Monthly Archives: July 2010

Marginalia, no.135

Stay tuned for a conversation with the late Daniel Schorr.

~ Program note heard on National Public Radio

The posthumous adjective in this case suggests a séance is about to begin.  Of course, it was a recorded conversation.  But if I’m allowed a snarky comment (with no disrespect to the memory of Mr Schorr), please do not, when I’m dead, refer to me as ‘late’ -as if I’d been expected in the afterlife years before.  I don’t want to feel like I had been one of those oblivious houseguests that had overstayed his welcome among the living.  The thought of premature departure is just as bad.  Let me be ‘punctual’ instead.

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Marginalia, no.134

Is the literary man to live always or chiefly sitting in a chamber through which nature enters by a window only?  What is the use of the summer?

~ Henry David Thoreau, Journal

Such variations are observed among members of homo lectoris that an extra-planetary naturalist cataloging his divergent specimens might understandably question their inclusion in a single species.  There are, for instance, some of a Manichaean sort who look to books for a preferred alternative to a cheerless world of sense.  And then there are others (the superior sample, in my opinion) for whom books are themselves the stony or fibrous products of nature.  Elsewhere in the Journal, Thoreau complains about having to go indoors at all to find a book.  They ought, he felt, to be discovered outside growing up from the gnarled roots of oaks or the pebbly banks of a stream.

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More Pygmies vs Cranes

In Rabelais’s second book we read how the giant Pantagruel by a miraculous fart created the race of pygmies, after which “he sent them to live on an island close by, where they have multiplied mightily.  But the cranes make a continual war on them, and they put up a courageous defense.”  Again, in Rabelais’s third book, a truculent sheep-dealer informs Panuge that the ribs of Lanternland sheep are used by the pygmies “for making little bows to shoot cherry-stones at the cranes.”

If you read The New Psalmanazar at all frequently and the above sounds oddly familiar, you may be thinking, as I was, of the quote I shared some time ago from Matteo Ricci’s Impossible Black Tulip, an oversized map of the world the wily Jesuit made for the Chinese emperor in 1602.  An inscription on the map indicating a territory in the far north of Russia describes a ‘Country of the Dwarfs’ where, according to Ricci, a race of little people live precariously under constant threat from cranes.  They take refuge in caves, he says, and charge out periodically on goatback to make war on their foes.

I may very well be the last fellow in the room to have grasped what’s going on here, but I asked myself:  Did Ricci borrow the idea from Rabelais?  Or is there more to it than that?  The answer to the second question, it turns out, is: Far more.  It didn’t take any great amount of digging to discover that the story of the pygmies and cranes has a more antique pedigree than I had guessed.  It occurs, for example, in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History and shows up again and again in various other works over a period of over two millennia.  It seems to have first emerged from the murk of oral history in a passage from Book III of the Iliad, which I had managed somehow to forget.  There, Homer (via Fitzgerald below) describes the Greek battle lines fanning out across the plain of Troy:

…………………wave on wave, like cranes
in clamorous lines before the face of heaven,
beating away from winter’s gloom and storms,
over the streams of Ocean, hoarsely calling,
to bring a slaughter on the Pygmy warriors –
cranes at dawn descending, beaked in cruel attack.

Since unraveling this for myself I’ve also discovered a 2007 post from Michael Gilleland of Laudator Temporis Acti which suggests, to me, an interesting reading of the myth.  Gilleland juxtaposes the passage from Homer with a quote from Charles Eastman’s autobiographical Indian Boyhood, in which Eastman (a Dakota Sioux) recounts adventures with his brother that include the snatching of eggs and nestlings from ducks and geese and other birds.  One day, as he tells the story, they trespassed on the nest of a pair of cranes, who rose to the defense of their little ones:

It was really a perilous encounter! Our strong bows finally gained the victory in a hand-to-hand struggle with the angry cranes; but after that we hardly ever hunted a crane’s nest.  Almost all birds make some resistance when their eggs or young are taken, but they will seldom attack man fearlessly.

