Monthly Archives: September 2010

Marginalia, no.148

In ignorance she could humor her fancy, and that proved a useful freedom.

~ Henry James, The Ambassadors

Knowledge handcuffs perception. I finally feel like I understand Henry James… For the longest time, listening to Jane Birkin’s vocals on Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus,’ I’d taken her for some nymphomaniac Gallic vixen. After learning she’s English, the accent is only too obvious. Another fantasy demolished.

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The Semiotics of Cat Swatting

Cats, it appears, are always being batted at by broom-wielding matrons in old cartoons and fairy tale illustrations.  They have presumably done something to deserve it, or else the matrons in question, cheated of careers in hockey or golf, are re-capturing the glory of young girlhood at the expense of their domestic animals.  Roughly sketched, those always seemed to me the two interpretive possibilities. 

Now, however, I stumble on a third.  No sooner have I picked up the broom and begun sweeping the kitchen floor in the evening than our cat, from whatever corner she was dozing in, infallibly appears and puts herself directly in the way.  She has not, to my knowledge, been naughty; and I never cared for golf or hockey.  Nonetheless, I am instantly transformed into a crotchety matron (patron?) launching kitty from the kitchen.

This happens too often to be mere coincidence, and so I wonder if the old image of the cat getting batted with a broom is not, after all, a symbol of household transgression receiving its just reward, or of swatter’s regret for missed chances at sports stardom.  Maybe, instead, it’s a revelation of some unguessed perversity of feline nature: Maybe cats just like a good spanking now and then.


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Marginalia, no.147

I can see the hair on your head turning grey already.  Your beard looks to me like a map of the world with its mixture of greys and whites, of reds and blacks.  Look here.  See, this is Asia; here are the Tigris and Euphrates.  Here are the mountains of the Moon.  Do you see the Nile marshes?

~ Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Book III

Today I cross the thirty-seventh parallel and time’s geography lessons feel a little tedious.  Somewhere in Anthony Powell’s Music of Time Nick Jenkins says that a man never feels so old as he does in his middle thirties.  I hope that’s true.  It’s a pleasant thought to someday find myself contented in child-like antiquity, white-haired and bent, standing ankle-deep in the Nile marshes.

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Marginalia, no.146

What the soul is, is of no concern for us to know; what it is like, what its manifestations are, is of very great importance.

~ Juan Luis Vives, De anima et vita

Vives saw half his family murdered by the Spanish Inquisition and so knew the blunt force of abstraction when applied to the job of defining the soul.  Metaphysical temptations to the contrary, we sense the truth of what he says.  To know impressionist painting or mechanized warfare (manifestations, perhaps, of the soul’s extremities) solely in terms of refraction of pigments or caliber of armaments is nothing but a technically informed ignorance.  Similarly, we seem to estrange ourselves through attempts at direct acquaintance but proceed somewhat toward self knowledge by means of metaphor.

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Marginalia, no.145

The rule of life seems to be that people are always ruined by the fulfillment rather than the denial of their hopes.

~ Thomas Berger, Vital Parts

Nonetheless, I say: ‘Bring on the ruin.’  Of course, this would mean that we effectively live each day in a state of perpetual lusting after disaster.  I suppose that sounds about right.

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Marginalia, no.144

I chose words for what I called their intensity.  I wanted to be terse and exact.  I wanted each word to burn into the page.  My pen tortured the paper.

~ V.S. Pritchett, A Cab at the Door

Some words are girls next door.  Others are postmen, auto mechanics or elderly librarians.  Each has its customary place and function, and each gains intensity by being discovered in unexpected company.  But thank God for the words that are always and everywhere Merna Kennedy circa 1932 in The Red-haired Alibi.

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Marginalia, no.143

I came to the conclusion that people who went to evening classes were all more or less odd.  It was unnatural to want to acquire knowledge after working hours.

~ Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings

In the late ‘90s I attended evening classes in Homeric Greek.  The instructor, who also taught Latin, lived with his partner in the building next door to ours.  He was a soft-spoken person with very fine fingers and though he was only ten years older than myself his hair had turned a brilliant, premature white that distracted from his lectures.  At term-end parties he served cantaloupe balls wrapped in prosciutto and complained that it was no use converting to Roman Catholicism anymore since they’d done away with the Latin rite.  I spent a year at the school pretending to be a character from Brian Friel’s Translations until I was finally overwhelmed by the full weight of the 150 forms of the verb Luo.  Perhaps I wasn’t odd enough at the time.  I like to think I’d do better now.

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I wonder if astrologers down the years have mistaken the influence of the seasons for that of the stars, or if rather than identifying ourselves by place of birth we ought to call ourselves natives of spring, summer, fall or winter.  Perhaps it’s because I was born at the equinox that I feel a sort of homecoming at the entrance of autumn, that melancholy season in the first three months of life having tempered my infant soul to its character.

This past week, during a bit of late summer vacation, we flushed a pheasant from the grass while bicycling in the Bay wetlands.  At the Sierra gold-rush town of Columbia we bowled several frames down a crooked antique lane.  We tried, and failed, to visit Jack London’s former ranch while en route to my parents’ home in Sonoma County, then kept the children up late to watch Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus.  Next day we enjoyed a successful afternoon at the natural history museum in San Francisco, where I stared hard into the eyes of the basilisk and managed not to die.

It seems on the surface unreasonable but I never read as much on vacation as I manage during the regular course of work and home life.  This past week I continued my tour of post-war British fiction with Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington and am mid-way now through Barbara Pym’s A Glass of Blessings.  To aid the digestion with some more American fare – and in the interest of philosophical good health – I also consulted Will Cuppy’s Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody.  Otherwise, two weeks since finishing Anthony Powell’s Music of Time, my shelf of unread recent acquisitions remains untouched.

A common critique of Powell’s books suggests that he relies too heavily on coincidence in the lives of his characters.  Asked about this in a 1978 interview for the Paris Review, Powell offered the familiar observation that real life, in fact, abounds in coincidence even while fiction rejects it.  I recall a morning this past July when I was surprised by reading in W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants a description of a scene from Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser which I had just seen for the first time the night before.

I doubt that we are subject to occult manipulation in any of this.  But as my native season comes round again and I see my children discovering some of the same places and enthusiasms I shared at their age, I want to agree that admitting the action of serendipity is simply being realistic.  The cosmos, as we learn, is not really infinite but its expansion and folding back onto itself again is something like a working definition of time.  It is a part of the comfortable poverty of the universe in which we live that forms and ideas are bound to recur if only we keep a look out.


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Marginalia, no.142

I agreed with what was said, but I did not believe a word of it.

~ V.S. Pritchett, A Cab at the Door

A possibly helpful distinction.  Assent is sufficient if the intent is to convince (oneself or others) of solidarity; it is social lubrication.  Belief, on the other hand, is something more.  I wonder if we can ever decide for ourselves what we will believe.  Perhaps we only discover and rediscover it.  It may be, as Montaigne says, that we vary as much in ourselves as we do from others, but I’m struck sometimes by my own inevitability.

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Marginalia, no.141

Rabbits have no important thoughts.  Their brains are quite smooth and unwrinkled, from lack of mental exercise.  They do not even try.  Our brains are full of contortions and convolutions, showing that we have made an effort at least.

~ Will Cuppy, How to Attract the Wombat

I feel as though I’ve spent the whole summer munching carrots, my brain as smooth and uncomplicated as the cloudless sky.  Each falling leaf presents a challenge.

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