Thomas Berger, 1924-2014

From Berger’s 1970 novel Vital Parts: “The trick of survival was to accomplish something of no utility, and so small as to be inconspicuous.” If we admit that books, like so many of the best things, have no utility, then perhaps it explains Berger’s longevity. He was a recluse and underappreciated, but Little Big Man alone (which is so much better than the film based on it) is accomplishment enough for any life, I think.

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I have a short piece over at The Dabbler today about how to use art to terrify and psychologically damage your children.

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Reading Michael Keevak on George Psalmanazar

It’s either a ridiculous oversight of mine or else part of some grand plan which I have yet to form that I’ve never published anything about George Psalmanazar on a website ostensibly named for him. I’ll remedy that today by posting some of my reading notes for Michael Keevak’s biography of Psalmanazar titled The Pretended Asian (2004). I read the book a few months ago. Repurposing notes like this is something I do when I feel bad for not having anything fresh to offer. The fact is, I’ve been distracted by work, by travel, and by family emergencies. Forced to choose, I’ll preserve reading time at the expense of writing time.

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Michael Keevak’s little volume seems to be the only book-length biography of George Psalmanazar readily available. It’s not at all bad. Keevak is a professor of foreign languages (specifically, English) at National Taiwan University, which – if you know anything about his subject – is unspeakably perfect. The man known to history as “George Psalmanazar” became a celebrity in London in the early 1700s by pretending to be a native of Formosa (Taiwan) – a place which at the time was more than half myth in the minds of Europeans.

Psalmanazar went to remarkable lengths to build up his personal fiction. He created a spurious Formosan language with its own script and a well-defined grammar. He published, complete with fanciful illustrations, a supposed history of Formosan culture peopled with subterranean aristocrats, schools that taught classical European languages, and plenty of human sacrifice. At Oxford, Psalmanazar tutored would-be missionaries in the language and customs of the country they intended to evangelize. Despite his clearly European features and blonde hair, he defended his imposture publicly and met with a great deal of success, though there were always doubters.

Eventually, Psalmanazar experienced a moral conversion, brought on by reading William Law’s Serious Call, and faded into a Grub Street obscurity, translating works from Latin and various other languages, and teaching himself Hebrew. He was a contributor to the massive, multi-volume Universal History and, unsigned, penned the article it contained on the island of Formosa, in which he announced that his story had all been a bad joke. Later in life, he was acquainted with the younger Samuel Johnson, who considered him an eminently learned and altogether admirable man, but who refrained from inquiring into his earlier career as a con-artist.

Psalmanazar arranged for the publication, on his death, of his confession, The Memoirs of *****. He never revealed his true name, but described a childhood in France, an education by the Jesuits and Dominicans, family difficulties, enlistment as a soldier in various armies, and how he launched his career of imposture by trying to pass himself off as an Irishman, then as a native of Japan, and finally as a Formosan when he came to England.

It’s a terrific story, though Keevak rushes things. He’s more interested in questions of race-perception, in Psalmanazar’s place in the history of western orientalism, and in “The Great Wall of Europe” – that is, western ignorance and presumptions of superiority vis-à-vis non-western peoples. Nonetheless, I particularly enjoyed Keevak’s chapter on the stubborn persistence of Psalmanazar’s entirely fake but ingeniously constructed Formosan language, which continued to crop up in foreign language sample books and published multilingual compilations of The Lord’s Prayer for generations after the mask had fallen from the man himself.

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July 4th children's show circa 1925

Everyone loves the Fourth of July, or else no ice cream.

Photo circa 1915, from The Library of Congress. Sunshine Jarmann (Jarmon) – the only kid who seems to be enjoying herself – later performed on Broadway in the Music Box Revue, 1922-23. Marcus M. Marks was Manhattan Borough President from 1913-17. He died in ’34.

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Marginalia, no.336

We had in this village more than twenty years ago an idiot-boy, whom I well remember, who, from a child, shewed a strong propensity to bees; they were his food, his amusement, his sole object. …[He] had no apprehension from their stings but would seize them nudis manibus, and at once disarm them of their weapons, and suck their bodies for the sake of their honey-bags. Sometimes he would fill his bosom between his shirt and his skin with a number of these captives; and sometimes would confine them in bottles… As he ran about he used to make a humming noise with his lips, resembling the buzzing of bees.

~ Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne

The Bee Boy of Selborne, we learn, was a lot of trouble to the local beekeepers and was shipped off to another district where he unfortunately died before reaching manhood. But was his enthusiasm for bees a symptom of his idiocy, or the cause of it? White does not speculate. Regardless, the story offers a nice illustration for my idea that total, all-consuming devotion to a single object will render a person either sublimely admirable or sublimely ridiculous. I’m convinced that there is no in-between for the honest monomaniac.

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Zoopraxioscope - Eadweard Muybridge 1893

P.T. Barnum’s preliminary sketches for zero-gravity circus acts were more fanciful than plausible.

Zoopraxiscope of horseback somersault by Eadweard Muybridge, 1893.

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Marginalia, no.335

[T]ell me again that I am not such cold poison to everybody as I am to some.

~ Robert Louis Stevenson in a letter to Frances Sitwell, Sept. 1873

I seem unable to make myself pleasant to certain of my colleagues. One of them, overfond of decorating our cubicles, recently discovered how little I appreciate her efforts. Others have asked me to join them for lunch, but I decline without excuses. Your acquaintance is enough, I want to tell them, I don’t want your friendship.

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