Monthly Archives: August 2008

Political Zoology: A Cautionary Tale

Man is a political animal.  But seeing what the animal is, what may politics become?  …We have the faculty of secreting political wisdom and voiding it in the form of systems exquisite in their logic and their pertinence to our needs.  But we remain illogical and impertinent, so all our systems are realized in gross imperfection, since we have to operate them.

~ Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows

The trouble with liberal democracy is the illiberality of the dêmos.  The politics of identity and the affirmation of grievance govern all.  There is an almost universal lack of generosity.  I do not exempt myself.  In fact, I consider myself an early victim of this kind of unhealthy political enthusiasm.

During the election of 1980 (when I was seven years old) my parents were on opposite sides of the fence.  My father, a republican, supported Reagan.  My mother, a democrat, stood by Carter.  I don’t remember my parents debating the merits or demerits of either nominee, I only recall their preferences – and the ubiquitous images of the candidates passing over the television screen every evening.  I was a Carter man.  Not for any valid reasons, but simply because I liked him.  He looked friendly and I was charmed by his southern accent and the fact that he had once been a peanut farmer.  My friend Roger, however, was for Reagan, who had the endorsement of both his parents.

One day while Roger and I were talking in my backyard we somehow hit on the topic of the upcoming election.  Things grew heated when he insisted Reagan would make a better president, and I countered that Carter was, in fact, a better man for the job than any second-rate actor.  Roger took offense, slandered Carter’s intelligence and then punched me in the face.  I turned my back and sat on the ground and cried.  Roger turned his back to me, too, pretending interest in a nearby shrub.  A sudden fury tore through my little frame.  I grasped the hard object nearest at hand then leapt up behind Roger and cracked him on the head with a metal corkscrew spike, the kind used to secure backyard swing sets to the ground.  Then, while he held his head and cried, I yelled out something definitive in favor of Carter and promptly banished Roger from my backyard for the day.

Seeing what the animal is…

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Evelyn, Beloved

But is there any comfort to be found?
Man is in love and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to say?

~ William Butler Yeats

[Child’s grave – Bodie, California. (c) Ian Woolcott, TNP.]

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Marginalia, no.21

I go to bed Lord Byron, and wake up bald.

~ Robert Lowell

My day, I find, charts an opposite course.  I wake in the morning a romantic genius with keenest confidence in my ability to astonish the world, but by day’s end am so brow-beaten and reduced I’m shocked to find a full crop of hair reflected in the mirror.  I brush my teeth and meditate on the happy disjunction between outward appearance and inward reality.  Days like this Fernando’s dictum (“It’s better to look good than to feel good”) is a welcome consolation.  At least I have my hair.

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Dragon Trees of California

There is a craze all over the state about the eucalyptus or Australian blue gum tree…  Eucalyptus will frighten away fevers and murder malaria.  Its leaves cure asthma.  Its roots knock out ague as cold as jelly.  Its bark improves that of a dog.  A dead body buried in a coffin made from the wood of the blue gum will enjoy immunity from the exploring mole and the penetrating worm… [T]his absurd vegetable is now growing all over the State.  One cannot get out of its sight… It defaces every landscape with botches of blue and embitters every breeze with suggestions of an old woman’s medicine chest.  Let us have no more of it.

~ The Argonaut (San Francisco), April 22, 1877

The Englishman William Dampier was a professional pirate and an amateur naturalist. He was also the first man to circumnavigate the globe three times.  After a stint in the Third Anglo-Dutch War, Dampier turned buccaneer and spent most of the 1670s and ‘80s harassing Spanish trade routes in the Caribbean and Pacific, with occasional overland raids through Peru and the isthmus of Darien.  In 1688 Dampier was employed aboard a ship called the Cygnet which had careened for repairs on the coast of New Holland – what we know today as Australia. While the Cygnet’s bottom was being scraped, Dampier took the opportunity to explore the area and take notes on the native flora.  He described one unusual species which he named the “dragon tree” (after similar trees he’d seen in the Madeira and Canary Islands).  These dragon trees, he wrote, produced a gum that “distils out of the knots or cracks that are in the bodies of the trees.” 

