Dear The Paris Review,
Last week’s question on the topic of books you should read when young got me thinking: Can you provide a warning, or cautionary note, to attach to any books that may prove to be catastrophic when read at too young an age?
Thank you for your help.
All the best,
Fifteen years ago the late Roger Shattuck published a long attack on the writings of the Marquis de Sade, arguing that they were overrated as art and dangerous as pornography, especially to young readers. Being a young reader, I sneered at the time. But for all I know Shattuck was right. Kids are mean enough as it is, and too apt to treat each other like crash-test dummies, even without some lunatic marquis egging them on. I might also keep Larry Clark’s books on a high shelf. Drugs are sexy, sure, but the kids don’t need to know that. I sometimes wonder if I should have read Kafka Was the Rage in high school or the memoirs of Andy Warhol, or Edie, or quite so much Martin Amis. I’m not sure The Changing Light at Sandover was such a good idea, either. (Better precious than semiprecious, James Merrill liked to say—but surely there are limits.)
Do teenage boys still need to be warned off Kerouac? A friend of mine, currently in the second grade, has memorized The Complete Calvin and Hobbes and is in the habit of quoting it at length. It seems to me that this could turn into a problem. I remember the poet Peter Taylor complaining that he was taught To the Lighthouse in high school, when he was too young to know what was going on, or even to know that he didn’t know. Maybe the best you can do is to read once in boredom and incomprehension, then go back in protosenility and read everything again.
I am juggling lovers, which is no easy task. What are, in your opinion, the great literary love triangles? Which books will guide me in my complicated amorous pursuits?
Here at The Paris Review, we are of the Liz Lemon school: the word lovers bums us out unless it comes between “meat” and “pizza.” Anyway, how could we choose a favorite triangle? Pretty much every great novel contains one. That said, I’d probably vote for the ur-triangle of Satan, Adam, and Eve in Paradise Lost. In Book Four, Satan stands there and watches Adam and Eve having paradisical sex, until he can’t stand it anymore and turns away—like Warhol, running out of the room during a porn shoot: “I’m going to have an organza!” (See “cautionary note,” above.) That’s when Satan cooks up the plan to seduce Eve and ruin things in Eden.
What’s great about the passage—what makes Satan Satan—is the argument that he’s going to do all of this for Adam and Eve’s own good:
… Aside the Devil turnd
For envie, yet with jealous leer maligne
Ey’d them askance, and to himself thus plaind [i.e. complained].
Sight hateful, sight tormenting! thus these two
Imparadis’t in one anothers arms
The happier Eden, shall enjoy thir fill
Of bliss on bliss, while I to Hell am thrust,
Where neither joy nor love, but fierce desire,
Among our other torments not the least,
Still unfulfill’d with pain of longing pines;
Yet let me not forget what I have gain’d
From thir own mouths; all is not theirs it seems:
One fatal Tree there stands of Knowledge call’d,
Forbidden them to taste: Knowledge forbidd’n?
Suspicious, reasonless. Why should thir Lord
Envie them that? can it be sin to know,
Can it be death? and do they onely stand
By Ignorance, is that thir happie state,
The proof of thir obedience and thir faith?
O fair foundation laid whereon to build
Thir ruine! Hence I will excite thir minds
With more desire to know, and to reject
Envious commands, invented with designe
To keep them low whom knowledge might exalt
Equal with Gods …
If you ask me, that comes pretty close to a triangulator’s credo. Who in a bad mood hasn’t suspected that so-called happy couples “stand/By ignorance”? And who hasn’t been seduced by “more desire to know, and to reject / Envious commands”? Read More