing but to inspire. … Books are for the scholar’s idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings. But when the intervals of darkness come, as come they must,—when the soul seeth not, when the sun is hid and the stars withdraw their shining,—we repair to the lamps which were kindled by their ray, to guide our steps to the East again, where the dawn is. We hear, that we may speak. …

It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us ever with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads. We read the verses of one of the great English poets, of Chaucer, of Marvell, of Dryden, with the most modern joy,–with a pleasure, I mean, which is in great part caused by the abstraction of all time from their verses. There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had well-nigh thought and said. …

I would not be hurried by any love of system, by any exaggeration of instincts, to underrate the Book. We all know that as the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed by any knowledge. And great and heroic men have existed who had almost no other information than by the printed page. I only would say that it needs a strong head to bear that diet. One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.

 

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar” (an address delivered in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1837 before the Harvard Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society)

 

 

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“I have been passing my time very pleasurably here [at his father-in-law’s home in Boston] … chiefly in lounging on a sofa … & reading Shakespeare. It is an edition in glorious great type, every letter whereof is a soldier, & the top of every “t” like a musket barrel.”

 

— Herman Melville, letter to Evert A. Duyckinck, February 24, 1849

 

 

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My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; … Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind. …

It is not all books that are as dull as their readers. There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.

 

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods

 

 

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Is Literature forever to propose no higher object than to amuse? to just pass away the time & stave off ennui? — Is it never to be the courageous wrestle with live subjects — the strong gymnasia of the mind — must it offer only things easy to understand as nature never does. [italics added]

 

— note, probably late 1850’s, by Walt Whitman; in Walt Whitman: Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, Volume IV: Notes, edited by Edward F. Grier (New York University Press 1984), pg. 1561

 

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“Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half-sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay–the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame­work”

 

— Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas

 

 

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“I was not an omnivorous reader–just a slow, idle, rambling one.”

 

— Theodore Dreiser, A Hoosier Holiday, Chapter XXXIX

 

 

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“Read, read, read. Read everything–trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.”

 

— William Faulkner, Statement at the University of Mississippi, 1947

 

 

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And then there was his book collection which numbered well into the thousands. Those books, mostly on the history of the fascinating period of his youth including the Spanish Civil War, Stalinism and World War II, were his sacred texts. He brought several tomes with him on his honeymoon in Mexico, much to my mother’s chagrin. He never let anyone read or even touch them. Their presence in every room meant that the apartment could never be painted or properly cleaned. I alternatively worshipped and loathed them, but they influenced me greatly.

 

— “A Jew without a burial site,” by Judith Colp Rubin [an essay about her father, Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr.], The Times of Israel, August 30, 2018

 

 

 

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Books are one of the most important and fulfilling things in my life.

I recall the pleasure long since past, when I was a boy, of curling up with a book, often at bedtime, just before going to sleep. I recall vividly a particular rainy day when I seem to recall we were in some remote location, perhaps a rented summer place. I spent a good part of the afternoon with a book, and felt so warm and cozy, sheltered from the elements.

I used to love that I was allowed to go to the Cambridge Public Library by myself after school when I was in the early grades. It was a rather long walk. I loved being in the children’s room, finding books, and being able to check them out by myself. There was a feeling of ownership and pride, of excitement in discovery, of being able to decide what you yourself wanted to read.

I loved receiving books as gifts. My parents and relatives were thoughtful gift-givers when it came to books. (I myself seem have inherited this. I have often had someone tell me, how did you know I would like this book, and this has occurred with people I don’t know well. Once I wanted to show appreciation to an editor with the gift of a book. She was thrilled to get the particular book I chose. It was not one, though I knew it was regarded as excellent, that I myself would have desired to read.)

I still love to curl up with a book. They are always there for me. They comfort me and are a solvent for boredom, idleness, and lonely hours.

 

 

 

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My home is filled with books, much as was the case with my former therapist, Ralph Colp, Jr. I have run out of bookshelf space. I have tried to impose some order so that I can find a book. Those on shelves are fairly well organized by broad subject areas and authors.

Dr. Colp told me there was nothing like having a book-lined study. Of having a book on the shelf there when you want it. Of being able to survey, take stock, of the riches there. He quoted to me what Edward Gibbon wrote: “My early and invincible love of reading I would not exchange for all the riches of India.”

Dr. Colp’s consulting office was lined with books, but he told me that this was only a small fraction — most were in his living quarters. He had run out of shelf space and some of the books in his consulting office were on the floor in tall piles. “What do you do when you want a book on the bottom of the pile?” I said to him once. “It seems to me that that would present a problem.”

“You’re right,” he said.

This was at a point in my therapy sessions when Dr. Colp had moved to a co-op in which he had an office and an apartment (his living quarters) on the same floor. Prior to that, I had been seeing him in a suite of offices he shared with another therapist, where there were few books. The first time I visited him in his new office, he spent the whole session showing me his books: a first edition of Darwin, for example. We never got to the session (therapy, that is) — he seemed unaware of time and was carried away by showing me the contents of his bookshelves.

 

 

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What makes a good reader? And why is reading important?

The answers seem to a large extent to be self-evident and, yet, they are questions I enjoy thinking about. Below are some thoughts of my own about reading. A description of my own reading habits. And, my advice to readers. In no particular order.

 

 

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The foundation of reading, like any pastime, should be pleasure, that you enjoy it. If you have a good experience with a good book, a great work of literature, you will want to repeat the experience. I experienced this, for example, with the following books which I read in my youth and my teens: Ben Franklin of Old Philadelphia (a young adult book; sixth grade); Anna Sewall’s Black Beauty (sometime in my elementary school years); Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season (a book about baseball; read by me in high school); Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (high school); and Pitirim A. Sorokin’s Leaves from a Russian Diary (in late adolescence), to name just a few. All were books that totally engrossed me; or, as the cliché goes, I couldn’t put them down.