Dampier was describing the eucalyptus.  There are over seven hundred varieties of eucalyptus in Australia.  The story of how the tree came to fly its isolated homeland and within the space of a hundred years colonize the Indian subcontinent, Africa, parts of Britain, China, the Middle East and the Americas is a curious one.  Here in California, as in certain corners of Uruguay and South Africa, the eucalyptus once threatened to dominate the entire landscape.  Even today, long after the 19th-century eucalyptus craze ended, coastal California is thick with eucalyptus groves.  Many Californians simply assume the trees have always been here.  Any other tree of a size comparable to a full-grown eucalyptus would necessarily pre-date Spanish and American settlement.

Exactly how the eucalyptus came to California is a point of some debate.  It seems likely that it first arrived during the 1849 Gold Rush.  That year nearly 3000 Australians left for California.  The passage from Sydney to San Francisco, across the full immensity of the Pacific, was in those days shorter than the passage from New York to San Francisco, since the latter required rounding Cape Horn.  (The transcontinental railroad and the Panama Canal were achievements of later generations.)  The Australians, in ships built of aromatic “blue gum” eucalyptus, were some of the very first to arrive for the California Gold Rush.  Somewhere aboard one of those vessels was probably stowed a bag of seeds.

The eucalyptus was soon celebrated as a “wonder tree” – and it really is a wonder.  It grows extremely fast.  Some varieties reach 40-feet in five years, or over 150-feet in 25 years.  Planted in California’s sparsely wooded central and southern coastal pale, it offered a quick return in firewood and lumber, and made a fast-growing wind-brake.  And though it will thrive in arid climates, eucalyptus roots can drain great quantities of water from the soil.  It was planted in many of California’s wetlands to open them up for farming and deny the mosquito a breeding ground in the standing water.  The eucalyptus is largely responsible for putting an end to the endemic malaria that plagued California through the 19th century.  It promised other health benefits too.  Oil distilled from eucalyptus leaves, for example, could be used to produce cleaning products or medicinals like decongestants and cough drops.

By the 1870s, as the Gold Rush petered out, a “Gum Rush” took hold.  Tens of thousands of acres were planted on any available open land.  Lumber mills dedicated solely to the eucalyptus were built.   Professional naturalists and amateur enthusiasts toured the state preaching the benefits of the eucalyptus and advocating its broader cultivation.  Ellwood Cooper was one such gum tree evangelist.  As president of Santa Barbara College, Cooper planted hundreds of acres.  His lush groves of eucalyptus were renowned through all California.  In a lecture delivered in 1875, Cooper praised the eucalyptus as a sort of universal remedy for health complaints and meteorological inclemency.  Plant more gum trees, he said, and the winds will calm, the summer heats moderate, and human health and social well being will improve all around.

But just as the Gold Rush had come and gone, the Gum Rush fizzled out.  The wood couldn’t be properly seasoned to fulfill all the uses for which it had been intended.  The pharmacists lost interest.  A hardwood shortage that contributed to the fevered planting of eucalyptus was instead resolved by increased use of other building materials such as steel, bricks and cement.  And just as the Gold Rush had left behind a landscape transfigured, the short-lived enthusiasm over the Australian gum tree utterly changed California.  The trees were everywhere – and not everyone was happy about it.  The editorialist in San Francisco’s Argonaut newspaper, quoted above, spoke for not a few of his fellow citizens.

Today, botanists and environmental purists in California consider the eucalyptus a “weed,” an invasive, non-native pest.  They style eucalyptus groves “infestations” and call for its total elimination from the landscape.  But there are still others, like yours truly, who recall fondly the blue gum ships that sailed into the Golden Gate in 1849, and who honor the tree that cured malaria.  There are still those who love the cool stillness of a eucalyptus grove in mid-summer, the bark that peels in long crisp sheets, and the clean antiseptic smell of the blue and green dragon scale leaves.

