Monthly Archives: November 2010

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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Marginalia, no.155

My thoughts fall asleep if I make them sit down.  My mind will not budge unless my legs move it.

~ Montaigne, Essays

I solve problems by walking through the empty business park behind my office, where fountains and gardens are well tended but not a single soul labors behind the acres of tinted glass.  Solutions emerge from idle spaces like hieroglyphs from blank stone.  I remember walking through Dublin one day in late ‘92, across the Liffey where (at the time) a crumbling brick desert of abandoned warehouses and tenements stretched block after block.  It gave an eerie, giddy feeling.  I was puzzling over something or other.  Here and there amidst the rubble was a bookshop, a café, an old man leading a horse by a rope, a crowd (from where?) buying cabbages and Panasonic radios from the back of a truck.  Aha!

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Slaughter of the Innocents

Ushering children through hordes of ghouls and zombies last night to beg candy from strangers, we finished our circuit and came at last to the home of my brother-in-law’s neighbor.  It was a cabin-like single-story house with a few fancifully carved pumpkins set on the porch and a warm glow seeping from high windows.  We had stopped here the year before and I remembered that the paterfamilias of the place was a sport hunter.  He had decorated the wide, high-ceilinged entryway with mounted heads of antelope, bighorn sheep, moose and more exotic fauna from other continents.

We rang the bell.  The door opened and a pale teenaged girl doled out chocolate bars to our miniature Chaplins and their cousins.  The recollected menagerie still kept congress on the walls around her.  The great white hunter himself stepped forward then and asked, with a leftward jab of his thumb, whether we’d met his newest ‘pet.’  We peered round the corner and were astonished to see a taxidermied giraffe – or at least it’s chest, neck, and head.  It must have been nine feet tall: the leopard-spotted hide, the knobby tufted horns, the impossible girlish eyelashes.  Bwana had gone to some game farm in Africa and killed it himself, then paid what must have been thousands for its stuffing and transport back to the United States.

In the literary court of omnivorous slaughter, Flaubert’s Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller warms the throne.  Flint-hearted young Julian sets out one day from his family’s castle on horseback and in short order dispatches a family of rabbits, a woodcock, some mountain goats and cranes, a beaver, a deer, a badger, a stag, a peacock…

…and after he had slain them all, other deer, other stags, other badgers, other peacocks, and jays, blackbirds, foxes, porcupines, polecats, and lynxes, appeared; in fact, a host of beasts that grew more and more numerous with every step he took.  Trembling and with a look of appeal in their eyes, they gathered around Julian, but he did not stop slaying them, and so intent was he on stretching his bow, drawing his sword and whipping out his knife, that he had little thought for aught else.

I was recently reminded of Flaubert’s story while reading John Williams’ western, Butcher’s Crossing, which centers on a mind-numbing slaughter of buffalo in 1870s Colorado.  With Flaubert, however, the slaughter is more varied (extending even to non-native species), and goes on and on for pages.  It’s comically absurd at first but the long index of the dead begins to sound sinister.  “Sometimes, in his dreams,” Flaubert says of Julian, “he fancied himself like Adam in the midst of Paradise, surrounded by all the beasts; by merely extending his arm, he was able to kill them.”

Being a devoted carnivore myself and willing to admit that meat requires the death of some unfortunate creature, I’m not personally unsympathetic to the appeal of hunting, whether for elk or deer or fowl, at least when the game is close at hand and the intent is to put meat on the table.  But what drives a man to travel ten thousand miles to sight and stalk and kill a giraffe of all things?  It’s like murdering Big Bird or Mr Snuffleupagus.  Certainly, given the size of the target, it’s no special testament to one’s marksmanship.

I wonder if Bwana or his poor pale daughter are ever haunted by nightmares of the dead animals that watch over the door of their home.  I wonder if he ever finds himself at night before his court of trophies, encircled by their disembodied heads, accused by their glassy eyes, cursed at from their bristly, stuffed lips.  I imagine him like Flaubert’s Julian when his prowess fails and he’s surrounded alone in the woods by hosts of mocking animals:

He began to run; the brutes followed him.  The serpent hissed, the malodorous beasts frothed at the mouth, the wild boar rubbed his tusks against his heels, and the wolf scratched the palms of his hands with the hairs of his snout.  The monkeys pinched him and made faces, the weasel rolled over his feet.  A bear knocked his cap off with its huge paw, and the panther disdainfully dropped an arrow it was about to put in its mouth.

Irony seemed to incite their sly actions.  As they watched him out of the corners of their eyes, they seemed to meditate a plan of revenge, and Julian, who was deafened by the buzzing of the insects, bruised by the wings and tails of the birds, choked by the stench of animal breaths, walked with outstretched arms and closed lids, like a blind man, without even the strength to beg for mercy.

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