Saturday, April 6, 2013
Review of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee
James Agee was a writer and poet par excellence, but to a devastating degree. This guy bleeds his subjects in a slow, tortuous death; and the reader doesn’t fair much better. His work has been critiqued by some as “repetitious and crazy”, and even his collaborating photographer described him in the book’s foreword as diffident, imaginative, having an inward “paralyzing, self-lacerating anger” and an “unquenchable, self-damaging, deeply principled” rebellion against institutionalism and upper class society in general. He hurts, and he inflicts us with his shame, guilt, and confusion regarding which details of his observation are important and which aren’t. He continually feels that he has betrayed his subjects, himself, and the world by attempting to categorize in his mind objective reality and—more importantly to him—other people, as his biased mind sorts it all out according to good-and-bad, revolting-and-appealing. Agee’s self-deprecation surfaces so intensely at times that he goes so far as to write that he feels he has sacrificed these our country-cousins as specimens to endure, however unconsciously, “the murdering of museum staring” at the hands of complacent readers who are moved only to curiosity and not to empathy.
The title is taken from the Jewish Scripture of Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 44: 1 – 15, which is a hymn in honor of heroic ancestors. It is Agee’s nod to the hard-to-kill branches of one’s lineage who, although they may have lived in squalor, ignorance, and suffering, have still brought their progeny to the ‘other side’ and have sired a future race because of their hardy endurance of the worst life has to offer. This warrior race of forbears who have survived the heat of many suns may not have understood what they accomplished because their minds were sweated out in labor, but they accomplished it nonetheless, and our existence is due to their indefatigable flesh and spirit.
The book is steep and ‘gloppy’ from the beginning, with interminable stretches of poetic orgasms, some of it great and incomparable to be sure; and with rambling, quasi-philosophical justifications for the author’s melancholic empathy for the poor and ignorant, and oppressive guilt over his wealth and intelligence. It just barely managed to stay interesting and comprehensible enough for me to keep reading, and I love rank poetry. It was a spiraling mess at times, full of run-on sentences and pendant thoughts that end abruptly. Was it profound, or madness? Probably a little of both. I can’t, for the life of me, figure out how in the world this was widely read at any time. Who (besides me of course) would spend their time on it? It’s a struggle with the author to understand him or sympathize with him at points. And then, there are times when he tries to give you just the facts: simple descriptions stripped bare of embellishment or interpretation. Odd. Anyone reading are not the ‘just-the-facts-ma’am’ kind of people, so it’s actually a turn-off when it comes mid-way through the book.
And my, how Agee travails to share his agony over the suffering of his brothers and sisters on this planet. He aches to relieve them of their crushing responsibilities, to honor them for their lives, and to awaken them from their sleep-walking existence. He wants us all to live better together, to share our awakenings and triumphs and joys; and he wants the wealthy to perceive the beauty in their impoverished brethren, which can only be in “proportion as [the rich] recognize the ugliness and disgrace implicit in their privilege of [such a] perception.” How loudly and lugubriously he moans over all the sad and doubled-over souls in the world whom he views as “tender life, wounded in every breath, and almost as hardly killed as easily wounded: sustaining, for a while, without defense, the enormous assaults of the universe.” His highest salute to them was comparing them to a “scab” that grows on the wound of the earth, as if it was oozing these sore lives, “expressing themselves upon the grieved membrane of the earth in the symmetry of a disease.” It is very obvious he feels the pang of torment of what others are feeling as they eke out their pathetic existence with “…the burden of being upon them.”And he’s good to insist we feel it too.
But despite even my own feelings of sorrow for Agee’s subjects, I refuse to surrender to such a view of humanity. How could I pity someone so, without likewise, at some point, demanding pity for myself? I would rather a person admire the strength of my character in suffering, and see something redeemable and really communicable in the sweetness of my resolve, something so brave and beautiful that it would evoke in my onlookers a desire to come join me and be loved by me, rather than merely weep for my wretchedness. I simply don’t believe anyone is so pathetic, or weak, or poor, or futile as Agee would have us accept. Every person has the light of a god radiating from his hurting eyes, walking erect atop the supine earth, defiant against gravity’s urging to mix his atoms with the senseless soil. Man has awoken from his mineral coma, breathes against the pressuring atmosphere, works the begrudging ground to yield life to him, multiplies himself into a host to weather the elements, and dies with a curse on his lips against death, with a promise to return, declaring with every thought a present victory over inertia. And I’m sure God smiles, and does not pity his sons and daughters for their plight, however meager their situation is. The more destitute, the more noble a man’s or woman’s resistance to the cold and hunger. Agee bemoans the assaults of the universe? The way I see it, it is man instead who assaults the universe by virtue of his very birth, and not the weight of a thousand solar systems has succeeded in preventing or smothering him. He’s born a king, seizing the crown of higher order, even if for a few moments, from the usurping blind cosmos that governed while he was asleep. And we pity this wakened being for his wakefulness? We pity that he has arisen only to find that he has the ‘burden’ to set his kingdom in order? I say: the greater the fight, the greater my adoration for a life that towers over its environment in mind, spirit, ingenuity, endurance, and sheer power of will if only to scratch his name on the bathroom stalls of the cosmos. No, I do not pity my suffering brothers and sisters. I pity those folks who do not love, respect, and honor them for the god-like striving against the spin of the earth’s mindless mass, as they stand as lords over the rest of mute creation. I pity those who whimper over what they should worship. There. I feel better. What? You’re still here?
I don’t know if it’s a sad thing or not that this book will probably be lost to antiquity very soon. It seems that it has played its role in history, and I hope it woke people up to the suffering and ignorance of their fellow man, even if Agee’s sobbing was a bit theatrical. I will certainly walk away with a few nice nuggets of excellent writing that I managed to unearth in this long and laborious text. Enjoy a few of them:
“Each [person] is intimately connected with the bottom and the extremest reach of time: Each is composed of substances identical with the substance of all that surrounds him, both the common objects of his disregard, and the hot centers of stars…tender life, wounded in every breath, and almost as hardly killed as easily wounded: sustaining, for a while, without defense, the enormous assaults of the universe.” (56)
“…but [theirs were] the eyes of a trapped wild animal, or of a furious angel nailed to the ground by his wings.” (100)
“A falsehood is entirely true to the derangements which produced it.” (230)