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Marginalia, no.20

His library annoyed him with its look
Of calm belief in being really there

~ W.H. Auden, The Quest

The trouble with personal libraries is that sooner or later they tend not only to be there but practically everywhere.  The litter of books throughout the house has recently become a “problem” at home, a point of some unpleasantness between me and my wife.  (Really, it’s not just me.  The kids are as bad, with their library finds stacked in a corner and their bookshelf always a shambles.)  But my lust for new acquisitions never ends.  If I’m ever annoyed at my library’s pretensions, it’s precisely because I know it’s not really there yet – not in any proper sense.  There are always a few choice volumes missing, some necessary portion of it as yet undiscovered…

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For the Birds

Elizabeth Haidle, proprietor of Minutiae Labs (and friend of yours truly), has published a fourth volume of her splendid miniature zine, Comicosmos.  Past volumes have explored Shaker philosophy and revisited Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  The newest provides an introduction to – and Haidle’s own illustrations for – T.H. White’s Book of Beasts – which is White’s curiously entertaining translation of a 12th century Latin bestiary.  Comicosmos No.4 pays special homage to the cryptozoological species treated in the bestiary: the dragon, manticore, griffin, etc.

White himself, however, seems to have had a special interest in birds.  One of his other books, The Goshawk (lovingly reprinted by NYRB for the US market), recounts his drunken, sleep-deprived attempts to train a sour-tempered, possibly insane goshawk.  I recommend it to everyone.

As a child I had a difficult relationship with birds.  I was fascinated by pelicans, owls and crows; I feared vultures, but was in love with the mourning doves that cooed among the ivy of my grandparents’ backyard.  One day a songbird landed on my head (attracted, I thought, by the bright blonde hair I had as a kid) and for years afterward I insisted on wearing a baseball cap out of doors.

Some of my favorite entries in White’s Book of Beasts are those for birds.  Consider, for example, the following description of the parrot, in which White lets himself play rather loose, I think, with the original text:

It is only from India that one can get a Psitiacus or Parrot, which is a green bird with a red collar and a long tongue. The tongue is broader than in other birds and it makes distinct sounds with it.  If you did not see it you would think it was a real man talking.  It greets people of its own accord saying “What-cheer?” and “Toodle-oo!”  It learns other words by teaching.  Hence the story of the man who paid a compliment to Caesar by giving him a parrot which had been taught to say: “I, a parrot, am willing to learn the names of others from you.  This I learnt by myself to say – Hail Caesar!”

Perhaps, if there’s anything to the ancient practice of augury, the bird might have seconded the advice of the anonymous soothsayer and warned Caesar to stay indoors on the Ides of March.

In the corner of California where I live -the San Francisco Bay Area- there are several groups of feral parrots of the genus Amazona.  They make an odd sight dashing about the skies in rowdy, green and red flocks of ten or twenty.  The Red-crowned Parrot (amazona viridigenalis) is an especially voluble creature.  According to Sibley, it gives “loud weeoo and dak dak dak calls.”  I’ve yet to hear one mimic the conversation of passersby.

In White’s extensive notes to the text of his Bestiary, which are at least as much fun as the translation itself, he quotes from the 1698 diary of Abraham de le Pryme who tells of a parrot which

by its long hanging in a cage in Billingsgate Street (where all the worst language in the city is most commonly spoke), had learned to curse and swear, and to use all the most bawdy expressions imaginable.  But, to reform it, they sent it to a coffy-house in another street, where, before half-a-year was at an end, it had forgot all its old wicked expressions and was so full of coffy-house language that it could say nothing but, “Bring a dish of coffy”; “Where’s the news”, and such like.

