Monthly Archives: September 2009

Marginalia, no.78

Witness the elephant who was rival to Aristophanes the grammarian in the love of a young flower girl in the city of Alexandria… They tell also of a dragon in love with a girl, and a goose smitten with the love of a boy in the town of Asopus, and a ram that was suitor to the minstrel girl Glaucia; and every day one sees monkeys furiously in love with women.

~ Montaigne, Apology for Raymond Sebond

Could it really have been every day in sixteenth-century Bordeaux that one saw monkeys ‘furiously in love’ with women?  To borrow L.P. Hartley’s famous phrase, the past is a foreign country.  And so is France.  Of course, French women are famous lookers, so one can hardly blame the monkeys.  But perhaps Montaigne had in mind local men who were uncommonly grabby and hairy.

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To Helvetica in a Handbasket

Umberto Eco has noticed that children aren’t learning penmanship anymore.  (This is not true in my son’s case, since he was taught to write in cursive before he learned to print, but I know it’s true for many.)  Perhaps, Eco speculates, the art of penmanship will evolve into a sort of boutique hobby or extra-curricular activity like stamp collecting or fencing.  ‘Humanity,’ he says, ‘has learned to rediscover as sports and aesthetic pleasures many things that civilization had eliminated as unnecessary.’

It very much makes a difference, when reading something written by hand, whether the words are composed in block letters or cursive.  The performance of a sentence on a page is like the performance of a musical composition.  The same series of notes might be played on either clarinet or violin, but we will hear and interpret them differently.  Skill in execution will count for something too: pianists delivering notationally-identical glissandi may by their skill or lack of it whip up a confectionary delight – or a frothy mess.  Penmanship works in the same way.
And so does typeface.  Wounds are still seeping over the Futura/Verdana kerfuffle that made news recently.  And it’s a fact that Moby Dick printed in Caslon is a much better book than Moby Dick printed in Rockwell.  (Variations in typeface can result in variant readings and may, I think, account for the bibliophile’s need to collect favorite titles in multiple editions.)  It’s ironic I should hold forth here in godless Arial, I know.  Someday I’ll have to improve my style guide for The New Psalmanazar and do my part to avert the awful doom of a sans-serif world.

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Marginalia, no.77

One day he saw that he was older than he had ever been before.

~ Cynthia Ozick, The Cannibal Galaxies

Thirty-six times round the sun today.  But chronological advancement and age (as implying maturity) are two different things.  There were moments in childhood when the latter outstripped the former, like the hare racing ahead of Aesop’s tortoise.  Somewhere along the course, I think, the hare has fallen asleep.

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Marginalia, no.76

All moments of time have coexisted simultaneously…

~ W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

Late September bluffs its way to a reprise of summer’s dog days.  The weather prophets promise a triple-digit apocalypse tomorrow.  I only hope it will be the Last Judgment and that autumn will arrive near schedule.  Half asleep at midnight I can almost believe in the simultaneity of things.  I hear out-of-season visitors in the willows: the mockingbird, the storm.  By noon I’ve lost my faith.

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Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico

Emperor Norton

One hundred and fifty years ago today Joshua Abraham Norton donned the purple robe of empire. I keep a portrait of him on the wall of my cubicle, near Cervantes, who despite the lapse of years might have been an appropriate godfather to him.

He had two mutt dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, who followed him about. When Bummer died in 1865, Mark Twain wrote the dog’s obituary.

“In what other city,” Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “would a harmless madman who supposed himself emperor … been so fostered and encouraged?”

The Chronicle commemorates his reign today.  Wikipedia article here.

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Marginalia, no.75

The concentration of mouth-filling, meaty glutamic acid rises ten- to twenty-fold, and as in cheese, so much of the amino acid tyrosine is freed that it may form small white crystals… The unsaturated fats in pig muscle break apart and react to form hundreds of volatile compounds, some of them characteristic of the aroma of melon, apple, citrus, flowers, freshly cut grass, and butter.

~ Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking

It’s a charming accident of our language that the word ‘cure’ has come to refer both to a method of preserving meat and to regaining physical or mental health after a period of sickness.  Curing meat is a process of dehydration, and when the theory of humors still held in medicine bloodletting and emetics were prescribed to drain excess fluids and return the patient to healthful semi-aridity.  Heraclitus cautioned against a moist soul and called a dry soul “a gleam of light…wisest and best.”  The secret of both sublime hams and the dry-cured soul is therefore the removal of excess moisture.  One of the oldest methods for curing meat is by prolonged exposure to smoke.  Smoking my pipe in the evenings I wonder if I’m not curing my soul a little.  There’s something almost alchemical about it: firing (cured) tobacco leaves in the retort of the bowl to release all the volatile compounds of the day and summon buttery golden aromas of the philosophic mind.

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Marginalia, no.74

Of the customary modes of acquisition, the one most appropriate to a collector would be the borrowing of a book with its attendant non-returning.

~ Walter Benjamin, Unpacking My Library

Soft theft of this sort lends the book lover a nimbus of glory that only waxes brighter the more prolonged the period of the loan.  How many old widows and codgers have found a late or posthumous fame in six-figure fines earned for the tardy return of library books checked out decades before?  But fines like these are always waived in honor of rare heroic achievement.

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Bibliotheca Abscondita, Titles #1 & #2

Sir Thomas Browne left among his miscellaneous papers a catalog of imaginary books, the Musaeum Clausum or Bibliotheca Abscondita.  Included are unknown works by Ovid and Pytheas, an account of the death of Avicenna, and (my favorite) a Sub Marine Herbal ‘describing the several Vegetables found on the Rocks, Hills, Valleys, Meadows at the bottom of the Sea.’

Better than Browne’s list, however, is the library dreamt up by Rabelais, which includes such promising titles as Folk Dances for HereticsClose Shaven Clerks (by Ockham), Advanced Asslicking for Graduate Students and the not-to-be-omitted And Cheese, Too.

Detailed descriptions of the dreams of others can make life unbearable, I know, but I’ll briefly mention a curious personal phenomenon.  For several years now I’ve had recurring dreams of an imaginary bookshop set in the middle of a city, entered by a flight of stairs from street level and extending two or three floors below ground.  It is ill-lit, dusty and labyrinthine, the best imaginable place for browsing, and I never fail to make unheard-of discoveries there among the ghostly stacks.

This is my Bibliotheca Abscondita, my bookshop of dreams.  I’ve decided to begin cataloging the titles I find there or in other dreams.  Posts for this series will necessarily be sporadic.

The first two volumes:

Cassseraghi, author unknown, trans. Mary Wortley Montagu.  An early Italian opera libretto.  The book is full of the most wonderful illustrations done in a style that somehow weds Watteau, Blake and early Picasso – harlequin figures emerge from velvety green shadows, highlighted in turquoise, red and shimmering gold leaf.

Collected Works, Augustynde.  This is a Library of America volume I’d never seen before, the collected novels and stories of a mid-twentieth century writer known only by his peculiar surname.  A photograph of the author is printed on the back cover: a latter-day Whitman with a pendulous beard, dressed in a casual-cut white suit and hat, smoking a pipe.  Most of his stories concern WWII.  Every sentence is an intense surprise and pleasure.  In my dream I can’t understand how it’s possible I’d never heard of Augustynde before.


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