Monthly Archives: November 2009

Marginalia, no.88

Imagine…a Utopia in which everything grows of its own accord and turkeys fly around ready-roasted.

~ Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena

‘In such a place,’ says Art, ‘men would die of boredom or hang themselves.’  But he’s wrong about that, because this heaven really exists and I, for one, will be glad to find myself there come Thursday.  I refer, of course, to Mom’s kitchen on Thanksgiving Day.  The great American secular feast approaches like an annual Brigadoon through the November mist.  The whole splendid chorus of fowl and stuffing, potato and gravy, casserole and cranberry sauce implores us to eat, drink and be merry: Utopia lives for only a day.

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Placebo Effect

‘When I got tired of talking to the other passengers, I thought about women. I frequently do this for hours without becoming bored; they are much pleasanter than sheep to think of when you are trying to fall asleep.  Thinking about women also makes you insensible to mild fright or minor discomforts.  Once I was sleeping with another fellow under a pup tent in a rainstorm in Tunisia and at about two o’clock in the morning he woke me up.  I said, “What’s up?” and he said, “The tent’s just blown away.”  The rain had turned to a cloudburst, and my blankets were soaked through.  I got into the front seat of a jeep and wrapped the wet blankets around me.  The top and windshield afforded some help, but the water lashed in from both sides.  I thought about women for four and a half hours and never caught a cold.’

~ A.J. Liebling, The Road Back to Paris

Image: Mata Hari, 1905

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Marginalia, no.87

Leibnitz, though not murdered, may be said to have died partly of the fear that he should be murdered, and partly of the vexation that he was not.

~ Thomas De Quincey, Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts

Such a cosmic rebuke.  Leibniz might have thought his murder necessary in the best of all possible worlds.  Mere death is something even the least can aspire to with confidence; the grand endorsement of martyrdom is granted to few.


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More Gushing Enthusiasm

Another exhibit in the Chronicles of Gallic Effusiveness, previously addressed here.  This one comes from Proust’s second volume.  The young narrator has been to see the great Berma performing Racine.  It was the realization of a hotly cherished dream, but he was more impressed with the bit parts played by secondary actresses than by Berma herself.  Until, that is, he reads the following review and revises his memory of the experience accordingly:

The performance of Phedre, given this afternoon before an enthusiastic audience which included the foremost representatives of the artistic and critical world, was for Mme Berma, who played the heroine, the occasion of a triumph as brilliant as any that she has known in the course of her phenomenal career…It constituted the purest and most exalted manifestation of dramatic art which it has been the privilege of our generation to witness.

I was surprised to see that Eric Hoffer in his unpublished notebooks (h/t Patrick Kurp) comments on the phenomenon:

It is the Frenchman’s readiness to exaggerate that is at the root of his intellectual lucidity and also of his capacity for acknowledging merit.  The English were not afraid to exaggerate in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and they were then not far behind the French in the lucidity of their thinking… There is hardly a single instance of cultural vigor marked by moderation of expression.

Precisely what Hoffer meant by ‘lucidity,’ I’m not sure.  But if the French have a greater capacity for acknowledging merit it may be because they were relatively less infected by the leprous touch of Calvin, the idolatrous fandoms of whose English disciples were checked by the assurance that even the most accomplished among them were, after all, totally depraved in flesh and spirit.  Hoffer’s date for the decline in English intellectual vigor coincides well enough with the Puritan Revolution.
A capacity for sustained enthusiasm may also explain why so many of the English-speaking world’s former celebrities retire to France.  They know that among their Gallic admirers they’ll never have to stoop to touring Indian casinos and small-town community centers for rent money and faint echoes of the adulation they enjoyed in their prime.


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Marginalia, no.86

There are no friends, only moments of friendship.

~ Jules Renard, Journal

Yes, but with certain persons we seem always to find our moment, a perpetual interval come loose from the tyranny of sequence and forever close at hand.

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Marginalia, no.85

Man was entering under false pretenses the sphere of incredible facilities, acquired too cheaply, below cost price, almost for nothing, and the disproportion between outlay and gain, the obvious fraud on nature, the excessive payment for a trick of genius, had to be offset by self-parody.

~ Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles

Schulz is musing on the old velocipedes and how they made their riders look ridiculous.  Having now progressed far enough into the Sphere of Incredible Facilities to enjoy the benefits of karaoke, breast implants, spray-on tans and Segway scooters, we see that while Man will always want super powers, he’ll always look silly in tights, and you can’t have one without the other…  In more philosophical moments I wonder if it’s really possible to defraud nature, since that would require being outside nature onself, which is absurd.  It could be, after all, that global warming is nothing more than Mother Earth blushing at her children trying to keep upright on two wheels.

