Monthly Archives: October 2008

Marginalia, no.32

Its passage was lit by the usual lamps.

~ John Collier, Halfway to Hell

Several of Collier’s stories were adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and he was an inspiration for Rod Serling, which is obvious enough after you’ve read some Collier for yourself.  In this particular story (collected in Fancies and Goodnights), the hero, Louis, commits suicide in a hotel room near Piccadilly Circus.  But rather than melting into a desired oblivion, he finds himself still conscious – dead, but self-aware and able to move spectrally about, invisible to the living.  He steps out for a walk and is accosted on the street by a devil who announces his intention of delivering him to hell.  Louis manages to distract the devil with liquor, and comedic adventures follow.  But at one prickly point in the story, when the devil drags him down into the Piccadilly Circus tube station, Louis catches sight of an escalator shaft he’d never noticed before.  It’s down this that the souls of the departed and their fiery escorts make a long final descent.  The shaft appears bottomless and has an odd reek of sulphur about it, but is nonetheless “lit by the usual lamps” – the same as one finds in any other tube shaft.  Which seems right: hell would have to be as mundane as that.

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A Brief Lesson in Civilization

It was an instructive, well-earned and ridiculously warm weekend.  The wife and I managed an escape from house and children to spend two nights holed up at the Goose and Turrets, a charming little inn on the coast at Montara, twenty miles south of San Francisco.  The grand three-storied house is a century old, set on a green property thick with fuchsias and fruit trees and wrapped about by a giant hedge like a castle wall that keeps out everything but the fog and the hummingbirds.  In the black of night, reading before the fireplace of our pine-floored room, the crash of colossal autumn breakers at the shore can be heard from a half mile away.

We spent Saturday and Sunday in the city.  San Francisco is famous for cold summers, but the latter half of September is gorgeous.  This year, that late September glory passed well into October and we found ourselves in shirtsleeves seated outdoors for afternoon tea, carrying our jackets rather than wearing them as we threaded a path below the skyline – astonished, despite the calendar and the fear for the economy, by the great parade of flesh and credit cards in the Union Square shopping district, and the children playing in shorts while parents dozed comfortably on the grass at Yerba Buena Gardens.

Given the passions of the presidential election and the daily carnage of the economy, it’s an odd time to indulge in a weekend away.  But such are the sacrifices we make for civilization.  It’s a raid on the barbarism of the age to sit at breakfast with strangers, to argue what is true patriotism and what sentimental claptrap, to map out schemes for agriculture, healthcare, and market reform, and to revisit all the absurdity, demagoguery, and serial elations and disappointments of a long, long campaign cycle.  It’s an even greater triumph of democratic discourse to change the subject – without drawing blood – to the lovely patterns on the china, the portrait of Marcel Marceau on the wall, the economics of travel by small plane, or the question of where to get a decent dinner. 

There is a peculiarly American habit of thought that allows us to imagine we are so individually determined as to owe little or nothing to the nurture of our country or the contours of its history, and that we owe even less to our fellow citizens.  It is a pleasure to be reminded now and again what a lie that really is.

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Marginalia, no.31

It’s enough to throw you into despair: to read everything, and remember nothing!  Because you do remember nothing.  You may strain as much as you like: everything escapes.  Here and there a few tatters remain, fragile as those puffs of smoke left over after a train has passed.

~ Jules Renard, Journal

Collecting quotations out of books, then, may be likened to bottling little puffs of steam.  It’s a hedge against forgetfulness, but not very effective.  I periodically resolve to exercise my memory (poor atrophied organ) by committing this or that to its shelves, but outsourcing to paper is too economical a temptation.

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Marginalia, no.30

He had, by now, the look of a man who was waiting for something which had happened long before.

~ William Gaddis, The Recognitions

It’s quite possible to miss the boat when it comes to one’s own life.  It’s possible to miss several different boats, actually.  Similarly, it’s possible to live one’s life entirely within the bounds of someone else’s story or someone else’s ideas, to view existence only through lenses ground to a long-dead stranger’s prescription.  As much as I might dislike the dogma of radical individualism, I admit I can’t do without it.  I’m desperately in love with the idea of my own exceptionality – hoping (and conscious of the irony of hoping in someone else’s words) that Emerson was right when he called “every man’s condition a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquires he would put.”

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Marginalia, no.29

It seemed to her that certain portions of the earth must produce happiness – as though it were a plant native only to those soils and doomed to languish elsewhere.

~ Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

The heart is a nomad.  Emma’s curse was to be forever bewitched by the mirage – to imagine she might finally attain it.  But such happiness, once gained, is only sifted through the fingers like sand.  It appears to be a universal law of human nature that, in Montaigne’s words, “we are never in our true abiding-place; we are always somewhere else.”

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Tea with the Salamander

Pliny the Elder, whose melancholy fate it was to become one of those ancient authors more quoted than read, described the salamander as “an animal like a lizard in shape and with a body starred all over; it never comes out except during heavy showers and disappears the moment the weather clears.”  Which is a nice description for an unscientific age.  Pliny also says the creature is so cold it can put out a roaring fire by treading on it, and that sharing a cup with a salamander can kill you (which is true, but only if the salamander has died or been boiled in your drink).

I came face to face with the salamander this past weekend.  I was engaged in a mortal struggle with two juniper bushes on my property.  These are those thorny, wicked sort of junipers popular with landscapers: evil vegetables that collect all manner filth in their underskirts and make impregnable redoubts for spiders and earwigs and other noxious bugs.  Saturday, in heavy leather gloves, I came at the junipers with shears.  By evening I had stripped them naked, reduced them to gnarled stumps that looked like nothing so much as two claw-like hands reaching up out of the earth.

That evening, watering the roots to loosen the soil, I uncovered a little tunnel twisting downwards from the base of one of the junipers.  There seemed no end to it.  I turned the hose into the hole and ran it for five minutes before the water finally bubbled to the surface.  In bed that night I had a vision of some eldritch earth-demon (rather like Blake’s Ghost of a Flea) lodged in the rock a hundred feet beneath my house, arms stretched up toward the surface: the claw-like stumps of my junipers were its hands.

Next morning, with the help of my brother-in-law’s winch, we pulled the juniper roots from the wet ground – slowly, mercilessly.  The roots cracked and groaned with the force of their eviction.  Some minutes later, surveying the churned earth and the gaping voids where the stumps had been, I watched, dazzled, as a salamander came creeping out of the hole.  I had the irrational conviction that this was the fellow responsible for my unsettled dreams the night before.  Weird and slow, with blind bulging eyes and speckled all over with Pliny’s yellow stars, the salamander made straight for the steps that lead to my door, as if inviting himself for tea. 

Of course, I knew better than to join him for a cup.

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Marginalia, no.28

Everything in nature is lyrical in its ideal essence; tragic in its fate, and comic in its existence.

~ George Santayana

One of Santayana’s more frequently quoted bits, usually accompanied by a photograph of a flower or some other cheery, ephemeral thing which seems effortlessly to embody its own ideal, ends regretfully in the mulch pile, and can look funny from a certain angle.  But really, the sentence has teeth.  Match it with a photograph of yourself instead.

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Bookshop Confessions

In a town like London there are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.

~ George Orwell, “Bookshop Memories” (1936)

In any American city of middling size there are plenty of more-than-certifiable lunatics walking the streets and making themselves at home in the neighborhood bookshop. That’s assuming the neighborhood still has a bookshop. In Seattle, at least, it used to. Seattle in the 1990s was near to bursting with local independent booksellers: places like Elliot Bay, Beatty’s, Twice Sold, Magus, Horizon, Pistil, and Couth Buzzard, to name a few. It also had its fair share of certifiables.

Being unambitious and in no particular hurry to grapple with the duties of adult life, I took a job with a local Seattle bookseller as soon as I finished college in ’95, and stayed on for three years. It’s astonishing to recall how little money I made. I’m not at all clear how I managed to both eat and pay my rent. But the coworkers were a friendly cast and I was happy enough to spend my days surrounded by books.

The store was located just north of downtown and was open late. It was set in a dense neighborhood, thick with bars and restaurants and nightclubs. The Opera House was down the street. There was a convention center and a sports arena too. We were a struggling but busy shop and our clientele was a mixed lot. While working there I sold books and magazines to several famous rock stars (yawn). I chatted occasionally with Ron Reagan Jr., who lived nearby. And while he was in town for an extended performance at the repertory theater down the street, actor Ethan Hawke used to sit on the floor of our poetry section and finger through the stacks for thirty minutes each day. I never saw him buy anything.

Our location and late hours made us a favorite with the local crazies.  These are the folks I can’t help thinking of when I read the Orwell quote above. There was the tattered transient we referred to as “Redbeard” who made a habit of leering at blondes and threatening the lives of strangers, myself included. There was the troubled young woman who was always showing off a ghastly wound on her arm, which she wouldn’t let heal, and who kept a pet rat in her pocket. There was a tall spindly fellow who never uttered more than a mousy squeak but liked to wear a pink tutu, and who once defecated on the floor of the children’s section.