If in Homer we have the childhood of cultural memory, then in Eastman we have the memory of a particular childhood.  If in Homer we have little people in the form of pygmy warriors, in Eastman we have child warriors too.  One almost suspects Eastman of making a literary joke, but the pre-Homeric version of the myth must have some plausible scenario for its genesis and perhaps Eastman gives us a glimpse of something like it. 

Gilleland’s pairing of the quotes is wonderfully suggestive.  The psychological interpretation of myth can be a wooly affair, I know, but I’m led to wonder if the little people on the distant shore of Homer’s Okeanos don’t represent the heroic light and glory of childhood, and the cranes, ‘beaked in cruel attack,’ the violence of time and events which conspire day by day and year by year to irrevocably separate us from what we may come to look back upon, helplessly, as a personal primordial paradise.

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Marginalia, no.133

…then over and over slowly revolved like a waning world.

~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick

The passage describes the death throes of a harpooned sperm whale.  I remembered it this past Saturday while sitting aboard my father-in-law’s boat, bobbing a few miles off the coast.  The dreadful revolutions I witnessed, however, weren’t those of the whales we sighted in the distance but those of my own stomach.  I managed to keep breakfast intact only by slow breathing and staring hard at the horizon, meanwhile providing comic relief for several sea otters that winked as we passed, and a half dozen Dall’s porpoises that circled the boat, chittering hilariously and gasping from their blowholes.  After seeing the headless, bloated carcass of a seal float by, I was sure I’d never eat again.  But no sooner were we back on terra firma than I recovered my appetite and took revenge on the ocean by consuming a generous slice of halibut cooked in a lemon, butter and caper sauce.  It was delicious.

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And Back Again

My parents used to lead us on heroic family road trips every three years, traversing 1,800 miles of mountains, deserts and high plains to the gentle rolling prairieland of central Iowa where paternal relations tilled the soil or lived in antique-shop towns like Jamaica or Rippey or Grand Junction.  These were the overland odysseys of my childhood, thick with wonders: lightning bugs on summer nights; Nebraska thunderstorms; pit-stops at Wall Drug in South Dakota; vistas of munching bison in Yellowstone; and the musty house of my ancient great-grandfather where a spoked tractor wheel had leant against a tree so long that the trunk grew round it, and where the storm cellar was full of tinned food in old-fashioned paper labels printed in red and green and yellow ink still fresh and bright.

There’s no predicting the particular moments and images a child will recall years hence.  It may be that none of those that most impressed me on our recent trip to the Pacific Northwest will prove enduring for either my son or daughter.  But I like to imagine them in future remembering the strangely mobile silhouette of Mt Shasta that seemed always to recede as we approached; the big-windowed, high-ceilinged room of our Portland hotel, converted from a turn-of-the-century elementary school; the passage over the Columbia and up Interstate-5 into the primeval woods of Washington State; the bleached glacial monolith of Mt Rainier; the cramped Seattle ice-cream shop-cum-pinball arcade with a live band performing at the front; the badminton game in the park when a half dozen swallows curled silently around us mere inches above the grass; the front porch of a friend’s house across from the zoo and the fenced elk maundering through the trees on the other side of the street.

Books, like music, have a wonderful power to bind themselves to memories of specific moments or places.  Typically it’s the reading of books rather than the purchasing of them that takes on the borrowed flavor, but I can usually recall where I bought a book too.  In Portland last week we spent three successive days in the legendary Powell’s, where I picked up, among others: Vertigo by W.G. Sebald, Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams, Twelve Stories by Guy Davenport, a nice older edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Virginibus Puerisque, and a paperback edition of Philemon Holland’s 1601 translation of Pliny’s Natural History.  The latter I consider a special find, though, taken as an object, it’s the most unlovely of them all, dog-eared and water damaged.  The one title I was most excited to discover in the stacks, however, was a children’s book I’d given up ever finding: Mervyn Peake’s Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor.  I wasn’t even looking for it.  The title on the spine simply leapt out at me as I walked by.

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