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Suffer the Little Children

What people believe is a measure of what they suffer.

It’s been a couple weeks now since I finished Peter De Vries’ book and I still can’t bring myself to begin another novel.  I pick here and there at Chekhov stories, at Montaigne and Emerson and DeQuincey.  I read magazines.  But in between and throughout the day I return again and again in my mind to The Blood of the Lamb.

My father used to say so, and having been a father myself now for six years, I suspect it’s true: Until you have children of your own it’s impossible to understand the burden of heartache that comes with parenthood.  It weights your steps like leaden boots.  It bounds your vision in every direction.  It colors every thought.  It groans perpetually in the nerves and in the marrow of your bones, sharp, but vaguely sweet.

That people are ever able to survive the suffering and death of their children is incomprehensible to me.  I think about the quote above and I think about De Vries’ own loss.  The Blood of the Lamb is more than a tragicomic (and more tragic for all its comedy) fictional re-creation of his own daughter’s death by leukemia.  It’s also very much about faith, and the death of faith.

I wonder why he didn’t write ‘love’ instead of ‘believe.’  In its power to evoke it, love seems almost a form of suffering in its own right, and it’s not hard to imagine that the more objects you give your heart to in a world of universal transience, the more you open yourself to pain at their inevitable loss.  But he didn’t write ‘love.’

Perhaps he meant that the more we suffer, the less we are likely to believe; or, conversely, that the more things we believe, the more we are bound to suffer over them.  Or perhaps he meant that the particular things we believe (religiously, personally) grow naturally out of our individual fears, as a way of counteracting those fears and pushing them – and the psychological suffering they entail – farther away.  But I don’t think so. 

I wonder, instead, if De Vries was simply saying that we suffer according to the terms of our personal creeds.  The believer in Self, then, suffers specifically in terms of the self; the believer in Nothing in terms of the void; the believer in a personal God in terms of close acquaintance with unobliging omnipotence.

What does it mean for a believer in Love (as every parent must be) to suffer in terms of love?  Maybe The Blood of the Lamb is De Vries’ answer to that question.


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Marginalia, no.84

Even as Must implants distaste, so does Can’t stir sweet longings…

~ Max Beerbohm, ‘Books Within Books’

A nice capture of that universal law which explains, among other things, why children hate Brussels sprouts and want dessert before dinner, and why the books you’ve been looking for for ages and can never seem to find always sound so much more interesting than those you already own but can’t bring yourself to read.

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Less Praise, Please

Solon famously recommended calling no man happy until he was dead.  It’s just as advisable, I think, not to call him great.  There are some compliments that should only be paid after the object of admiration is safely deceased.  Otherwise it gets embarrassing.

Consider the biographical note written by Cécile Buffet for Alain Planes’ Harmonia Mundi CD, Haydn Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2.  Planes is a gifted pianist and (to judge by his photograph) he’s been on this planet much longer than I have, so it’s only right that his accomplishments are noted.  Buffet’s fawning idolatry, however, is too much:

A great lover and connoisseur of painting, no less learned in his passion for poetry, Alain Planes enjoys a career in his own image: right from the start he has followed the path of life rather than the siren songs of a glory that demands too many compromises. 

From a mother with an artistic temperament…he has inherited and retained fervent humility and disinterestedness of gesture.  In the end it is this that creates style – rigor is of little use without grace.

The man is still alive, for God’s sake.  Let’s not jinx him by smothering any perfectly adequate virtues he may posses with so much saccharine flattery.  If Plaines is as humble and disinterested as Buffet claims, he can only blush at this.  But then, did he have no say at all in the liner notes for his own CD?  No one should take himself this seriously.

Perhaps it’s just Gallic effusiveness.  I ought to be happy, I suppose, for the opportunity to be mildly scandalized, and for the laughs:

There is in him something of a curious blend of Proust and Wilde.  With the first he shares his relationship with time, profound, expanded, Schubertian.  With the second, a certain intellectual dandyism, a form of refined cynicism that nonetheless does not sacrifice tenderness.

Thankfully it’s the Expanded Schubertian and not the Intellectual Dandy that comes through in Planes’ music.  But if there is a bit of Wilde about him, it might serve as inoculation against his admirers’ excesses.  “Praise makes me humble,” Wilde once wrote, “but when I am abused I know I have touched the stars.”

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