Then there was our favorite, a schizophrenic junkie we nicknamed “The Count,” who was forever changing his clothes and decorating his face (his whole face) with lipstick. He was harmless, really, but had a habit of cackling in a wicked sort of way that disturbed our elderly customers and parents with small children. The Count liked to give gifts and I still have a desk sign made of some exotic wood with the name “Fauzi Daud” carved into it, which he gave me. He claimed to know Roger Waters and Jerry Garcia and the President of the United States, and to have lived as a vampire among the Hebrew slaves of ancient Egypt. One day he told me matter-of-factly that he had fallen asleep at the park, woke up under a bush, and “shattered into a million pieces.”

Less insane but still charming was the fat-faced man with the tiny eyes who would hold the newspaper to his nose in order to read it and who never went anywhere without his ill-tempered dwarf friend; or the walrus-like retiree with a bristly white beard who twirled a cane and faked a British accent while attempting to seduce one of my coworkers, famously offering him, in a lascivious tone we parodied for months, a bite of his “spiced apple tart;” or the uneducated proprietress of a local coffee shop who’d once taken a bullet in a domestic dispute and imagined it gave her a superior perspective and a homey kind of mystical insight.

It was easy to get into trouble working at the bookshop. There was no shortage of illicit substances in the back room and the employees were often high or drunk. Certain kinds of business transactions were known to take place in the parking lot. One of my coworkers, a short guy with an Irish temper, lived across the street and would invite us over for drinks after closing. One Christmas Eve, several of us drank a great quantity of beer and marched around the neighborhood to find an open convenience store and buy cigarettes. On a street corner we passed through a gauntlet of righteously intoxicated panhandlers demanding holiday contributions. Our Irish friend got into a shouting match with one of them and we only barely escaped an all-out brawl by dragging him, hollering and fuming, back to his apartment.

One of my most memorable evenings at the bookshop involved the death of a goose. It was a couple hours after dark when a woman walked in with a big Canada goose in her arms. She was distraught. The bird had just been hit by a car, she said, and we needed to do something about it. She handed the goose, still alive, to my friend W. Then the woman fled in tears. Almost immediately, the goose’s head dropped and it went into convulsions. W set it down and there before a crowd of astonished customers it agonizingly expired on the floor. We boxed it up and pranked a new employee (who’d been in the back room) by telling him the box was full of books that needed shelving in the nature and field guides section. Then we called a non-emergency police number to inquire after the proper disposal of the body. Two hours later a man named Bob came to collect the goose. He was so touched by the way we’d laid a flower on its breast and scribbled farewells on the cardboard coffin that he wept a little.

My bookshop days were a bit of a low-life period. There was plenty of good reading and some good conversation, but in the end this particular bookshop was just a low-life sort of place, especially after dark. I stayed longer than I should have. I told myself that I was playing Prince Hal, that I would “awhile uphold the unyoked humor of idleness” which I was presently enjoying, but that when the time was ripe I would “imitate the Sun” and find better employment. It wasn’t the need to impress any monarchical parent that finally spurred my departure, however. It was marriage. The bookshop itself locked doors for the last time two or three years later.


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The Child and the Spectacle

As I go on in this life, day by day, I become more of a bewildered child; I cannot get used to this world, to procreation, to heredity, to sight, to hearing; the commonest things are a burthen.  The prim, obliterated, polite surface of life, and the broad, bawdy, and orgiastic –or maenadic– foundations, form a spectacle to which no habit reconciles me.

~ Robert Louis Stevenson, in a letter to a friend

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Marginalia, no.27

Man’s natural instinct, in fact, is never toward what is sound and true; it is toward what is specious and false…  It is so in politics, which consists wholly of a succession of unintelligent crazes, many of them so idiotic that they exist only as battlecries and shibboleths and are not reducible to logical statement at all… The ideas that conquer the race most rapidly and arouse the wildest enthusiasm and are held most tenaciously are precisely the ideas that are most insane.

~ H.L. Mencken

American democracy, says Mencken, comes to little more than “the worship of Jackals by Jackasses.”  Which hurts a little.  And yet it’s precisely now, during the braying raptures of the campaign season’s endgame, when a friendly face-slap is best taken.  For all his critiques of American society and religion, Mencken displays a pessimism with regard to human reason and the capacity for progress which can only be described as Calvinistic – and so in the end proves himself a true enough American, and a bit of a puritan to boot.

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