Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Waiting for Santa; Sontag on Writers; and Milton’s Misery

bookie 12 Our Critics Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Waiting for Santa; Sontag on Writers; and Milton’s MiseryIs it just me, or is there a kind of suspended-animation feel to these mid-December weeks? Santa Claus is coming to town, but he’s not here yet; Barack Obama is coming, too, but that’s not till January. ’Tis the season to be waiting—and to help us understand our predicament, we have Harold Schweizer’s On Waiting (Routledge, $21.95), which approaches the subject from a “broadly phenomenological perspective.” Mr. Schweizer consults Homer (Penelope’s 20-year wait for Odysseus), Henry James (Kate Croy waiting for her father in The Wings of the Dove), Elizabeth Bishop (“In the Waiting Room”), the French philosopher Henri Bergson and, of course, Samuel Beckett, whose Waiting for Godot is nothing but.

Vladimir:
Charming evening we’re having.
Estragon:
Unforgettable.
Vladimir:
And it’s not over.
Estragon:
Apparently not.
Vladimir:
It’s only beginning.
Estragon:
It’s awful.

Mr. Schweizer begins by exploring the tediousness of his subject: “Between hope and resignation, boredom and desire, fulfillment and futility, waiting extends across barren mental and emotional planes. Those who wander in it or through it find themselves in an exemplary existential predicament, having time without wanting it.” But eventually (after he’s lingered with Bergson and tuned in to “the melody of duration”), he argues that “waiting can be a rewarding experience, eliciting reflection on time and human existence.” He goes even further: “Waiting … is an opportunity to encounter those aspects of life deeply, perhaps neurotically, hidden in our busyness.”

Which is his way of saying, Season’s Greetings!

 

AS JONATHAN LIU REPORTS, the focus of Susan Sontag’s Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947–1963 (FSG, $24) is for the most part intently inward. But sometimes Sontag shifts her gaze. Here for example, she seems to be making a general observation only coincidently relevant to herself:

“The writer must be four people
1) The nut, the obsédé
2) The moron
3) The stylist
4) The critic
1 supplies the material; 2 lets it come out; 3 is taste; 4 is intelligence.
A great writer has all 4—but you can still be a good writer with only 1 and 2; they’re most important.”

Judging on the basis of her late novels, 2 and 3 were Sontag’s weak points; 1 and 4 she had in spades.

 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JOHN MILTON! The author of the most magnificent epic poem in the English language turns 400 on Dec. 9. (Four hundred! “Time,” Milton wrote, “the subtle thief of youth.”) The happiness of the occasion may be blunted by the fact that he’s been dead for 334 years, but happiness, like sorrow, is always relative anyway—and besides, the poet himself was never famous for good cheer. In fact, he was a connoisseur of misery, which he distilled in these immortal lines, spoken by Satan in Paradise Lost:

Me miserable! which way shall I fly
Infinite wrauth and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;
And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heaven.