This wine is so good and delicious, that the more I drink thereof the more I am athirst.
~ Rabelais, Pantagruel
The line is spoken by Panurge but the sentiment is echoed in the ‘Hagarene’ etymology Rabelais offers for his hero’s name, which he renders “all-thirsty.” Mynheer Peeperkorn, resident of Mann’s Magic Mountain, had the same complaint. He was perpetually parched but wouldn’t touch water; he only drank wine. Insatiability is both burden and joy in our Dionysian mode: the best things never satisfy.
Seven Million Stray Dogs, by Acre. On the cover is a Byzantine-style icon of Neil Armstrong standing on the lunar surface, his hand raised in blessing and a golden nimbus round his helmet. The book is bound in curious triangular fashion and opens (impossibly) from two different sides. It is covered with a clear cellophane wrapper. Seven Million Stray Dogs is a universal almanac which I consult, in my dream, for Ikea-style instructions on assembling Italian Renaissance furniture pieces.
Hannibal at Sea, anon. On the cover is a silhouette image of a Phoenician trireme with three elephants aboard lifting their trunks in salute. The book is a collection of aphorisms for the strategically uncertain.
[NB: I've officially made this another series. For a refresher/introduction and a link to past posts, click here.]
Books have their occupations just as people do. Some, like local phone directories, serve only to keep the paper recycling industry in business. Others imagine higher callings for themselves.
Description de l’Egypte (1994) and Alchemy & Mysticism: The Hermetic Museum (1997), Benedikt Taschen, Köln. I might have included these in my paean to fat paperbacks, but these are fatties of a different sort. Back in the middle ‘90s, Taschen was specially fond of publishing stout little art books that weigh like bricks in the hand and open only with some forcing. They are impractical things, but as book-objects very desirable.
Behold the book as antiquarian, historian, naturalist, ethnographer and tour guide. My son pries open Description de l’Egypte to reveal an image of the Sphinx. In its scaled-down single-volume form, this book reproduces the only real triumph of Napoleon’s miserable Egyptian campaign: over 3000 illustrations of persons and landscapes, hieroglyphs and temples, fauna and flora, published by imperial command. According to legend, over 400 copper-engravers worked twenty years on this book.
Behold the book as alchemist, analyst, curator, dream-interpreter and psychopompos. My daughter holds open the doors of The Hermetic Museum to reveal an image of The Ladder. The book is a Jungian fantasy, an encyclopedia of esoteric and alchemical symbology. My patience for this sort of thing ran out about the time the book was published, but the pictures are wonderful. The Masonic Jacob’s Ladder on the right is supposed to represent “the transformation of the raw stone (apprentice, Prima Materia) into the cubic stone (Lapis).”
Every other man spoke a language entirely his own, which he had figured out by private thinking: he had his own ideas and peculiar ways. If you wanted to talk about a glass of water, you had to start back with God creating the heavens and earth; Abraham, Moses and Jesus; Rome; the Middle Ages; gunpowder; the Revolution; back to Newton; up to Einstein; then war and Lenin and Hitler. After reviewing this and getting it all straight again you could proceed to talk about a glass of water. ‘I’m fainting, please get me a little water.’ You were lucky even then to make yourself understood.
~ Saul Bellow, Seize the Day
Montaigne somewhere reminds us that “we can misuse only things which are good.” Language is misused for the same reason most things are: because the pleasures of bad grammar beat the pleasures of good. I wonder if the abuses of language don’t generally tend toward solipsism, the temptation to isolate oneself or to push others away. You may end up incomprehensible to anyone but yourself, of course, but masturbation has always been a private pastime.
I love you as I love that phrase I made up in a dream and which I am unable to remember.
~ Jules Renard, Journal
The best lovers are always escaping each other. Law is possession, according to the old saw, but love is diplomatic immunity.
