Monthly Archives: March 2010

Marginalia, no.113

A powerful idea communicates some of its power to the man who contradicts it.

~ Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove

No, it doesn’t!

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Seven Notable Moments This Past Week

1) I attended a puppet show performance of John Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River.

2) I saw my first butterflies of the year.

3) I picked up used copies of V.S. Pritchett’s A Cab at the Door and Midnight Oil, Henry James’s The Ambassadors, and Balzac’s Pere Goriot.

4) I saw a red-winged blackbird singing in the boughs of a mustard plant near the edge of San Francisco Bay; that verse in the New Testament about birds nesting in mustard plants had always seemed so unlikely, but then I’d never seen mustard eight feet tall before.

5) I made the acquaintance of a lovely young woman whose father was a UFO chaser and once took the family on a camping trip to Mt Shasta after being informed by a Ouija board that a flotilla of saucers had scheduled a meet-up there.

6) I held my breath for three minutes and ten seconds (a personal best).

7) I visited an Egyptology museum operated by the Rosicrucians and with my four-year-old daughter in my arms considered the wrapped-up mummy of a four-year-old girl who died three thousand years ago.

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Bibliotheca Abscondita, Title #5

The Universal Register of Personal Opinion (URPO).  This is a hardback volume with an erasable slate on the cover.  Write your question – any question – there, then open the book to find answers from various living and historical figures, listed alphabetically.  Close the book and write a different question on the cover and the contents are magically rearranged and updated.  No single answer is definitive and contradictions will abound.  Anachronism is more than half the fun since the book allows you to learn, for example, Cleopatra’s take on American health reform legislation, or Emily Dickinson’s opinion of Hammurabi’s personal hygiene.  As such, the URPO suggests that Eternity is the simultaneous presence of all time rather than a matter of infinite sequence.

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The Virgilian Lots

My wife asked what I was doing with the dice.  “Divination,” I said.

On the train coming home from San Francisco yesterday I read the portion of Rabelais’ third book in which Panurge begins to wonder if he should marry.  Pantagruel suggests he test his fortune by the Virgilian Lots.  “Bring me the works of Virgil,” he says. “If you open it three times at random, and on the page that your finger strikes read the lines whose number we have agreed on, then we can explore your future as a husband.”

Having already given my soul to the devil by playing with a Ouija board (age eight) and chanting “I believe in Bloody Mary” before a mirror in a dark room (age nine), I thought I might as well try the Virgilian Lots.  I had no specific question to pose.  It’s been eleven years since the wedding bells rang for me, so Panurge’s problem isn’t mine.  But I thought I might simply present myself, in the form of a question mark, for the general sentence of the oracle.

Following the example of Pantagruel and Panurge, I took my copy of the Aeneid from the shelf, the Robert Fitzgerald translation.  I ransacked the game closet and found some dice.  I saw there were about thirty lines on each page of my copy of the Aeneid, so I rolled five times and added up the results: 14.  In order to avoid garbled prophecies, I decided that if the fourteenth line on the page weren’t a complete sentence I would instead take the whole sentence of which it was a part for my answer.

I opened the book at random.  My first trial landed me on the following lines from Book IV:

Why will he not allow my prayers to fall
On his unpitying ears?

I’m not sure what to do with this.  The words are Dido’s.  Should I put myself in her place?  Am I the one whose prayers go unanswered?  Or am I playing Aeneas to someone else’s Dido and being pitiless and unsympathetic?  Maybe, I thought, my second trial will help clarify things.  I found myself, then, in Book X, with these lines:

Either you stay here for the carrion birds
Or the sea takes you under, hungry fishes
Nibble your wounds.

A dilemma.  I think that, given the choice, I would rather be nibbled by fishes.  Prometheus is famously pecked at by birds, but I imagine he’s bad company.  Under the waves I could hobnob with Milton’s school pal, Edward ‘Lycidas’ King.  He’s sure to have some dish on the old poet.  How any of this relates to falling prayers and unpitying ears, I don’t know. But my last trial brought me the following lines from Book II:

………………And out we go in joy
To see the Dorian campsites, all deserted,
The beach they left behind.

This sounds more encouraging.  My enemies have decamped.  I am alive, though Troy is fallen.  Were my prayers finally answered?  Will I pass unscathed through the jaws of Dilemma like Odysseus through the monstery Strait of Messina?  Encouraging, maybe, but still unsatisfying.

As a child I knew people who used the Bible for divination.  Peter De Vries describes the phenomenon in The Blood of the Lamb.  You start by holding the book up with its spine resting on the table.  Then you quickly remove your hands and let it fall open and with eyes closed point a finger randomly at the page.  Whatever question you had put to God, the answer was in that verse.  (“Moab is my washpot” was the omniscient reply in the De Vries book.)  I wonder how long people have been using books this way, whether the Bible or Virgil or the I Ching, or whatever?

