Monthly Archives: November 2010

Marginalia, no.162

Old age is like learning a new profession. And not one of your own choosing.

~ Jacques Barzun, who turns 103 today

Great-grandpa Charlie expressed his mastery of the profession by a customary Midwestern silence.  He seemed to have been born old.  It was hard to imagine him as anything other than an object of unsettling wonder, a stiff-jointed human antique. Born in 1891, he died when he was 102 and I was twenty. As a child at church or civic functions he must have been surrounded by Civil War veterans, like I was by WWII vets when my grandparents’ generation still ran the show. Charlie farmed a patch of Iowan earth well into his nineties. Visiting him, my father would switch on a tape recorder and try to provoke reflections on all that had changed down the years: electricity in the home, automobiles, air travel, the Apollo moon landings. What was it like to see the world change so much?  “Oh, it was something,” Charlie would say. And not much else.

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Three Paragraphs of Holiday Weekend

My wife’s cousin has a big house at the lake, a glass eye, a Great Dane, a tortoise, a pig, two hens, and a fainting goat tied to a post in the yard, the last miraculously spared (so far) by the mountain lions that come down from the hills. All patriotic food groups were duly represented: roast turkey, stuffing, potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie – and we did our duty. Home again, we tucked in the children and put up our heels before the simulated fireplace looping on the television screen, brooding over mugs of smoky Russian tea.

The boy announced tonight that he was afraid of the Snark. Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up, I told him.  But then, on reflection, I’m not sure that people are really any more afraid of terrorists (or snarks) than they used to be; or of radiation, or being groped by strangers. If fear is gaining these days it’s primarily in two varieties: 1) the fear of litigation, and 2) the mongered sort of fear, traded like sturgeon or Persian rugs for cash or ‘political capital.’ It’s always an ‘adroit demonology’ (in Mencken’s phrase) that wins customers and votes.

With a surfeit of free time due to the holiday, I’m mastering ‘Yankee Doodle’ on the ukelele, not trimming my beard, and reading J.G. Farrell’s Troubles. Before bed I set the Farrell aside to read snippets of Vico instead, which is just dry and disorienting enough (‘…the Assyrian kingdom was born overnight, like frogs after a summer storm…’) to transport me direct to Surrealist dreamland. My wife, meanwhile, is in love with Flaubert and halfway through Bouvard and Pecuchet, which I’d been saving for a special occasion. She’s ruining it for me by reading so much of it aloud. You and your ‘Flobby,’ I say. I’m not sure which of you to be jealous of.

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Marginalia, no.161

I always feel like saying to music: ‘It isn’t true! You lie!’

~ Jules Renard, Journal

My seven-year-old son tells me: ‘Esther brought her violin to school and played some Bach, but she pronounced it “batch,” and it was so beautiful I wanted to cry.’ Who was this Esther, I asked, his girlfriend? ‘I don’t want to dance with her by light of the moon or anything,’ he said, ‘but if we got married I could listen to her play “batch” all the time.’  …I wonder if there isn’t an exception, after all, to Neil Young’s golden saying that ‘only love can break your heart.’

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From the Desk of Answer Man

Believe it or not, I am sometimes asked my opinion on serious topics of the day. Really I am. People the world over flood my inbox with the most surprising questions. Some, for example, want to know if I’m ready to become a multi-millionaire through some sort of fancy bank transfer. Others ask me how much I’m willing to spend for a genuine gold-plated Rolex.  Still others want to know if my manly vigor is flagging or if my wife is “getting all that she deserves” from me. These are excellent questions which I hope to answer someday. But not today. There are more pressing things to consider.

 ‘What makes someone an intellectual, and can I be one?’

By asking the question you’ve probably disqualified yourself. An intellectual is first of all someone who already knows himself to be an intellectual, or secretly suspects it. He never asks confirmation from others because it’s his own imprimatur that counts.  Besides, it’s not fashionable to be an intellectual anymore. Being an intellectual is something like being a “goddamned idiot” or a “two-bit whore” – that is, one is called an intellectual by others but does not set up shop as an intellectual on one’s own.

 ‘That’s not quite what I meant…’

I hope you’re not confusing an intellectual with an academic. Several of my friends and family members are academics. Somewhat fewer are intellectuals, if you ask me. At least we’re on too friendly terms for me to call them that to their faces. The Academy in its wisdom does not concern itself with producing intellects. Pillar of the economy that it is, it’s main duty is to prop up the acronym industry – which, as we all know, is too big to fail.

 ‘All right then. What makes someone an artist, and can I be one?’

But darling, you already are. The Spirit of Universal Affirmation, whom we adore, insists upon it that we each possess “the soul of an artist.” The trick is to match it with the body of one. That’s what cosmetic surgery is for.

 ‘What makes someone a philosopher, and can I be one?’

Philosophia (if you’ll indulge me in a little etymology) is borrowed from the wily Greeks and means the love of appearing wise. With the exception of numerous celebrities and politicians who make their living by a public show of folly, every Jack and Jill from here to Hudson Bay wants to be thought wise (but not an intellectual!). So, you’re in luck; it’s nothing difficult. If you want to seem wise, then you are a philosopher.

 ‘Last question. What makes someone a poet, and can I be one?’

To be honest, I was winging it with those other questions. But this one I think I’ve got a better grip on. Poetification is the process of compression and shrinkage by which an admirer of Edgar Allen Poe is turned little by little into a scale model of the great man himself: a Poe-et. That’s one definition. Here’s another: a poet is a lesbian, or sometimes a suicide. If you find yourself a lesbian or dead by your own hand, rejoice: you are a poet. Be careful, however, not to confuse a poet with a poetaster, the latter being no poet in his own right but a mere cannibal of poets.

