Imposing the rigor of exactitude

— Photo by William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress Music Division

“In her presence on those tranquil nights it was possible to experience the depths of her disbelief, to feel sometimes the mean, horrible freedom of a thorough suspicion of destiny,” Elizabeth Hardwick wrote of Billie Holiday.

During Mel Brooks’s revelatory interview with Conan O’Brien on Conan’s spectacular TBS series “Serious Jibber-Jabber,” the two comics start talking about the comedic greats of 20th-Century America and quickly agree that comedy and Jew(ish) were one. (Any soul into comedy knows it’s true.)

But then Mel turns wistful, sounding like someone who lost something or hadn’t measured up to expectations.

He tells Conan that, when it comes to putting words down on paper, nobody beats the Irish. “Between Juno and the Peacock or Sean O’Casey, just between Beckett and maybe Yeats,” he goes, “I mean when I discovered that these were all Irish writers, James Joyce, the best fucking writers in the world ….”

But then he adds that, when he saw that none of those great writers “was a Jew, I just had a nervous breakdown ... I cried for about a month.”

It’s a most interesting cultural statement but this is no time to psychoanalyze Mel Brooks. Suffice it to say he said the Irish have a way with words and put them down on paper well. He called them “the best fucking writers in the world …. ”

Conan — whose face is the map of Ireland — shows reverence for Mel throughout the interview, despite disparities, working with the advantage of a cultural overview. (Parenthetically, neither mentions that, when the Irish start with that sweet Gaelic lilt of theirs, they’re spinning a web, often of Brigadoon. The truth must be ferreted out.)

Because of his penchant for the Irish tongue, I hope Mel (he’ll be 95 in June) has seen the new book of the Dublin-born writer, Brian Dillon, out last September. It’s called “Suppose a Sentence,” a line Dillon took from Gertrude Stein’s poem “Christian Bérard.”

Stein’s line struck Dillon because he had “supposed” sentences for years, that is, had collected every great sentence he came upon in his reading — those that knocked him out. He jotted them down in the back of his writer-notebooks, which came to 45.

For Dillon, the sentences were objets trouvés, found things, which he wanted to share with the world the way Marcel Duchamp shared the things he found through art: an ordinary snow shovel becoming “Prelude to a Broken Arm.”

Dillon went through all the notebooks and picked 27 sentences he wanted in his Hall of Fame, then created a plaque for each in the form of an essay explaining why the player deserved to be there. The essays reflect a deep anarchic discipline.

As we might expect, Joan Didion, Janet Malcolm, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Susan Sontag — the murderers row of 20th-Century American literature — all have a plaque in Dillon’s Hall. Ironically, there are only three Irish — two women and Beckett. Nine are Brits and 10 are from the States.

To show what Dillon got enthralled with, here’s his sentence from Elizabeth Hardwick:

“In her presence on those tranquil nights it was possible to experience the depths of her disbelief, to feel sometimes the mean, horrible freedom of a thorough suspicion of destiny.”

It sounds like a script from film noir posing questions for Hardwick not only about what she means but also about the oxymoron “mean, horrible freedom.”

The “her” in the sentence refers to the grande dame of the American blues-soul-jazz scene, Billie Holiday, who hip-music-folk know had a fondness for (government-banned) intoxicants.

As the soulful songbird lay dying in a hospital from pulmonary edema and heart failure, at 44, a gaggle of narcs barged into her room, searched her and her bed, handcuffed her to the bed, then stationed two mugs at the door: for what? To snag a dime bag from a nickel-and-dime connection from 125th Street? They found a stamp of smack in her room which they planted there — as she lay dying.

You can understand her disbelief and “the mean, horrible freedom of a thorough suspicion of destiny.”

Hardwick’s sentence is so beguiling the reader wants to lay Holiday down on a Freudian couch and ply her with questions of destiny — but Dillon doesn’t go there, he stays with Hardwick’s writing.

He says of her sentences, “There is a sense always that Hardwick’s sentences stand alone, pay little or no attention to one another, that each is self-involved and sufficient whole.”

Hardwick would’ve loved that, knowing how hard an art it is. It’s like listening to someone say one thing, a minute later the opposite, and then something new, while managing to convey meaning through a cohesive narrative the listener wants more of.

Dillon then turns to Hardwick’s view of her calling: “To wake up in the morning under a command to animate the stones of an idea, the clods of research, the uncertainty of memory, is the punishment of the vocation.”

I fully understand what this means but it’s Emily Dickinson’s loaded gun. “Command?” Who’s commanding? Was not the author in charge?

And to use “punishment” to whine about the price for doing the work one loves — maybe she was tired of her craft or feared she had no more to say.

As a writer for a small-town paper I suppose sentences all the time. Indeed, I juxtapose, interpose, even repose them, while I impose upon myself the rigor of exactitude.

Many years ago one of my teachers used to quote Francis Bacon: “Reading maketh a full man; speaking a ready man; and writing an exact man.”

I took it to mean that the serious reader develops confidence enough to speak to others without resorting to violence; the ready-man’s ideas are well-thought-out. And when he puts them down on paper he’s exact, refusing to speak in abstractions. The full man is gentil.

Violent language is the language of abstraction; it plagues those who refuse to examine their beliefs and thus never get to develop the words, vocabulary, idiom, to speak in sense-tences. The worst among them mouth a fascist babble.

In one of her essays, Annie Dillard tells a story about “a student [who] grabbed hold of a writer and asked: ‘Do you think I could be a writer?’”

The writer, not knowing anything about the person, says, “I don't know. . . . Do you like sentences?” 

And with that the writer “could see the student's amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am 20 years old and do I like sentences?”

Dillard says, “If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, ‘I liked the smell of the paint.’”

How sad that today so many despise the smell of the paint of exactitude. For Irish writers — despite all the talk of Brigadoon — exactitude is second nature. That’s what Mel loves about them and why he and they share the same Hall of Fame.