Monthly Archives: February 2011

Marginalia, no.185

There are other instruments of this kind…whose inventors also lie hidden in deepest darkness, to the great detriment of their fame. Likewise there is no record of the first person who made a candle from tallow – an undistinguished achievement but a notably useful one. Nor do we know who first tamed birds for hunting… nor have we anything to mark the memory of the first maker of rings.

~ Polydore Vergil, On Discovery

I pour out a libation to the first inventor of buttons: the round and square, the thick and thin – of seashell, silver, bone or brass – of plastic, steel, or polished wood – in jars, in drawers, or scattered on a desk: let us have many, many buttons. Consider what we owe them. What is Falstaff without undoing his buttons after sack and supper? What are Frog and Toad without a quest for lost buttons? Buttons are primitive currency, badges of civilization, tactile treasures of ubiquitous obscurity. Less respected than rings or candles, they are no less useful, no less capable of bearing symbolic weight, and the pleasures of buttoning and unbuttoning are universally honored.

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Marginalia, no.184

Thrice, to the mighty heave-ho of his invisible tossers, he would fly up in this fashion, and the second time he would go higher than the first and then there he would be, on his last and loftiest flight, reclining, as if for good, against the cobalt blue of the summer noon, like one of those paradisiac personages who comfortably soar, with such a wealth of folds in their garments, on the vaulted ceiling of a church while below, one by one, the wax tapers in mortal hands light up to make a swarm of minute flames in the mist of incense, and the priest chants of eternal repose, and funeral lilies conceal the face of whoever lies there, among the swimming lights, in the open coffin.

~ Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory

The local peasants had come to ask a favor of the barin and Vladimir’s father stepped outside to hear them. In gratitude, when he’d granted their request, they took him in their arms and tossed him up with a cheer. Through the frame of the dining room window, little Nabokov saw his father bob up and down over the hedge… Forgiven its length (a special allowance for magic), the single sentence achieves something like real levitation. Sentences like this make me want to set aside my pen and keyboard forever. What’s the use of being a two-bit conjurer when Merlin walks the woods?

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Marginalia, no.183

Already he had begun dreaming of a refined Thebaid, a desert hermitage equipped with all modern conveniences, a snugly heated ark on dry land in which he might take refuge from the incessant deluge of human stupidity.

~ J.K. Huysmans, A Rebours

A snugly heated ark might be tempting if I wasn’t sure to bring every species of folly into it with me. Like Noah, I’d spend all my time washing shit off the deck. Anyway, it’s stupidity that I can’t seem to do without. It’s comfortable and familiar. Human intelligence and earnestness are more frightening.

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Defeated by Televangelism

It would surprise anyone that met him in the street, because he doesn’t look the part, but my father-in-law is a television evangelist. The man’s enthusiasm for video entertainment is so great – he considers it so necessary to his own beatitude – that he can’t imagine others don’t feel the same need for it in their heart of hearts. Now, the fact is that my wife and I have been a great disappointment to him in this regard. We neither subscribe to cable nor use a dish. What’s worse, when the nation’s broadcasters  switched their signals from analog to digital a couple years ago, we never bothered to get a converter box. We tossed out the rabbit-ears and let our home and ourselves – and our children – lapse blithely into a state of unregenerate Cimmerian darkness.

In my father-in-law’s eyes, this was intolerable. Our salvation was at stake. Twice he invaded our home (where we still kept a television) to install digital converters and antennae. Twice we graciously returned them, ostensibly because the reception was spotty or because we didn’t want the massive electric antlers on such prominent display. This past weekend, however, the wily apostle out-foxed us. While my wife was at the grocery store and I was sick in bed, he sneaked over and, to our children’s great delight, installed a high-end digital antenna that fits discretely behind the screen and guarantees us thirty or so different broadcast channels. At least half of them are in Chinese or Spanish, with another quarter in Vietnamese, Tagalog, Hindi or Bengali. But it still makes a domestic revolution.