White also tells of an African grey by the name of Charlotte, kept for many years by King George V, grandfather to the present monarch.  He’d obtained the bird while a midshipman on shore-leave in Port Said.  From her perch over the king’s shoulder, Charlotte was said to have seen all the secrets of empire pass in paper over the royal desk.  She often exlaimed “What about it!” and when the king was ill reverted to sailor lingo to demand again and again, “Where’s the Captain?”

Strange that Caesar and George V should both have had parrots.  Is there something about the bird that might specially endear it to the powerful?  Perhaps persons fond of hearing themselves speak, as the powerful tend to be, are also gratified to hear their words repeated to them by fawning dependents.  As it happens, President McKinley, too, kept a parrot – which he named Washington Post.  I don’t know what, if anything, Washington Post was in the habit of saying to the president.  But one wonders if perhaps the bird might have advised him to avoid the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo that year, or warned him in a whisper: “Beware the anarchist’s bullet.”

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The Librarian of Auschwitz

To read Aeschylus or Shakespeare…as if the authority of the texts in our own lives were immune from recent history is subtle but corrosive illiteracy.  …We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.  To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant.  In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanizing force, that the energies of spirit are transferrable to those of conduct?

~ George Steiner, Language and Silence

It may be impolite to say so, but it seems to me that intellectuals of the war generation frequently suffer from a too acute sense of historical exceptionalism.  Perhaps we find an example here.  Of course, in the mid-1960s -when Steiner wrote the above- the Second World War was a fresher scar than it is today, so some indulgences are granted.  But the idea seems to be that the events of the war, and the barbarity and suffering they entailed, were somehow qualitatively other (rather than quantitatively greater) than the human race had seen before.  According to this line of thought, the war brought to light facts of human depravity and moral fracture no prior generation had ever been forced to grapple with – such that all the past was forfeit and the religious, philosophical, and cultural wisdom of millennia was rendered irrelevant.

Should it be so surprising that a person can recite Goethe by heart or play a Bach prelude with a measure of skill and still be a monster?  It betrays an almost Victorian naiveté to think so.  A generation or two before Steiner, Paul Valery and Thomas Mann thought the First World War had stanched all such idealism – but the myth of the morally ennobling powers of western culture died a slow and sputtering death.  In fact, you can still hear it gurgling today, both among those on the right who continue to bluff faith in its innate superiority and those on the left who make it the West’s only evangelical task to lift the swarming masses of the third world up from poverty and ignorance into the liberating glory of consumerist post-modernity.

In J.G. Farrell’s Booker Prize winning The Siege of Krishnapur, the character of Mr Hopkins is disappointed by the failure of western culture to ennoble, as he saw it, the lives and minds of colonial India’s subject population.  “Culture is a sham” he finally concludes. “It’s a cosmetic painted on life by rich people to conceal its ugliness.”  We needn’t be so completely embittered as that.  But it’s certainly true that the noblest achievements of art and culture do not in themselves confer nobility on their appreciators or chart a progress up from barbarism to any summits of moral refinement.  Something more is required.  The products of a culture are not that culture itself, after all, but they are just that: its products.  They reflect the biases and obsessions and conflicting impulses of a particular people at a particular time, laboring under influences that are often obscure, as well as the constant, unfudge-able human nature that is the same everywhere and at all times.  They are not entirely without the ability to influence, but that ability is gravely limited even within the culture from which they are born, and they work no alchemy on the hard core of the heart.

Lest we fool ourselves, it’s precisely the fact that the same person can recite poetry in the evening and wake in the morning to return to work at Auschwitz that is at once our utter condemnation and our glory.  To hold these two possibilities in tension, albeit unconsciously, is to be human.  The truest and greatest products of art and culture, like the most profound insights of religion and philosophy, reflect that paradox.  This same vexed and violent, despairing wretch, Man, is also Shakespeare’s quintessence of dust godlike in apprehension, infinite in faculties and noble in reason – the most maddeningly contradictory of creatures.

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