Reading Chatwin, Gide, and Connolly

The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin

It makes sense that Bruce Chatwin and Werner Herzog were friends. Of course they were. According to Herzog, the two of them met in 1984 in Australia’s Northern Territory. Chatwin was doing research for the book that would become The Songlines and Herzog was working on his film Where Green Ants Dream. They spent two full days talking to each other. Chatwin on his deathbed supposedly gifted Herzog with the leather rucksack he’d used on so many of his travels. Parallels both of style and substance can be drawn between the two artists, but I suspect that Chatwin must have been the happier person. Curiosity in Herzog seems most of the time to serve his melancholy. Chatwin is no less curious, but more sanguine. In The Songlines Chatwin’s curiosity turns toward the roots of human language, early human evolution, and the origins and meaning of wanderlust. The book is in part a travelogue (though one should never take Chatwin’s reportage at face value) and in part an essay in speculative anthropology. Fascinating and great fun at the same time.

*

Lafcadio’s Adventures, André Gide

Diverting, satirical, but nothing very deep, despite the fact that it reminds me of a Dostoyevsky novel in some respects. I mean that it deals with questions of faith and corruption and the peculiar allure that some people feel for motiveless crime. But this is not Gide at his best and Lafcadio’s Adventures is only a cheap-shot, bitter-at-heart version of Dostoyevsky.

*

The Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly

Connolly made his name as a critic and so when he opens his book with the statement that “the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and no other task is of any consequence,” it serves both as a jab at fashionable contemporaries and an announcement of his intention to make his own “assault on perfection.” The book was written during WWII and is part journal, part commonplace book, and part philosophical essay. There are lengthy quotations from French authors which, unfortunately, I was usually unable to decipher without help, but Connolly’s own prose is engrossing, his ideas engaging. He was exorcising some personal demons here: his marriage was falling apart at the same time the world around him was falling apart, and the general sense of catastrophe is strong. The Unquiet Grave may not be quite the masterpiece Connolly hoped for, and I can’t endorse certain of his Freudian obsessions and conclusions. Nonetheless, the book is highly quotable, bright if only with a fractured light, and in the end it makes a powerful meditation on the significance of love and of art and of being human in a world that is often short on all three.

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Marginalia, no.353

There are two hotels in Djang: the Hotel Windsor and, across the street, the Hotel Anti-Windsor.

~ Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines

The choice in this case is less clear than the choice my wife and I conceived on seeing one day that the retail space next to Super Donut was vacant. How could we fail to succeed, we thought, if we rented the spot and opened Super Duper Donut right next door? Who would settle for a merely super donut when he could have a super duper donut instead?

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Summa Meteorologica

French illustration of the four seasons

After the manner of the Angelic Doctor, St Thomas Aquinas, we now inquire into the seasons of the year, whether they exist.

Objection 1: It seems that the seasons exist. Spring follows upon winter, winter follows autumn, autumn follows summer, and summer follows spring, in annual fourfold succession, as all attest.

Objection 2: Further, the seasons are observable in the changes they work upon plants in their sprouting, flowering and fruiting, and in the alterations of weather proper to each: cold and snow for winter, decreasing chill and intermittent rain for spring, heat and cloudlessness for summer, decreasing heat and intermittent storms and fogs for autumn.

Objection 3: Further, as it is written (and as Pete Seeger and the The Byrds have memorably repeated), “to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” (Eccles. 3:3).

On the contrary, the seasons cannot be said to exist, but they belong to the imagination. They may be said to subsist by human custom, but not in the regularity of manner commonly ascribed to them.

I answer that the arbitrariness of seasons is proved by the fact that the “season” assigned to 45 degree north latitude on the Ides of October (autumn) is not the same as the “season” assigned to 45 degrees south latitude on the same date (spring). Furthermore, the meteorological characteristics commonly ascribed to the seasons (e.g. heat, cold, rain, snow, fog, etc.) express themselves with notorious irregularly. The present winter on the western coast of North America, for example, has proved markedly unseasonal with a superfluity of warm, rain-free days. Seriously, it was like 80 degrees the other day. What the hell is up with that? A more suitable manner of calculating seasons might allow for the irregular assignment of spring, summer, autumn, and winter days throughout the year based on actual weather conditions. By such a scheme, any day of 70 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter – whether it occurs in February or in August – may be called a “summer day.” Likewise, any day of 35 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, or any day whatever with snowfall, may be called a “winter day,” even if it occurs in June. As prevailing conditions dictate, it may be that more summer days than winter days occur in the month of February, and more winter than summer days in the month of August. Likewise, the balance of the seasons need not be equally proportional but may favor summer one year, spring or autumn or winter the next.

Reply to Objection 1: Popular attestation, even if it be universal, does not establish the existence of any object or phenomenon.

Reply to Objection 2: At the equator there is no observable difference of vegetation or of weather to accord with the seasons as they are commonly differentiated one from another in more temperate regions.

