Monthly Archives: October 2009

Marginalia, no.83

My pen makes a noise like a goose eating grass.

~ Jules Renard, Journal

Writing in 1893, Renard could not have imagined the impoverishment of such moments after the advent of the ballpoint.  It’s a count against Argentina that it turned the birthday of Laszlo Biro into a national holiday.  Biro’s little machine has done more to hasten the death of decent handwriting than even the typewriter.  And my tapping at the keyboard, at least, sounds a little like the rain.

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Marginalia, no.82

Perhaps T.B. had been a mistake.

~ Peter De Vries, The Blood of the Lamb

Contracting TB got Don Wanderhope out of one fix while putting him into another.  That’s typical of tuberculosis.  Its near-eradication in the twentieth century was a disaster for literature.  Among the more richly allusive ways to snuff it, TB had ranked up there with drowning at sea: Keats and Lycidas arm in arm.  Swine flu doesn’t have the same cachet.  One can only hope these new drug-resistant TB strains will re-light the chandeliers in the grand alpine sanitariums someday.

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Japonais

Winiwarter - Japonais

When French was still lingua franca, you couldn’t get very far in education until you had learned to read it.  That was back in the Jurassic, of course.  But being a monoglot of the Anglicized Age, even when your native glot is the mono in every actual and virtual direction, a lack of French can still exclude you from certain categories of knowledge.

Consider the curious photograph above.  I don’t recall where I found it, but I understand the subject to be a Belgian by the name of Hans de Winiwarter (1875-1949).  That he was a great fancier of things Japanese is obvious.  In a memoir titled Mostly in the Line of Duty: Thirty Years with Books, Herman Liebaers, formerly of the Royal Library of Belgium and Marshall of the Royal Household to King Baudouin I, describes cataloging the deceased Winiwarter’s collection of Japanese books and art prints.  But unless I learn to read French, it seems, I’m excluded from easy (i.e. Google) access to any more of Winiwarter’s biography beyond the odd suggestion that he was also the same scientist who in 1912 estimated the number of chromosomes in male guineas pigs to be 47 (the correct number being 46). 

How to translate the dreamy look in Winiwarter’s eyes and reconcile the collector of Japanese curiosities with the counter of cavia porcellus chromosomes?  I don’t know.  It’s apparently a closely guarded francophone secret.

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The Sufficient Beauty of Mr Polly

I read H.G. Wells for the first time this year.  I’d mentally set him aside as a purveyor of antique sci-fi thrills, which usually isn’t my cup of tea.  Then one day at the library, dull on the unread titles at home, I suddenly wondered if that particular cup wasn’t the one I was craving after all, and so I checked out The Island of Dr Moreau.  It delivered pretty much what I’d expected, until, that is, the final chapter, which shook halfway loose of the rest of the book and hinted, I thought, at something broader in Wells’ genius.

Looking for that broader Wells, I came across his neglected 1910 comic-picaresque, The History of Mr Polly.  Wells missteps in a couple places: putting too clinical a focus on Polly’s digestive troubles in the first few chapters and contradicting himself on his hero’s age, for example.  But Mr Polly himself – undereducated but word-drunk, virginal but affecting depravity, expecting illumination but stumbling blind into family, work and marriage – Mr Polly is the kind of character that marks the difference between author-as-storyteller and author-as-demiurge:  Mr Polly breathes.

Since he was an active socialist and sometime-member of the Fabian Society, we’re not surprised to find Wells here and there poking into issues of class and industry, but Polly is never flattened to symbol.  If there’s no proper place for him in the tumult of modernity, this is due as much to his personal idiosyncrasies as his background and status:

A man whose brain devotes its hinterland to making odd phrases and nicknames out of ill-conceived words, whose conception of life is a lump of auriferous rock to which all the value is given by rare veins of unbusinesslike joy, who reads Boccaccio and Rabelais and Shakespeare with gusto, and uses ‘Stertoraneous Shover’ and ‘Smart Junior’ as terms of bitterest opprobrium, is not likely to make a great success under modern business conditions.