A former friend of mine, the poet Charles Pierre, said to me that one should make it a point to read books expeditiously — don’t take forever to read them. You would not (although the analogy is not quite exact), for example, want to watch an opera over several evenings. This seems right, but I often violate the rule.

I want to read substantial, deep books that challenge me, fully engage me in deep thought. I get great pleasure from reading, but I do not read for pleasure in the sense of escapism (“literary” junk food).

I have found from the experience of a lifetime that I would rather travel mentally through reading books than travel in the literal sense. Reading a good book — say, a long novel — is akin to me to taking a trip, being on a journey. War and Peace, Moby-Dick, Les Misérables, Great Expectations.

You must be willing to submit yourself to a book, give yourself over to it, get lost in it. This happened to me with Moby-Dick. A critic once called it “a whale of a book.” Well, I devoured every part of it, including the cetology. I was totally wrapped up in it and Melville: the story, the whaling lore, Melville’s tone and style, the Elizabethan or Shakespearean ethos, the beauty of the narrative and descriptive passages.

Effort and stamina are required to get though a long book, including the great ones. But if the experience is worth it, curiosity and motivation (as well as pleasure) keep you going. This happened to me with Moby-Dick. It took me about three weeks to read it, in a copy borrowed from the public library that had wide margins and nice big type. During free time once, I was reading it on the steps of an open space in Midtown Manhattan. A man about my age with his girlfriend approached and, noting what I was reading, asked me if it was for a course. No, I said, I was reading it for myself. This, he plainly showed, pleased him.

I read deliberately and slowly because I want to get everything I can out of a book. (Speed reading to me is almost an oxymoron.) A good reader is an active reader. I am very engaged when I read and am anything but a passive reader. I am continually asking myself, what do I think about the thoughts expressed and the writer, and am constantly trying to “extrapolate,” in a sense, ideas and information to ruminate upon.

A book is not merely an inanimate thing waiting to be read. Reading is an experience like any other, say a personal or romantic relationship. What one gets out of a book — the experience of reading it – depends both upon what the book offers and what you, the reader, invest in it, the energy level, enthusiasm, discernment, and attentiveness of the reader.

 

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The books of most famous writers, invariably serious readers, usually contain marginalia. I no longer make marginal notes, but I do take notes quoting passages that I want to remember and/or be able to refer to. My “marginalia” nowadays consist of typed notes which I email to myself.

Authors whom I enjoy and references within a book to other works often lead me to other books. I always have a mental inventory of books waiting to be read.

Introductions should be read after — not before — the work itself. I want to form my own impressions — make my own judgments — without being influenced or prejudiced by an introduction. This seems to be most true of fiction. I often find introductions to be well written and very informative. But, first, I want to “meet” the author, with no one telling me what I will find or what to expect. It’s like meeting a new person.

To be ready for a book, say a classic novel, you have to be in the right frame of mind. This has happened to me with many classics. At some point — often this is the case — I feel the urge to read them. There are classics that did not engage me or that I did not understand or appreciate at some point in my life which I pick up later and am thoroughly engaged by. A good example is Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It’s not the kind of novel I would ordinarily read. I tried reading it once not that long ago when perhaps I was just not in the mood. It seemed like a not particularly well written and overrated work. For some reason, I picked it up again recently and was able not only to finish it, but to fully appreciate Shelley’s genius.

Something very similar happened to me with Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I could not get through in college but read years later with great enjoyment.

One should read for as short or long a time as one likes. As for the best “reading position,” I sprawl, read in a reclining position. Dr. Colp read sitting upright behind his office desk, where he did all his intellectual work. I have never been much inclined to read (as opposed to doing research) in libraries.

I have found that the ability to read and focus on non-trivial reading material such as literature and expository or scholarly writing is a reliable measure or barometer of mental health. For me, at least. Meaning, that when I can’t focus enough to read, I am usually mentally troubled, in an agitated frame of mind.

As regards scholarly books — reading for the sake of learning — a deep, scholarly, and (hopefully) engrossing book, by someone who knows more than I do about a subject, I am very willing to submit to instruction, tutelage, by a scholar. In line with what I have just said, such reading seems to put me in a calm, deliberative, objective state — “in neutral,” so to speak. It enables me to get outside of myself mentally, to put aside self-absorption and the concerns of the moment. It is truly a matter of expanding one’s horizons.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2019

 

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See also my post:

 

“my treasured books”

 

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/02/11/roger-w-smith-my-treasured-books/

My posts on Ralph Colp, Jr., Norman F. Cantor, and Eiji Mizutani have been updated.

 

 

 

The following posts of mine – each of them a tribute to a deceased person I admired — have been updated by me:

 

 
Roger W. Smith, ‘tribute to Ralph Colp, Jr., MD”

 

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/02/16/tribute-to-ralph-colp-jr-md/

 

 

 

my history professor, Norman F. Cantor

 

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/06/13/norman-f-cantor/

 

 

 

Roger W. Smith, “Reminiscence of Eiji Mizutani” (ロジャーW.スミス、「水谷栄二さんを偲んで」)

 

https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/08/18/xxxx-roger-w-smith-reminscence-of-eiji-mizutani-%E3%83%AD%E3%82%B8%E3%83%A3%E3%83%BCw-%E3%82%B9%E3%83%9F%E3%82%B9%E3%80%81%E3%80%8C%E6%B0%B4%E8%B0%B7%E6%A0%84%E4%BA%8C%E3%81%95/

 

 

To each post, I have added  communiqués I received from relatives of the deceased. It was an oversight on my part not to have done this before.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    June 2019