I wasn’t always such a doubter. Like my wife, I was raised in the faith. In my childhood home the television was switched on practically all the time. It slept when we slept and woke when we woke and was by far the most voluble and conversationally reliable member of the family. I don’t regret it. What would any late-‘70s/early-‘80s childhood be without afternoon reruns of Andy Griffith, My Three Sons, I Love Lucy, Gomer Pyle, The Brady Bunch, and Gilligan’s Island? What kind of miserable degenerate would I be today if it weren’t for Good Times, The Jeffersons, The Facts of Life, Diff’rent Strokes, Three’s Company, Donohue, Geraldo, Silver Spoons, Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Solid Gold, Alf, or (glory of glories) Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom?

A few years ago I might have summoned enough righteous bluster to refuse the gifts my father-in-law is hell-bent on bestowing, but the fact is that my Luddism these days is more a matter of habit than principle. Let us have a little of the old leaven, I say. As for the children, we’ve restricted screen-time up till now and can still do so. We’ll stick, for the most part, to PBS and reruns.  Some of the old shows are still on. Just the other night our kids decided they’d never seen anything as wonderful as a 1970s episode of Lawrence Welk: the ladies in their confectionary makeup and Day-Glo dresses, the men with permed hair and painted-on smiles. So let the children praise their grandfather as a savior bringing fire from heaven. Like Julian the Apostate on his imperial deathbed, I concede with a shrug: ‘Galilean, thou hast conquered.’


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Marginalia, no.182

Adam’s happiness lacked only the navel of Eve.

~ Aldo Buzzi, Journey to the Land of the Flies

St. Valentinus was removed from the Catholic liturgical calendar fifty years ago because there wasn’t enough evidence to prove he had ever existed. Something similar happened to Cupid 1,600 years earlier. No one, I think, ever seriously doubted the existence of the bellybutton.


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Three Paragraphs of Flu

Still ill. Worse, in fact. With the exception of a half hour spent shivering in the summery sunshine we don’t deserve in February, I’ve been laid up all day with fever and abdominal pain. There are two of me in the room now, both sitting on a bed and sipping cups of broth brought us by our identical wives. To judge by his appearance and the faces he pulls, the self in the mirror is feeling better than I am, but who can say?

On second thought, it may not have been the best idea to spend all day reading Borges. When I was a boy home from school with a fever I would lean over the edge of my bed and stare at the carpet. Fevers brought me strange powers of concentration and I was somehow able to visualize – as through an electron microscope – individual carpet fibers magnified to the height of sequoia trees. Below me was a whole forest of twisted corkscrews of steel twenty feet thick. It gave me a sick, dizzy feeling to think of them. I feel something similar reading passages like the following, from Borges’s story The Writing of the God:

‘What sort of sentence, I asked myself, would be constructed by an absolute mind? I reflected that even in the languages of humans there is no proposition that does not imply the entire universe; to say “the jaguar” is to say all the jaguars that engendered it, the deer and turtles it has devoured, the grass that fed the deer, the earth that was mother to the grass, the sky that gave light to the earth… A god, I reflected, must speak but a single word, and in that word there must be absolute plenitude. No word uttered by a god could be less than the universe, or briefer than the sum of time.’


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Marginalia, no.181

When he was sick he was busy, as though about to hatch something or operate on himself. He scarcely replied to questions, not because he was bad tempered but because he was concentrating: the better he was at being ill, the less time he would have to spend on it.

~ Nicolas Bouvier, The Way of the World

In the garden of Eden no one had much to say and no one got sick. If there was ever such thing as a primordial fall from grace, it was when Adam first opened his mouth to blab about the flowers. That’s when people started catching flu. I lay more immediate blame for my current cold on the man who sat behind me on the train and spent thirty minutes rapturously yawning and sighing. He must have been sick, or else drunk. But his exhalations smelled more of bacteria than alcohol.  My father: now there’s a man who knew how to be sick, like Bouvier’s friend. He would close himself in his room and not say a word or get out of bed until he was well – and it never took more than a day or two. If I don’t get over colds faster than I do, it’s probably because I never shut up.