It’s a very funny book.  Certain scenes read like a provincial Victorian precursor to Withnail and I.  But there’s a quality to the vaguely-yearning but downtrodden Polly that can remind us, between chuckles, of Naipaul’s Mr Biswas or John William’s William Stoner.  If life is a landscape of obstruction and discontent, then Polly is sustained, like these,  by occasional glimpses of beatitude, “the momentary vision of a very beautiful thing seen through the smoke of a passing train.”

The final quarter of the book I found somewhat weaker than the rest.  Perhaps it’s simply that Polly’s climb toward the light isn’t so funny as his fumbling in darkness.  We don’t want our windmill-tilters to snap out of it.  But their adversaries don’t have to be visible in order to be real:

Man comes into life to seek and find his sufficient beauty, to serve it, to win and increase it, to fight for it, to face anything and dare anything for it, counting death as nothing so long as the dying eyes still turn to it.  And fear, and dullness and indolence and appetite, which, indeed, are no more than fear’s three crippled brothers, who make ambushes and creep by night, are against him, to delay him, to hold him off, to hamper and beguile and kill him in that quest.

No matter how entertaining his trials, I suppose there’s always some satisfaction in seeing the hero come home in the end.

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Marginalia, no.81

She had Parkinson’s. She shook like a leper in the wind.

~ Gore Vidal, on Katherine Hepburn

A good example of what we’ll call ‘charming uncharitableness.’  I read it, laughed out loud – and then felt like a perfect bastard.  But even when masked by genius (that simile!), unkindnesses like this remind us of the complications that come of saying something at all when you have nothing particularly nice to say.

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Marginalia, no.80

There never was a man more amusing or fanciful than Giovan Francesco Rustici, nor one who delighted more in animals.  He had a porcupine so tame that it stayed under the table like a dog and sometimes it rubbed against people’s legs so that they drew them in very quickly.  He had an eagle, and also a raven which could say a great many things so clearly that it was just like a human being.  He also applied himself to the study of necromancy by means of which, I am told, he gave strange frights to his servants and assistants; and thus he lived without a care.

~ Vasari, Lives

It’s all in that “thus” of the final clause.  A prickly lapdog, a conversational bird, and enough proficiency in the dark arts to prank one’s servants and friends: the best description of the carefree life I’ve read in years.

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Novelistic Imprecision

Philosophical exactitude is not required of novels, though novels are by nature philosophical.  Precise theories and grand conclusions are suspect in works of fiction in the same way they are suspect in real life: too strictly adhered to they’re symptomatic of willful delusion or at least wishful thinking.  But personhood and experience (being this thing rather than that -and knowing it-, and suffering change over time) are the stuff of novels, just as they’re the stuff of every human life –and these defy systematization.  If there is a final synthesis beneath it all, it tends to elude us, or the certainty of it does.

Perhaps that’s why among philosophers I prefer Montaigne to Spinoza, for example.  Spinoza is undoubtedly the more precise and systematic thinker and his scope is broader than Montaigne’s, but Montaigne is no less keen an observer of human nature while also being an appreciator of those things that don’t lend themselves so easily to system.   Spinoza’s perspective (with faint irony, perhaps) is godlike: all things fall under his gaze, and he is not surprised.  Montaigne has the spirit of a novelist, and his view is the more human: he is surprised by everything.

In Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes writes that “Memory is identity.”  Being a positive statement, it sounds more philosophically definitive than Joseph Butler’s contention (uttered 250 years earlier in response to Locke) that “Memory may reveal but cannot constitute personhood.”  Both are right.  Like Gregory Peck in Spellbound, Barnes’ amnesiac loses his identity along with his memory (“It’s like looking in a mirror and seeing nothing but mirror”).  Despite that loss of memory, however, Butler’s amnesiac is no less himself as a discrete object or package of DNA.  But where Butler, as a theologian and philosopher, describes the view from above, from the perspective of God or science, Barnes as a novelist describes the scene from below, from the perspective of human personhood and experience.

Totalizing schemes of all kinds tend to live only by perpetual expansion, and sooner or later most fall prey to Bonini’s Paradox: in order to accommodate an infinitely diversifying host of disparate facts and observations, they become as unintelligible and unsystematic as the world they want to define. The only perspective natural to us – and the only one finally satisfying – is the philosophically inexact ground-floor view through a smudged window.

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