Reply to Objection 3: The prophet Daniel affirms the arbitrariness of the seasons and their mere subsistence in custom when he says of God that “He changeth the times and the seasons” (Daniel 2:21). Further, human pretensions to meteorological knowledge are made null by our Savior himself when he says (Acts 1:7) that “it is not for you to know the times or the seasons.”

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Slumber Parties, Cancelled Surgeries, Distant Flamingos

The daughter of one of my colleagues recently celebrated her ninth birthday. Three or four other young ladies were invited to spend the night. Unfortunately, the evening turned sour when one of the guests – a strong personality – led a sort of revolt against the birthday girl, recruiting others to her side and refusing to participate in the planned activities. Tears and recriminations followed, and the night was largely spoiled. I had a slumber party on my ninth birthday too. Adam and Chris and Neil were invited. We camped out in the living room, our sleeping bags thrown down in front of the TV. We drank gallons of Mountain Dew and Dr Pepper and ate M&Ms and Reese’s Pieces. After my parents went to bed, we watched episodes of Benny Hill on the local PBS station. It was, at the time, one of the most outrageously fantastic nights of my life. The lesson here is never plan activities.

Someone ought to invent a word for the special pleasure of cancelling surgeries. Twice now I’ve scheduled a hernia repair surgery and subsequently cancelled it because I felt so well. Anyway, it’s a minor hernia. In the past three years it’s only rarely caused me notable discomfort. I figure, if I can hike nine miles with a heavy pack and suffer no ill effects, why volunteer myself for the carving table? I’m in no rush to be anyone’s roast turkey. St Paul in his letters complained of a mysterious “thorn in the flesh,” a temptation that pestered him to no end. I’ve come to believe the apostle had an inguinal hernia too. It’s a convenient complaint for a regular church attender: you’re immediately off the hook when fellow parishoners want help moving their pianos. The temptation, however, is real, and St Paul was a passionate man.  For all we know, he may have scheduled and cancelled dozens of surgeries all over the eastern Mediterranean.

On a father/daughter birding expedition last month, I was shocked to see, at a great distance but still unmistakeable, a flamingo in San Francisco Bay. I would have doubted my own eyes, but apparently there have been several confirmed spottings in the past two years. My daughter was ecstatic, breathless, leaping up and down and shouting her astonishment in an attempt to interest passersby.  How, and why, had it come here? Despite the absurdly pleasant weather we’ve had this winter, Northern California is not yet the tropics. David Sibley in his field guide assures us that any flamingos spotted in the western continental United States are escapees – from the zoo, presumably, or from some Hollywood celebrity’s or tech magnate’s personal golfcourse. My daughter and I prefer to imagine that our flamingo was simply fed up with all the other flamingos back home – their gossip, their politics, their pet causes. It wanted some quiet, some isolation, some anonymity. But anonymity is hard to come by when you’re the only bright pink animal around for hundreds of miles.

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Loss and Raptors

H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald

Your father dies unexpectedly. You wrestle your grief by training a goshawk, a temperamental, bloodthirsty, half-mad sort of bird. It’s natural enough – inevitable, almost – if you’re Helen Macdonald. It’s inevitable, too, that you’ll spend half the book you’re writing about it trying to explain your fascination with T.H. White’s troubling, unintentional masterpiece – The Goshawk – about failing utterly to train the same sort of bird. Sharing Macdonald’s interests in raptors and in White, I waited impatiently for H is for Hawk to arrive in the States. The British reviews were so gushing it was embarrassing to read them. I special ordered the book from a distributor who, by an oversight, had no hold placed on the title, and so I received my copy a few weeks before its official American publication date. It mostly lives up to the hype, though I do have a few complaints. For one, Macdonald is overfond of the word “indeed.” And two or three chapters might have been excised entirely. Macdonald makes awkward transitions sometimes from the choppy, poetic, descriptive language that shows her at her best to a slangish informality (“And I was all, bloody hell…”) that rings comparatively hollow. Her anguished emoting at the loss of her father was sometimes hard for me to slog through, but there really is an alchemy to her book. As you read it the image of Macdonald herself and of Mabel (the goshawk) blur and overlap in surprising ways, ways that alternately challenge and invite sympathy. When she’s writing from her eye (i.e., from a point of observation, either of Mabel or herself or White) rather than from her heart, Macdonald is compelling and you won’t want to put the book down. Her engagement with White and the strange appeal of his book is also well done and makes an excellent counterpoint throughout.

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I’ve got a post up at The Dabbler today on the difficulties of Henry James and heart disease.

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Marginalia, no.352

When men are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.

~ Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind

Should we find this dismaying? Our habits of imitation may be explained on the one hand by the uniformity of human desires and, on the other, by the diversity of human interests. Nature in each of us wants the same things. Food, shelter, sex, influence, books; the catalog isn’t long. And no matter how far afield our curiosity moves us (even so far as the gut flora of dust mites), we can be sure that someone else has already cut a path. We inevitably find company, even when we don’t want it.

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