According to a local tradition, an ordinary hen’s egg, if it is kept warm in the human armpit during the whole of Lent, hatches out on Easter Day and reveals a manikin three inches high, who at once prostrates himself before his foster-father and swears eternal obedience to him.
~ Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Traveller’s Tree
He says his name is Himmelfarb, if you can believe it. Endearing at first, the constant bowing is starting to bug. Every time I look at him he falls to his knees and taps his forehead to the table. “Dear God,” he asked me last night, “how should I live? What would you have me do? I only want to be your image and will in everything.” But the thimbleful of scotch I gave him was a mistake, and he was nearly pressed flat when the hardcover Montaigne closed up on him. My armpit is still sore.
Sick of the city, you wake the family early and hit the road. The countryside in San Benito County is green and empty. The land opens out below Gilroy and the asphalt is submerged in a lake of grass that fills the bowl between the eastern and western hills. Highway 25 skirts the miserable strip malls and tract-housing of Hollister, then slips into the long chiseled groove that marks the San Andreas Rift Zone between the Diablo and Gabilan ranges. South of Paicines oaks press the verge of the road and you pass through territory held by a colony of Yellow-billed Magpies (Pica nutalli). Crow-like with patches of white, their primaries and tertials flash an iridescent seaweed blue. The yellow muzzle is unmistakable.
Pinnacles National Monument is best avoided in summer. The isolated inland hills flare up infernally, even when not actually burning, and afternoons above 110 degrees are common. All the creeks run dry. In spring, however, the brook at Bear Gulch tinkles below a stone and timber ranger station built in the 1930s by Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration. You follow a hiking trail up the canyon through oak groves and weird vaults of rock. There’s a low buzzing of bees or wasps, but you can’t find their nest. A Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) in his black Robin Hood cap follows through the undergrowth. The trail leads into a cave where a flashlight shows little waterfalls purling through gaps in the rocks. Looking down into the dark your daughter spots (she says) some dinosaur bones. The far end of the cave is closed so that no one will disturb the weeks-long drowsy intercourse of bats.
The ‘pinnacles’ themselves are the fossil bones of a primeval volcano whose flesh has long ago rotted away. From an igneous shelf above the reservoir, where you eat a picnic lunch, there’s a nice vista of the high peaks: boulders and broken ribs of rusted stone that rear up from amid the chaparral and the few scattered pines. It’s about here that your son misplaces his one perfect walking stick in the world and insists on retracing his steps. Your daughter runs the other way to chase an Orangetip butterfly through blood-barked manzanitas. Overhead, lucky you, a massive California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) slides past, soundless and assured, its finger feathers splayed and ten-foot arms stretched wide, a shipless rudder in the sky. Hold your breath. You have just seen one of Earth’s rarest birds.
Driving north on Highway 25 the weather shifts and clouds run in from the Pacific. You begin to dread that portion of the road ahead where the horrid strip malls start again, and the ugly houses, and the acres of concrete. You hope, in a way, that Mencken was right when he called mankind nothing more consequential than “a local disease of the cosmos.” Here is Paicines again, and now the little hamlet of Tres Pinos. Outside a sheet-metal warehouse some meat-headed kid is marching weighted barbells down the street, while a friend shouts encouragement. Thank God for birds and boulders, you think. It may be that we are nothing better than a rash on the leg of dame Nature, but what a gam!
If his philosophy freed him from the former fear and not from the latter, it did not hinder him from being miserable.
~ Pierre Bayle, Dictionary
It was rumored that Thomas Hobbes disliked being alone because he was afraid of ghosts. Bayle quotes a contemporary biographer who scoffs at the idea: It’s not that Hobbes was afraid of “spectres and apparitions, vain bugbears of fools,” he says; these he “chased away by the light of his philosophy.” Instead, he feared assassination (hence Bayle’s comment above). This morning I united both concerns when I looked in the mirror and mistook myself for an executioner’s ghostly victim. That’s how nearly last night’s haircut approximates decapitation.
Coma is for the living.
~ Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies
I was tempted to misread the word as “comma,” because if periods are for the dead then commas, too, are for the living. But then the ancient Romans (all of them quite dead) cared little for punctuation of any kind, even when they were alive. Nor did they believe in a lower case. No truly heroic society will rely on such things. Some days, therefore, I expect a sudden apocalypse, other days a long byzantine coma. Today we had a small earthquake. A sorry rain is falling, barely enough to speckle the street and raise a whiff of oil and dust. I’m sleepy and can’t seem to keep my spinal column straight: my head bobs forward like a bowling ball held up by a sapling. I feel myself slipping into a comma.
Language was our secret weapon, and as soon we got language we became a really dangerous species.