So much for my experiment with the Virgilian Lots.  As one comes to expect with oracles, the answers I was given were as doubtful as the question I had posed, which was myself.  Perhaps I’ll try it again in the future with something other than the Aeneid, something more playful.  Maybe Breakfast of Champions or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

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Marginalia, no.112

Chrysippus used to say that a philosopher will turn a dozen somersaults in public, even without breeches, for a dozen olives.

~ Montaigne, Apology for Raymond Sebond

Proof that inflation isn’t a constant, or that we live in a golden age of philosophy.

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The Death of the Coffeehouse

I’m afraid our local coffeehouse is nothing special.  The high ceilings and wood floors do little to compensate for the awful home-roasted brew.  The baked goods are acceptable, the tea merely potable.  I recently brought my son here and watched him over the edge of my book while he sat with legs crossed, picking at crumbs of banana bread and reading Paddington.  He likes his Earl Grey with a great deal of sugar and milk.

As an undergraduate in the early ‘90s my friends and I used to frequent a Seattle coffeehouse known as the Last Exit.  The baristas were unpleasant, the coffee equally so, but it was still a favorite.  Late nights at the Last Exit were smoky, crowded and rowdy.  Professors declaimed godlike in crescents of adoring sophomores.  Unwashed hipsters plucked guitars beneath high windows.  Junior Marxists preached from the corners.  Others crowded round tables to watch games of chess or of go, and to whisper philosophically.  My friends and I would order our pulpy espresso drinks and sit behind piles of books and papers and pretend to study.  It was pretentious as hell, but heaven to us then.

Ten years later a new coffeehouse came to the neighborhood where my wife and I lived.  We got to know the owners before they opened shop and my wife became their first employee.  Here the coffee was reliably excellent.  The locals would wander in to read or talk.  There was a piano in the back, and couches.  Patrons ranged from age four to eighty-four and old movies were shown once a week, projected onto the wall.  Twice a year the owners would throw parties with gobs of fancy food and wine and invite the whole neighborhood.  I used to help my wife clean up after closing shifts and we once saw the aurora borealis as we walked home.  That was heavenly too.

What’s so wrong with the coffeehouse that serves the neighborhood where we live today?  It can’t be just the coffee.  The image of my son sitting there with his cup of tea and his feet dangling from the seat might help endear the place to me.  But the other patrons all sit alone staring at their laptops, each monopolizing a table for four while snakepits of power cords twist round their ankles.  I don’t want to talk to anyone – I’m not an outgoing person or very friendly toward strangers.  I just want to feel like there’s someone else in the room.

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Marginalia, no.111

…Brazil, where birth certificates actually name freshwater dolphins as the fathers of certain children.

~ Paul West, ‘In Defense of Purple Prose’

I had to look this up.  The encantado is an expert dancer and seducer of women.  You’ll know him by the white suit and straw hat he always wears to parties.  Really, he’s inia geoffrensis, the shape-shfting boto dolphin.  I wonder how many young Brazilian men keep white suits and straw hats in their closets for Carnival.

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Digital Future

Despite the panic that e-books inspire in the hearts of crusty publishing executives and would-be authors who can only fantasize about literary success in terms of hardbound novels rolling immaculately off the presses, I’m willing to hope there may be something to look forward to after all.  We’re always, these days, mourning the loss of one or another mythical paradise, whether the suburbia of the 1950s, the bohemia of the 1960s – or other Edens farther afield.  But the consolations of curmudgeonry often come at the price of flubbing the present.  Nostaligic devotion to the vision of a publishing world pre-dating the advent of the Web and the imposition of the Digital Mandate by our gadget-wielding overlords may prove a hobbling anachronism, a loyalty too far.

Jason Epstein in a recent piece for The New York Review of Books explores two possible benefits of digitization: the resurrection of the backlist (that is, those countless titles, many fallen out of print, which used to provide stability to publishers’ balance sheets, and which might still earn readers today) and an era of “disruptive literacy” resulting from the gross democratization of the form and means of publishing.  Indeed, Epstein sees in e-books a technology so potentially explosive in its intellectual consequences that it can only be compared to Gutenberg’s, which was, despite the havoc it unleashed, “the sine qua non for the rebirth of the West.”  If Jacques Barzun is right, then, and western culture is presently concluding a dawn-to-decadence cycle that began with Gutenberg five hundred years ago, we might, by Epstein’s lights, be seeing now the dim outlines of those forces that will shape a succeeding epoch.

