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.

1 Comment

Filed under Marginalia

Marginalia, no.351

“I’ve got a couple skulls down in the crypt,” he said, “come and see those. Oh, do come and see the skulls! You are a young man out for a holiday, and you want to enjoy yourself. Come and see the skulls!”

~ Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

My idea of a good time generally does not involve skull viewing, but perhaps that’s only because the opportunity so rarely presents itself. And who wouldn’t, deep down, like a human skull for his work desk, where he can sit alas-Yoricking to his heart’s content rather than slave away at that damned presentation?

1 Comment

Filed under Marginalia

Oscar Mathisen, Norwegian Champion Skater, 1915-1920. Library of Congress.

The secret, he said, was to hold a ten-pound weight behind your back to keep from falling forward.

Oscar Mathisen, Norwegian Skater, 1915-1920; Library of Congress.

1 Comment

Filed under Picture Book

A Thinking Person’s Apocalypse

Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel

This is a very fashionable book. For example, it deals with a worldwide apocalypse (viral in this case) and its aftermath, which is nothing if not fashionable these days. It also has a character list of exemplary diversity, such as no single person’s circle of acquaintance is likely to reflect. These are authorial choices with more than a hint of market-consciousness to them. Being fashionable, however, does not prevent a book from also being good. Is Station Eleven a good book? It’s not a bad book. It’s by no means a great one. The prose (which smells suspiciously of MFA programs and writers’ workshops) is inoffensive if rarely interesting. Mandel creates suspense and doles out her horrors with some skill. Her characters, however, I found generally uncompelling. The figure of the “prophet” is especially weak. The book touches – but barely touches – on several interesting questions about the nature and value of art in an age of brutal necessity, and on the philosophical issues involved in the annihilation of 99% of the world’s population. Published reviews of Station Eleven will tell you that Mandel’s apocalypse is more reflective than those we’re used to nowadays. I’m afraid I disagree. For all its fireworks and brutality, The Walking Dead has more depth to it. In this reader’s opinion, if you want an atypical apocalypse novel that deals thoughtfully with the questions it raises, open a copy of Canticle for Liebowitz or, even better, Watership Down.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

I reflect on my failed attempts to become a smoker over at The Dabbler today.

Leave a comment

Filed under Misc.

Marginalia, no.350

When very bored recite: ‘It was during the next twenty minutes that there occurred one of those tiny incidents which revolutionize the whole course of our life and alter the face of history. Truly we are the playthings of enormous fates.’

~ Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave

I begin to understand why nothing really remarkable ever happens to me: I haven’t been bored in about twenty-five years.

Leave a comment

Filed under Marginalia

The Habit of Return

The multiple life stages of butterflies were strangely upsetting to me as a boy. Their transformations were supposed to inspire wonder, and the eruption of the adult butterfly from the pupa, I was told, represented Christ’s resurrection. But the caterpillar, the pupa, and the imago (adult) seemed to have nothing to do with each other. How could they be one creature? The thought of myself undergoing a similar metamorphosis was alarming. Dewy-winged and unrecognizable, as I emerged from my chrysalis, would I remember the fat and happy days of my caterpillarhood? Would I be a stranger to myself?

My family and I recently visited a monarch butterfly wintering site on the California coast near Santa Cruz. I had been before but not paid much attention. I knew already that monarchs were migratory. They’re as large as certain birds, so they might as well act like them. What I did not understand until this visit, and what no bird (I think) can match, is that they accomplish their migration cycle over the course of four successive generations. The individual butterflies leaving the eucalyptus grove in early spring do not return. It is their great-grandchildren that return instead. No one has successfully explained how this happens.

There are various theories, of course. Is it possible that monarchs pass down a genetic memory of the landscape, an inherited mental map of rivers and hills and mountain ranges that need to be followed or crossed? Perhaps, instead, they leave chemical markers in attractive spots to reassure their offspring that they’re headed in the right direction. Or do they steer themselves by the stars or by the angle of the setting and rising sun? It may be that monarchs, like certain birds, navigate by reference to unseen currents in the earth’s magnetic field.

Whatever the mechanism of their return, the migration plays out like this: Generation 4 (let’s start here) emerges from a state of active diapause in early spring when the duration of daylight exceeds 11 hours and the temperature is pleasant. They mate and move northeastward, laying eggs in milkweed patches of California’s inland valleys. After progressing through the larval and pupal stages and becoming butterflies themselves, these monarchs (Generation 1) migrate over the crest of the Sierra Nevada into the Great Basin. As the year progresses, Generations 2 and 3 follow the pattern of Generation 1, moving deeper into the continent, as far as the Rocky Mountains and eastern British Columbia.

This is where our next Generation 4 is born in the early fall, but this fourth generation differs from its parents. Rather than having a total lifespan of 6-8 weeks, these will live for 6-8 months. And rather than make the return to the Pacific coast by generational stages, these will make the whole trip (more than a thousand miles) at one go. Somehow they will find the groves of eucalyptus and Monterey pine that their great-grandparents had once known. Gathered together in colonies of thousands, in a diapausal state (chaste but not inactive), they will live off their lipid reserves until spring and love and the thirst for travel return.

Thinking of the monarchs, it occurs to me that there are two habits of long standing which guide how humans perceive other animals. The first is to ascribe human qualities to the animal in question – to see ourselves in them. The second is to match animal behaviors with behaviors somehow parallel in humans – to see them in ourselves. These are natural urges, I think, sometimes enlightening, and maybe unavoidable. Science, by contrast, wants to see the natural world objectively, as if the thing doing the seeing weren’t human at all but a disembodied eye – the eye, curiously, of scientific impossibility, perhaps the eye of God. But outward properties and symbolic suggestions are hard for us to disentangle.

It may be, of course, that a butterfly is only ever a butterfly. Faith sees Christ in the insect. As a boy of twelve I found the insect in myself, or feared that I might: a chrysalis suspended between the two apparently irreconcilable worlds of childhood and adulthood. I don’t know what to do with these analogues, but I do not want to let go of them. My children today make the same journey my grandparents made. When I look closely enough, with a certain eye, I discover miracles of return in all things. Like the butterflies, we endure our cramped transformations and do not cease to be ourselves.

Leave a comment

Filed under Misc.