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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