~ Quentin D. Atkinson in The New York Times
Our paleolithic poet laureate – last of the sabre-toothed tigers – sat down to his morning coffee and croissant. That caveman down the way is such a boor, he thought. No understanding at all of modern verse – and yet he shows up for every reading, grunting obscenely while everyone else applauds. Brushing crumbs from his pelt, he opened the early paper and you can imagine the shock it gave him to discover that his club-wielding neighbor had just published a damning review of his latest volume. Emergency services were summoned, but too late. He was the last of his kind, but the first to learn that while sticks and stones may break your bones, it’s names that really hurt you.
If you’re interested in Anthony Powell or imaginary books written by imaginary persons, this is for you. I started the list below while reading Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time last year. I scribbled it onto a sheet of paper, stuffed it in a drawer, and forgot about it. I offer it now as an oddity for the odd. Something like this ought to exist somewhere online and it might as well be here.
This is an incomplete list of Powell’s biblia abiblia. I’m sure I missed some. Let me know (by email or in the comments) if there’s anything you feel I should add or change. The rules: 1) Only include books referred to in Anthony Powell’s Music of Time series; 2) Every book must have a title and author; 3) Every author must be a substantial enough character to have a speaking part in one of Powell’s twelve volumes.
(formerly: The Pistons of our Locomotives Sing the Songs of Our Workers)
St John Clarke:
Dust Thou Art
E’en the Longest River
Fields of Amaranth
The Heart is Highland
Match Me Such Marvel
Never to the Philistines
Vernon Gainsborough (Werner Guggenbuhl):
Bronstein: Marxist or Mystagogue?
Death’s Head Swordsman: The Life and Works of X. Trapnel
The Gothic Symbolism of Mortality in the Texture of Jacobean Stagecraft
Borage and Hellebore: A Study
Knowing the Right People
Mornings in Wiltshire
Paying the Rent
The Silent Summer
The Bitch Pack Meets on Wednesday
I Stopped at a Chemist
Descartes, Gassendi and the Atomic Theory of Epicurus
City State and State of City
Garnered at Sunset
Camel Ride to the Tomb
Dogs Have No Uncles
Profiles in String
Intangible drilling costs preference
~ IRS Form 6251 (2010), line 26
The most exotic creatures are sometimes the ugliest. This one sounds venomous too. But the thrill of discovery momentarily dampens such considerations. I’m only amazed to find that I live in a world where verbal constructions like this can actually mean something to someone.
I swore that I would set up for Wisdom and utter grave sentences the rest of my days – and never – never attempt again to commit mirth with man, woman, or child.
~ Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy
A friend once confessed that he’d been class clown in grade school, a period of his life during which he answered only to ‘Bub.’ This was a surprise on both counts. Known to crack occasional jokes as an adult, most of them had a bitter kernel. His mother, he explained, once took him for a walk to discuss his antics at school. “You can’t laugh your way through life, Bub,” she said. I hate it when people lie to children.
Suppose…that books are natural productions that perpetuate themselves in the same manner with animals and vegetables, by descent and propagation.
~ David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
Readers would be made amateur naturalists, bookshelves specimen boxes, and libraries zoological gardens. Filmographers would brave malarial uplands and arctic wastes to document the mating habits of memoirs, while lab-coated researchers measure to a syllable what one novel owes another by DNA analysis. Those of us habituated to life amid swarms of half-feral volumes that devour our means and command every domestic surface would be the literary equivalent of crazy cat ladies, arrested on live television (to the cheers of an outraged public) for cruelty to animals and creating a public health risk.
I had intended a springtime excursion to the City of the Dead where my children, dressed in mourning, would lay flowers on the Emperor’s grave while I made impromptu preachments on the risks of investing in Peruvian rice. On or about April Fool’s Day seemed the time to do it. I’d had this in mind for months, but it didn’t happen, and I’m at a loss now whether to wait another year or make an off-season visit sometime this summer. Come to think of it, there’s a mid-September date that might work.
The universe is just like that, always disregarding human intention. It delights, however, in variations on a theme. Rather than spend this past Saturday in Colma at Emperor Norton’s tomb, I spent it instead at a memorial service for my maternal grandfather’s recently deceased older sister. Great Aunt Charlotte was something like an angel but with a sense of humor. She would have laughed too when her middle son announced there would be a slight delay because his brother M (former bit actor, cigarette model, and race car driver) had “forgotten to bring mother” and run home for the urn. She would have laughed again when Great Uncle Phil (her youngest, last-surviving sibling) was told how nice it was to see him and immediately replied, “I agree. Far better to be seen than viewed.”
Great Aunt Charlotte was a prodigious reader of Harlequins and westerns. She was also, it turns out, a prodigious writer of poems. Many of the thousands she left behind were written to order for birthdays, anniversaries, and other off-hand occasions – others (like “Ode to a Golf Ball”) were more esoteric. One that we heard at her memorial, written on the subject of the family goldfish, was remarkable for unexpected observations and word-play that prove, I think, a true talent. I’ll post it here if I can get hold of a copy. That playfulness also comes through in the commentary she added to her old photo albums. I couldn’t resist hastily taking some pictures of her old pictures with my mobile phone camera. A choice example: