Monthly Archives: September 2008

Of Cabbages and Kings

My post of September 18 –with the quote about L’eclisse– sits on the page like a sour kind of parable.  The Fat Man is America, you see.  The lost 50 million lire is, according to your preference, a bundle of mortgage-backed securities or the $700B bailout.  But Paulson is no Antonioni, though no one else wants the director’s chair just now.  And not even in Bill Kristol’s sickest fantasies could Sarah Palin fill Monica Vitti’s toeless high heels.  The joke really is on us.  What’s left, then, but a slow shuffle down the street for a comfortless scotch or a glass of acqua minerale?

It sounds like a bad economist’s pun, but the problem, they say, is a lack of security – or, rather, having too much of the wrong sort of security.  But if we’re looking ahead to a long decline of empire, perhaps there’s a bright side to it all.  It may afford us leisure enough to take up old hobbies again. Time to start sketching flowers.  No drawing pad?  Here, use this scrap of napkin…  Flowers, at least, are nice to look at and tend not to have strong opinions on economic or political issues.  I can’t help but think of Montaigne in his cabbage garden.  He said so many of my favorite things.  One of them was this:

At a time when to do evil is so common, to do only what is useless is praiseworthy.

Which is nice encouragement, since it makes distraction heroic, and so many of the things I’m interested in doing right now fall into that ‘useless’ category.


Filed under Misc.

Marginalia, no.25

                                         …[T]here’s not a man
That lives who hath not had his god-like hours.

~ William Wordsworth, The Prelude

All ecstasies end in a blush.  Only the mystic and the madman are spared.  The rest of us fall prey to that cousin of Newton’s third law which matches every apotheosis with a bruising fall back into clay.  …Still, give me my god-like hours.

Leave a comment

Filed under Marginalia

Doodles and Dollars

In Antonioni’s film L’eclisse, the luminous Monica Vitti visits the Rome stock exchange, where her fiancée, played by Alain Delon, works.  Delon points out a fat man who has just lost 50 million lire.  Intrigued, she follows the man.  He orders a drink at a bar, barely touches it, then goes to a café where he orders an acqua minerale, which he again barely touches.  He is writing something on a piece of paper, and leaves it on the table.  We imagine that it must be a set of furious, melancholy figures.  Vitti approaches the table, and sees that it is a drawing of a flower…

[T]he joke is nicely on us.  We had a stock idea of how the financial victim responds to catastrophe – collapse, despair, self-defenestration – and Antonioni confounded our expectations.  The character slips through our changing perceptions, like a boat moving through canal locks.  We begin in misplaced certainty and end in placeless mystery.

~ James Wood, How Fiction Works

1 Comment

Filed under Film

The Man Who Walked

‘I’m deaf,’ he continued. ‘That’s the awful truth. That’s why I’m leaning towards you in this rather eerie fashion.’

The quote is from William Dalrymple’s interview with Patrick Leigh Fermor, conducted at the latter’s home in the Peloponnese.  It’s encouraging to see that Fermor has acuity and humor enough to make such remarks at 93 years old; encouraging, too, to catch Dalrymple’s reported sighting of the “8in-high pile of manuscript, some of it ring-bound, and some in folders, on which was scribbled in red felt-tip: Vol 3.”  It would be a double loss were Fermor himself to end before finishing his planned three-volume travel memoir – the second installment of which arrived over twenty years ago.

Reading A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water is an education in print, just as the 1933-35 trek recounted in the books served as an alternative university for Fermor, who had a knack for getting kicked out of school.  Without too much posturing -I think- on his own behalf, Fermor becomes in these pages a sort of everyman on pilgrimage to Byzantium, his life a bildungsroman even Childe Harold might envy.  In every wintry starving solitude he is the object of unexpected charity; in every metropolis, the consummate flâneur; under every gothic arch, the questioning, curious student; at the door of every fire-warmed baronial schloss, the adopted cousin of infinite fascination.

That particular Europe is gone.  It was on its way out even then in ’33, the year Hitler was made Chancellor.  The Rhine Valley, the Vienna, Hungary and Transylvania that Fermor describes, from the dual perspective of enthusiastic youth and world-wise soldier turned writer, is a heavy lesson in the cultural and personal costs of war: buried under a merciless weight of history, stamped out by the boots of the two great twentieth-century totalitarianisms.  But Fermor’s prose is an amber preservative, full of golden glimpses of a world-that-was.

About that prose: On first introduction you may experience the briefest hesitation, like a bather stepping into a swift, cold stream.  But then you give yourself to the current and are carried effortlessly, joyfully along.  Fermor’s is not the kind of writing that makes for the convenient collection of aphorisms or that encourages consumption in fits and starts.  It is seductive and intelligent, full of vigor and keen observation (I’m still haunted by his description of a Sunday morning in Germany, when the bells for mass pealed through the liquid atmosphere of a downpour: “We might have been in a submarine among sunk cathredrals,” he says).  Fermor’s is the kind of writing that makes for the slow, warm digestion that assures you that, yes, you’ve dined very well indeed.


Filed under Misc.

Marginalia, no.24

In this depression and dreadful uninterrupted suffering, I don’t condemn life.  On the contrary, I like it and find it good.  Can you believe it?  I find everything good and pleasant, even my tears, my grief.  I enjoy weeping, I enjoy despair.  I enjoy being exasperated and sad.  I feel as if these were so many diversions and I love life in spite of them all.  I want to live on.  It would be cruel to have me die when I am so accommodating.

~ Marie Bashkirtseff

A talented painter and student of the Académie Julian in Paris, Bashkirtseff died of tuberculosis at age twenty-five in 1884.  She titled her voluminous diary I Am the Most Interesting Book of All – which is quite a boast.  We should all think so highly of ourselves.  But questions arise:  Fiction or non-fiction?  Paperback?  Hardcover?  Leather-bound?  If your life is a book, are you the author of that book or the mere possessor and reader of it?  Is it the sort of book you set on the shelf and admire from the safe distance of the couch during television commercials, or is it the sort of book you open at every traffic signal, at every bench, and re-read through the early hours of morning?  And can you ever hope to master its contents?  I suppose journal keeping itself is an attempt to master one’s contents.  But in my experience it does little more than provide my future self opportunity to blush and groan over my present self.

1 Comment

Filed under Marginalia

Silent Skies

We participate in a tragedy; at a comedy we only look.

~ Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun

In the late fall of 1994, during my last year at college, I was riding in the back of a small car through the Phinney Ridge district of Seattle when our vehicle was hit by a speeding pizza deliveryman.  I was knocked unconscious.  I came to before I was able to open my eyes.  I remember sitting several moments in darkness, confused, feeling sick, vaguely aware of the sound of a person moaning.  After being strapped to a backboard and trundled into an ambulance, a police officer asked me a series of what I thought were hypothetical questions concerning an auto accident. I had no idea what he was talking about.

I wasn’t badly hurt. There was some mild internal bleeding (I pissed blood for a day) but nothing of real concern.  Everyone involved in the accident was fine or on the way to fine.  We were all sent home after several hours in the emergency room.

The next day it snowed and I skipped class.  I hurt everywhere: my back, my neck, my arms and legs.  But I couldn’t care less.  There was welling up in me a peculiar sensation, like nothing I’d ever felt before.  The warmth inside the apartment, the presence of friends, the crisp air outside and the snow, a bird on the porch surprised by the change of weather – it was all an incredible, delicious joy to me that day.  I was intensely conscious of the fact that I was alive and that to be alive was astounding.  This euphoria lasted almost a week.

I experienced the same sensation again in the days immediately following September 11, 2001.  I might be faulted for it.  After all, I hadn’t been in Manhattan.  I hadn’t been at the Pentagon.  I hadn’t suffered personally at all.  No one I knew had died that morning.  How could I justify a euphoria which I knew belonged only to survivors?

Somehow we were all New Yorkers that day seven years ago.  Those that suffered and those that died – they became, somehow, us and our loved ones.  The faces that emerged from the mountainous clouds of debris, fleeing the collapse and the volcanic flow of rubble, faces full of horror and desperation – they were our own faces.

We learned then that tears are the common property of humanity.  We held their broken bones, broken hearts, pain and anger in our hands and, as much as we were able, bore them.  We learned – if only for a moment – what it means to truly identify with another person, to know that your neighbor’s life is your own.

In the days that followed 9/11 we walked around like children, searching the skies.  My wife and I were living in Seattle under a busy flyway. Jetliners typically passed every few minutes; we’d grown accustomed to it.  But now we gazed up at the sky for the planes that weren’t there.  Nothing came out of the sky anymore but birds and falling leaves, and an unembarrassed, exulting silence.  Despite the horror of all that had passed, there was a beautiful, potent joy in that silence.  It fell down on us in those days like the snow or September leaves, like a strange sort of grace.