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Marginalia, no.180

It is a case of the clam who wouldn’t be chowder.

~ Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children

Monday. The necessity of work offends my leisure.

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The Irrelevance of Literature

My first year of college I took a course in Arthurian literature. There were fewer than ten of us in the class. After a couple months of smothering our brains in downy volumes of medieval and Gothic-revival romances our professor experienced (or manufactured for our benefit) a crisis of conscience. Why of all things, he asked us, should we waste our time with books like these? When it comes down to it, why read fiction at all? Aren’t books irrelevant? Isn’t the world simply exploding with more serious concerns?

That was 1991. It hadn’t been long since the fall of the Berlin wall, the Soviet Union was just loping off the stage, and Nelson Mandela was free in South Africa. The world as we and our parents had known it was ceasing to be. These were times historians called “momentous” – and had we really shut ourselves indoors to read Chrétien de Troyes and Malory? Our professor, being a wise man, assigned Cervantes for the rest of the course and invited us to feel ourselves on Rocinante’s bony back.

Twenty years later we appear to be in something like momentous times again. Certainly they’re momentous for those engaged in the recent uprisings in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, and other places. What with the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, the launch of one – or should I say two – wars of questionable wisdom, the collapse of the world economy, and natural disasters in Haiti and Indonesia that have produced human suffering on a scale to dwarf even Voltaire’s Lisbon earthquake, the past decade has felt uncomfortably momentous.

I confess to occasional pangs of conscience when I switch off the radio or set the virtual newspaper aside with a sigh to pick up a book. I feel a twinge of something like guilt when I decline to inform myself further on the goings-on of the world at large and turn instead to the endless revision of my novel or to writing a brief nothing about a clever passage from Stendhal. I hear the question again: Isn’t the world simply exploding with more serious concerns?

The answer is, Yes… And then again, No.

I don’t want to make a lofty defense of bookwormism. Long-winded and complicated apologies rarely convince anyone that doesn’t already share the apologist’s own sympathies. I know that I’m an obsessive person and in certain respects not very representative of my species, most of whom have more balanced personalities and interests than I do. With shockingly few exceptions, the only things I really care about in this world are books: so of course I’m going to find ways of justifying myself to myself.

Even so, I do want to suggest – meekly, cautiously – that being human means something more than politics or economics or geology or weather. Of course it may, and frequently does, mean these things too. But where human experience overflows the bounds of outward necessities, there art and culture are found. Literature, as the art and culture of words, is an attempt to enjoy and account for and preserve that excess. I hope you’ll agree with me that it’s sometimes life’s excesses that are most precious, most irreplaceable.

Reading a book is a human encounter. Reading well is not an escape but a shared search for answers to questions that are sometimes obvious, sometimes sensed only with gloved hands in a dark room. I like to think that when politics and economics and geology and weather conspire to murder and oppress, picking up a book can be a way of giving a damn. I may be a fool – maybe I’m still bouncing on Rocinante’s back – but I like to believe that reading is a form of solidarity. We read for ourselves, but we read for each other too.


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Marginalia, no.179

He was one of those men, not uncommonly met with in the year 1830, that peppered his speech with quotations perfectly apposite and perfectly spurious, which he happily attributed to authors his hearers were ashamed to admit they had never read.

~ Stendhal, The Red and the Black

A note in my copy of the book indicates that only 15 of the 73 epigraphs employed at the start of individual chapters in The Red and the Black can actually be traced to the authors credited with them. Stendhal seems to have made up the rest. Considering how casually people reorder their own memories to suit a moment’s purpose, it’s no real shock to find someone raiding the Bibliotheca Abscondita for quotes. It’s even possible, I suppose, to do so innocent of intentional imposture. I wonder how many of the quotations I’ve scribbled down over the years are fudges and fabrications? I’m sure I wouldn’t vouch for the one above.

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