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Marginalia, no.160

[Y]our knowledge of the past – apart, occasionally, from a limited visual record and the odd unreliable survivor – comes entirely from written documents.  You are almost completely cut off, by a wall of print, from the life you want to represent. You can’t observe historical events; you can’t question historical actors; you can’t even know most of what has not been written about.  Whatever has been written about therefore takes on an importance which may be spurious.  A few lines in a memoir, a snatch of recorded conversation, a letter fortuitously preserved, an event noted in a diary: all become luminous with significance – even though they are just the bits that float to the surface.  The historian clings to them, while somewhere below, the huge submerged wreck of the past sinks silently out of sight.

~ Louis Menand

The present moment has a swaggering step, a Jovian aspect. As the platonic ‘moving image of eternity,’ it’s sure of its own importance. The past, immediate or distant, is only a mass extinction, a forgotten myth, irrecoverable and irrelevant in the blinding splendor of Now. Menand’s summary of the historian’s plight (from his foreword to Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station) may just as well describe our relation to our personal or family past. ‘The written word is the choicest of relics’ (Thoreau), but most everything is forgotten. Only a few survivors are pulled from the water: a half-dozen letters from a childhood friend; a great-grandmother’s birth certificate; the scribbled recollections of an uncle; a photograph of a boy on the pier with his brother and grandfather, holding a little trophy of a fish. The ship went down unnoticed in the rippling sea behind him.

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Marginalia, no.159

‘The earth can crack and fire come down from heaven for all I care – that sort of thing doesn’t disturb me – but I do not like to be put into a ridiculous situation.  It isn’t dignified for a philosopher.’

~ Tove Jansson, Finn Family Moomintroll

I explain to my children that Muskrat is a poor philosopher. On the contrary, to cherish your humiliations is to disarm your own worst enemy. Recite them alone and in company until you can laugh without cringing. Presto – you are free.

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Marginalia, no.158

How are you, the apostle of laxity, to turn suddenly about into the rabbi of precision?

~ Robert Louis Stevenson, Virginibus Puerisque

I am never in a hurry to do anything but sit on the couch with a book and cup of tea. That’s not true. I hurry at everything but only in order to be done with it and sit unhurriedly on the couch with a book and cup of tea. Rising to the occasion – whatever that was – used to appeal to me, but mostly because it meant having some low den of abandon to rise from.

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The Trouble with the World Explained

The trouble with the world today (in case you want to know) is that you can’t tell the crazies from the passably sane. You’ve noticed this if you spend any time in a grocery store. It used to be that a prowler among the produce who talked to himself, debated invisible adversaries, or professed love in the direction of the cauliflower was immediately understood to be off his rocker. You pretended not to notice; you casually left that person’s vicinity. All was well with the world.  

Nowadays, however, you step closer. You look twice, three times. Is he talking on a mobile phone? Look again, around his ears; he may be wearing a hands-free device. Like Alice, you don’t want to go among mad people, but you want to know what you’re dealing with.  Just a little reassurance. Nothing on the left ear; check the other. He certainly seems to feel strongly about something or other, doesn’t he? But, ah! There it is, see! That thingy curled up on top of his right ear. What a relief. -Excuse me? No, no problem at all, mister. No – that won’t be necessary. Have a nice day!

The effect of technology on society is to proliferate symptoms of schizophrenia. Even non-adopters breathe it in like second-hand smoke. I remember the first time I saw someone talking on a cell phone with a hands-free device in a grocery store. Not badly dressed for a crazy, I thought. When I realized what he was doing, I could hardly believe it. I stood laughing in the dairy section, like a crazy person, for a full five minutes. What a clown, I said to myself. Doesn’t he know everyone will take him for a lunatic? That’ll never catch on!

It’s worth observing that despite the broad use of such technologies today, the average number of grocery store soliloquists encountered in any given week hasn’t much changed. One might have expected otherwise. What’s the meaning of it, I wonder? Could it be that there are fewer crazy people around than there used to be? That seems unlikely. Maybe they’re getting better drugs. Or maybe, since insanity is traditionally expressed by behavior counter to social norms, the crazies these days are the ones going quietly about their business.

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Marginalia, no.157

Beware thou meddle not with timber trees but either at the change or full of the moon.  Tiberius the Emperor observed likewise the change of the moon for cutting the hair both of head and beard.  And yet M. Varro gave a rule, that to prevent baldness and the shedding of hair, the barber should be sent for always after the full moon.

~ Pliny the Elder, Natural History (Philemon Holland trans.)

My wife cuts my hair, but I’m always begging for a trim long before she’s ready to give me one. If I could marshal the authority of classical antiquity, perhaps I could fix her to a regular schedule. But whose prescription is more reliable?  Tiberias Caesar, to judge by his statuary, was acceptably well-coiffed. The Oxford Classical Dictionary calls him an orator, a poet, and a connoisseur; but then it goes on to say that while ‘stories of vice on Capreae can be discounted, real defects, a cultivated sense of superiority, relentlessness and lack of affability, meditated ambiguity of language, remained.’ Marcus Varro’s habits of analysis, it says, were ‘sometimes carried to unhelpful lengths.’  Really, there’s nowhere to turn for good advice anymore.

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Marginalia, no.156

He had a vulgar inclination to make everything clear… He couldn’t see that to grasp a delicate thing outright was often to crush it.

~ Charles Portis, Masters of Atlantis

The principle of therapeutic mystification: that occultation of a thing proves beneficial.  The witch-doctor nods; the writer, artist, philosopher, theologian, and academic too. ‘Apollo, the god of prophecy,’ says Rabelais, ‘is surnamed Loxias, the Indirect.’ He’s also patron of music, poetry, the arts, medicine, and truth.

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