1 Comment

Filed under History

Good Humor Man

Good humor is a philosophic state of mind; it seems to say to Nature that we take her no more seriously than she takes us.  I maintain that one should always talk of philosophy with a smile.  We owe it to the Eternal to be virtuous; but we have the right to add to this tribute our irony as a sort of personal reprisal.

~ Voltaire

Leave a comment

Filed under Levity

Marginalia, no.23

The ad as the New Utopia is currently a cult phenomenon. We watch the dreadful or boring things on television, because… after the sight of prattling politicians, bloody corpses strewn about various parts of the globe for various reasons, and dramatizations in which one cannot tell what is going on because they are never-ending serials, the commercials are a blessed relief. Only in them does paradise still exist. There are beautiful women, handsome men and happy children, and the elderly have intelligence in their eyes and generally wear glasses. To be kept in constant delight they need only pudding in a new container, lemonade made from real water, a foot antiperspirant, violet-scented toilet paper, or a kitchen cabinet about which nothing is extraordinary but the price. The joy in the eyes of the stylish beauty as she beholds a roll of toilet paper or opens a cupboard like a treasure chest is transmitted instantly to everyone. In that empathy there also may be envy and a little irritation, because everyone knows he could never experience ecstasy by drinking that lemonade or using that toilet paper. Everyone knows that this Arcadia is inaccessible, but its glow is effective nonetheless.

~ Stanislaw Lem, A Perfect Vacuum

One of the great 20th-century science fiction authors, Lem was also fond of writing reviews for imaginary books.  A Perfect Vacuum is an entire volume of these.  Having become something of a Luddite in my near-middle age, I don’t watch much television but am confident the dream of Commercial Utopia lives on.  It’s always easier to sell Utopia than the actual products sitting in your warehouse.  I do have one complaint against television commercials today: you don’t hear good jingles anymore.  The inane but effective commercial jingles buried in my memory still manage to claw their way out of the soil from time to time.  Walking the breakfast cereal aisle at the local grocery store I can’t help but hear them.  I recall watching an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show in the late 1980s which, bizarrely, was all about television commercials and how much we love them.  One of Oprah’s guests was seated at a piano, playing and singing famous jingles for the live studio audience.  For the grand finale -perhaps the greatest jingle of all time, he said- he swept into a long series of baroque flourishes and flamboyant glissandi that left everyone scratching their heads, then capped it all off with three unfortgettable notes: “By……Mennen.”  Gasps, laughter, mad applause.

Leave a comment

Filed under Marginalia


I woke the other day with a strange dread of the name Cecrops.  There in bed, in the early morning dark, I actually caught myself mouthing the words: ‘…slow-motion horror of a word like Cecrops.’ 

I had to refresh my memory, but it turns out that Cecrops was a mythical early king of Athens (half man and half fish or snake) who once refereed a contest between Athena and Poseidon to choose a patron god for the city.  Each would offer the Athenians a gift, and Cecrops would select the winner.  Facing off at the acropolis, Poseidon gave the Athenians a spring of brackish water.  Athena struck a stone with her spear and up came an olive tree.  Afraid Poseidon’s unpotable spring wouldn’t be much use (not realizing it symbolized naval power), Cecrops chose in favor of Athena.  At least the olive tree would provide tangible benefits like food and fuel, he thought.

Goddess of the art of war, of cunning heroes and various crafts, Athena is also famously associated with wisdom.  (“The owl of Minerva only spreads its wings in the falling dusk” said Hegel, suggesting we only understand anything from a bird’s eye view and after dark [clears throat].)  Unable to penetrate the symbolism of the gods’ gifts, Cecrops appears to have nonetheless chosen wisely – since understanding was apparently what he lacked.  But then again, if the gifts of Greeks are suspect, the gifts of their gods are doubly so. 

In order, then, to exorcise the dread of ‘Cecrops’ from my mind, I penned the following lines, just for fun, to honor the ancient fish-king of Athens:


Old Cecrops chose the olive tree
for purely practical reasons
and handed false Minerva right
to exercise her treasons.

Unsightly scales and lacking legs
kept him from going to college
where, if he had, Cecrops had learned:
Woe drinks each night with Knowledge.


Filed under Misc.

Marginalia, no.22

I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition.

~ Samuel Pepys, October 13, 1660

It’s an almost super-human talent, the ability to keep composed and smile winningly while being publicly dismembered.  No one lacking it is advised to enter politics.

Leave a comment

Filed under Marginalia