Less compelling (and less convincing) is Epstein’s claim to have foreseen all of this twenty-five years ago, and his assurance that the digital future will still be a comfortable place for the professional author.  It’s mere fantasy, he says, to think that “in the digital future content will be free of charge and authors will not have to eat… Newborn revolutions often encourage utopian fantasies until the exigencies of human nature reassert themselves.”  Through stricter international copyright protections and the deletion of superfluous middlemen (warehousers and distributors superseded by electronic delivery and print-on-demand) authors will be liberated.  They may enjoy a greater share of profits from their work in the future than they do today, according to Epstein.  We shall see.  When everyone’s peddling a book, no one’s reading.  And I think we can safely assume that the technical means for circumventing copyright can only be expected to keep pace with those for safeguarding it.

Though he doesn’t quite address the issue directly, Epstein wants to gently reassure us (and himself) that the death of authorship as an economically self-sustaining profession is unlikely.  Let’s not even entertain such horrible notions, he seems to say.  I wish it were so certain.  But then, at the first invitation to heresy, I begin to wonder if the death of professional authorship wouldn’t possibly bring certain benefits – if it couldn’t possiby be a good thing.  Tell me:  How long has professional authorship been something granted to more than, say, a half-dozen people in each generation?  Two-hundred years, maybe?  Two-hundred-and-fifty?  Shakespeare never supported himself on the publication and sale of his plays.

Let’s be frank.  Freeing authors of fiction from the bonds of real-world drudgery has had some negative consequences.  It’s allowed too many to take themselves more seriously than they deserve.  It’s provided opportunities for gross self-indulgence and solipsism.  It’s sharpened authorial susceptibility to flattery that weakens the writer’s ability to see and hear the world everyone else still inhabits.  And it’s encouraged the cultivation of personal eccentricities that might have added charm and savor to their work if nurtured in open air and clean soil, but which turn the hot house of writerly isolation into a little shop of horrors.  Maybe it’s better to remove entirely the temptation to write for a living.  Maybe it’s better to write for pleasure, or out of compulsion.  If dear old Updike, for example, had been required to teach forty hours a week at a school for underprivileged boys, he might only have written half as many books as he did.  But, after all, there were some we could have done without.

[Thanks to Mark Richardson for passing along the Epstein article.]

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Marginalia, no.110

His treason, at best, only waits for sufficient temptation.

~ H.L. Mencken, Prejudices

I am a disloyal reader.  My own marginalia are each of them little betrayals of the text.  Loyalty would require something more generous.  I don’t give a fig for context or authorial intent, unless it’s my own.  I’m not interested in marking interpretive paths for others.  I only want to gorge myself on words.  I keep to the dark corners and at the first footfalls of eloquence, I strike.

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Book Porn, no.7

In a 1945 review of The Lear Omnibus, George Orwell said of Edward Lear’s nonsense rhymes: “They express a kind of amiable lunacy, a natural sympathy with whatever is weak and absurd.”  He thought Lear at his best when not wholly arbitrary, especially in the longer poems like The Owl and the Pussycat and The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.  Another that Orwell might have mentioned is The New Vestments, which is wonderful for lines like this:

He had walked a short way, when he heard a great noise,
Of all sorts of Beasticles, Birdlings, and Boys

When it comes to comical children’s verse, I agree with Orwell that there’s such a thing as too much nonsense.  A little nonsense combined with some wordplay, however, makes for an awful lot of fun.  Richard Wilbur’s collected opposites and differences I like very much.  But even more beloved in our house (and one of our best used bookshop finds in years, since collectors will pay over $100 for a good copy) is Alpha Beta Chowder by Jeanne Steig, wife of William Steig, who illustrated it.  It’s an alphabet book with plenty of lunacy and absurdity, but it’s less sympathetic than Lear and (like so many of the Steigs’ books) tinged with menace.  Two samples:

I’ll type this one out since it’s hard to read in the image above (I think you can make out the other one below):

Bellicose Brigand vs. Belligerent Bear

A bear and a brigand were bickering bitterly
Under the shade of a baobab tree.
‘The best thing by far,’ bawled the brigand, ‘is baklava.’
‘Bosh,’ boomed the bear. ‘It can’t possibly be.’

‘Why, there’s bric-a-brac, ipecac, blubber, and broccoli,
Bamboo, banana oil, beetles, and brine.’
‘You bandy-legged brute,’ brayed the brigand, ‘you blatherskite!
Baklava beats them all any old time.’

Oh, what a brouhaha: ‘Baklava!’ ‘Balderdash!’
‘Bah,’ barked the bear.  ‘We shall never agree.’
‘Let us pause,’ breathed the brigand, ‘and banish this blabber with
Hot buttered bat bread and barnacle tea.’

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