God Save The Kinks. I was driving to the train station this morning and listening to Arthur (Or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire) when I had a vision of myself in Shangri-La. I was shifting uncomfortably in my seat, nudging with one finger the sore spot a few inches below my sternum, wondering if it was a hiatal hernia, and dreading my arrival at the office where work has been, according to the lingo, a series of ‘fire-drills’ these past two weeks or more. Then Ray Davies sang:
The little man who gets the train
Got a mortgage hanging over his head
But he’s too scared to complain
Cos he’s conditioned that way…
My wife’s parents live on the east side of San Jose, up against the Diablo Range foothills that are so brilliantly green this time of year. In line at a supermarket nearby I overheard a conversation between a clerk and a customer he seemed to know. “So, how’s it going?” the clerk asked. “You know how it is,” said the other, a big man, spreading out his arms, “…just another day in Shangri-La.” “More like Shanghai,” the clerk said, with a guilty chuckle. The three of us were possibly the only non-Asians in the store – but I suppose we each build a Shangri-La in our own image.
Flaubert wrote by way of advice that “[you should] be regular and ordinary in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Keep your head down. Conserve your creative energy. Pray to Wallace Stevens. Play Prince Hal among the middle class drudges and office zombies till your sun of glory vaults over the horizon. But what happens when you really are a bourgeois? What happens when you’re too tired and well-fed to be violent and original? Anyone want to take a mortgage off my hands?
He who resists not at all will never surrender.
~ Thoreau, from the Journal
We can forgive Thoreau for this one since he was still in his twenties when he wrote it. It’s something like that impish bit of advice according to which the best way to escape temptation is to give in right away. Duh. For all their pleasures, aphorisms make unreliable philosophy, and their temptations are most alluring to those least recommended to utter them - that is, the young.
No animal, according to the rules of animal-etiquette, is ever expected to do anything strenuous, or heroic, or even moderately active during the off-season of winter.
~ Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
For weeks now my children and I have been arguing whether humans are animals. I insist that they are. They disagree, and disagree. And strongly disagree. They raise their voices, get red in the face and slam their little fists on the table. I explain that humans are, after all, classified as mammals, among the primates, and that even though we are (I admit) animals of a special sort and not like the others in some very important ways, we’re still animals. “People are NOT animals!” my son will say. “Monkeys think it’s okay to fling poo around but people know better!” As if that proves anything. People fling poo of one sort or another too, of course, but I don’t want to disabuse him of the notion of human decency just yet. Sister is squarely in brother’s court. Even if she sometimes thinks me “so very wise” (as she put it the other night), she seethes with righteous fury: “No, Papa!” (she’s actually yelling) “PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE, AND ANIMALS ARE ANIMALS!” Faced with such violent dogmatism I almost want to relent, if only to keep the peace. But then who wouldn’t really rather be an animal? If it meant, just now, that so much less would be expected of me, nothing strenuous or heroic, that I could curl up by the fire with a book and sleep late every morning, then I say - Sign me up.
Masterpieces of Etching, selected by Laurence Binyon; Gowans & Gray Ltd., London – Glasgow (1914). I’ve lauded the large, but the smallness of small books is praiseworthy too. While not the littlest volume in our library, this one is a near-miniature. Why anyone would produce an art book on such a scale is a good question. The images are only a few inches tall. Still, there are some lovely pictures.
Take, for example, the etching on the right by Wenceslaus Hollar, a Bohemian artist and illustrator who lived in London before and after the English Civil War. It reads: “The Winter habit of an English gentlewoman.” The oversized muff consuming her left arm and the mask over her eyes I find strange and strangely appealing. I imagine Samuel Pepys stepping over beggars in the lane to make her acquaintance. Hollar was so poor at the end that he supposedly had to plead with creditors not to seize his deathbed before he was finished with it.
Here are two portraits by Anthony Van Dyck, after whom the famous style of goatee is named. “Van Noort” is on the left, and that’s “Vorsterman” leering at him from the right. All the men in Van Dyck’s portraits wear Van Dykes, which, if it was really so common, makes you wonder why the style was named after him alone. But maybe it wasn’t popular at all and Van Dyck only added it to his portraits the way a ten-year-old draws moustaches on the faces of people in magazine advertisements.
Here is a man in need of no introduction: Charles Mingus! …Thanks to his generous narcissism, Rembrandt left us with an awful lot of self-portraits. He looks something between Socrates and Falstaff, I think (plus a little Mingus). But if I had a mug like his and could paint like he did, posterity might find itself with a surplus of my self-portraits too.