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  • The Pleasures of Art and Life
  • Stephen Miller (bio)
Another Music: Polemics and Pleasures, by John McCormick (Transaction Publishers, 2008. 254 pages. $39.95)

John McCormick is professor of comparative literature, emeritus, at Rutgers University; but this collection of essays, which he wrote over the past half-century, includes several that have nothing to do with literature. In one essay McCormick, who spent five years in the American Merchant Marine and U.S. Navy before and during World War II, tells the compelling story of how the documents the British recovered from a sinking German U–boat helped them to break the Enigma code. In another he recounts his trip in 1980 on a Greek freighter that carried two dozen or so passengers. When the ship was near Gibraltar a fire in the engine room forced the passengers to seek the safety of a lifeboat. The ship was towed into port and the passengers were picked up by a nearby ship, but McCormick lost a year’s research notes and forty pages of typescript. The two essays are powerful in part because McCormick knows a lot about ships. Seagoing is the title of his fascinating memoirs, which appeared eight years ago.

The two essays show McCormick to be a very good storyteller. Another good story is McCormick’s firsthand report of the Berlin Uprising of 1953—the first uprising against communist rule in Eastern Europe. Living in West Berlin, where he had taken an academic post, McCormick learned that serious riots had erupted in East Berlin. To see what was happening, he walked to the border between the two sectors (in 1953 there was no Berlin Wall). He got close to the action—dangerously close, because he saw a man shot by East German troops. “Small knots of men,” he says, “would sortie into the open Platz, shout at the troops, and be answered by a volley of automatic-carbine fire.” After declaring martial law, East German authorities warned the West German onlookers to leave the East sector borders. McCormick ends the report by quoting the words of an East Berlin worker: “As soon as they lift martial law, we’ll take up where we left off.” McCormick hopes the uprising is the beginning of the end of the East German regime, but the regime would last another thirty-six years.

Eighteen years after McCormick watched the uprising in East Berlin, he watched a bullfight at Talavera de la Reina, a town seventy miles southwest of Madrid. An amateur bullfighter himself, McCormick writes about the art of bullfighting with clarity and wit. In 1997 he attended another bullfight—this time in Madrid. He is disturbed that bullfighting has become gentrified—part of mass culture, with “blonde girls from the United States hawking American ice cream.” Everything about bullfighting has declined: the matadors, the bulls, even the spectators: “Seated just above me, a man of affairs answered a mobile telephone, an effect at a bullfight as gauche as a nude leaping from a cake in church during mass.”

McCormick hates the rudeness of [End Page xxvii] cell-phone users, but he also realizes that “it is stupid and sentimental to wallow in recollections of a better past.” Though McCormick never wallows, occasionally he is too quick to express his irritation at aspects of contemporary culture and too quick to generalize about the United States. Attacking postwar American poetry, he says: “Poetry, the real thing, as unmistakable and undefinable as beauty in woman or distinction in man, is quite foreign to the condom culture and the used syringe.” In the 1960s a lot of bad poetry was written, but it was not because of “condom culture,” whatever that means. The sentence, though, is only an irritable tic that slightly mars an otherwise good essay on Philip Larkin.

I prefer the McCormick who talks about pleasures to the McCormick who engages in polemics. In addition to the essay on Larkin, there are appreciations of many writers, including Walt Whitman, Gerald Brenan, Federico García Lorca, Hermann Broch, and Benedetto Croce. McCormick also writes well about the friendship—if we can call it that—between Ezra Pound and George Santayana. Pound’s biographers have...


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