I done my duty! I done my duty!
~ Leon Czolgosz
President McKinley had a parrot named Washington Post. I like to imagine he brought it with him to the Pan-American Exposition, though nothing I’ve read says so. For the president that day duty meant an hour in front of the Temple of Music shaking voters’ hands. For Czolgosz it meant putting three rounds from a .32 caliber into the fat man’s belly. Duty is like a bird that moves from shoulder to shoulder squawking in your ears. You hear its call and feel its talons but can never get a good look at it. With Peterson handy and Audubon memorized, you still might mistake a parrot for a buzzard.
Walking after lunch a couple weeks ago I had to scoot over and make room on the sidewalk for an elderly man riding a bicycle. This was before the latest string of Pacific storms turned the neighborhood into a swamp. The rider was dressed for pleasant weather in light brown slacks without socks and a thin green cardigan, unbuttoned, with his sleeves rolled up. He had the axe-blade face and weird flying white hair of Samuel Beckett. He nodded silently as he passed. I saw then that it wasn’t a standard bicycle he was riding but one of those oxymoronic three-wheeled bicycles that I hesitate to call a “tricycle” since all three wheels are the same size. There was a platform on the back and bouncing atop the platform as it rolled over tree roots was a small white and orange Jack Russell, his head nodding at me – just like his master’s had done – as they moved away.
Last weekend I spent a very happy half hour on the porch in my slippers and pea coat, smoking my pipe and listening to the birds. I had to hold an umbrella in my left hand and tend the pipe with my right. It was one of those delicious springtime moments when a light mist is falling but the sun is shining too. Robins and mockingbirds that had only recently come back to the area were dashing through the oleanders and willows, rediscovering old haunts. Blue tobacco smoke pooled under the umbrella as if hiding from the sky. I slowly twirled it in my hand and the smoke spilled upwards little by little around the edges, like water streaming away the wrong direction.
I recently received what I consider the fourth greatest compliment of my life (the first three being my wife’s consent to marry me and my two children’s consent to be born). A reader had written to tell me that though he was, as a Norbertine father and prior of an abbey, obliged to observe Lent, he would not be giving up my Marginalia series this season. I answered that I was glad to hear it and hoped my little offerings weren’t too heady an indulgence for anyone. The good father replied (and I’ll preserve his anonymity so as not to implicate him as a reader of this blog) that in his opinion they “have the quality of inciting a certain gratitude for the world which is after all the stuff of prayer and penance and alms.” As the unworthy recipient of such wonderful words, I can only hope to live (and write) up to them.
Heat is in proportion to the want of true knowledge.
~ Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy
All due respect to old Sol, this may help explain why the world warms toward noon after everyone’s been up and blabbing for a few hours. But heat of the sort the Shandean aphorist has in mind is most evident around those topics dearest to the species: eternal damnation, the politics of foreign intervention, and college basketball. Does it follow that when I am cool as a refrigerated cantaloupe I am therefore an oracle of certainty? No, I’m only momentarily content with my ignorance.
I will believe that the battle of feminism is over, and that the female has reached a position of equality with the male, when I hear that a country has allowed itself to be turned upside-down and led to the brink of war by its passion for a totally bald woman writer.
~ Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon
West’s reflection on D’Annunzio’s short-lived Fiume adventure has got me thinking. How difficult would I find it to give up the standard-issue future that doting fathers everywhere imagine for their daughters? Not so difficult, I think. If fate underwrites the venture, I’ll gladly spend my retirement running guns and sack lunches into the Sierra to supply her band of guerillas. Her hastily scribbled poems and political treatises I’ll secrete to the coast and hand to the papers. Let the literati in their cafes swoon for every phrase and declaration. Let generals and oligarchs tremble at the merest mention of the shaved-headed Liberatrix. Paternal pride sometimes expresses itself in cupboards stocked with carbines and fridges full of peanut butter.
It is said in Aristotle’s Master-Piece, “That when a man doth think of anything which is past, – he looketh down upon the ground; – but that when he thinketh of something which is to come, he looketh up towards the heavens.”
~ Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy
I recently heard a radio interview with a scientist studying a species of vole (“shaped like a cigar with a red mark on its back”) that lives below ground in the Chernobyl evacuation zone – which nowadays is something like a wildlife preserve. The voles are dangerously radioactive but thriving, with no detectable increase in genetic mutations. I remember the rosy sunsets sent us by the Chernobyl blast in the spring of ’86. Today I scan the western sky for funny clouds and catch myself wondering if Japanese voles are as hardy as their Ukranian cousins.
Monsters of men as we are, dogs, wolves, tigers, fiends, incarnate devils, we do not only contend, oppress, and tyrannize ourselves, but as so many firebrands we set on and animate others: our whole life is a perpetual combat, a conflict, a set battle, a snarling fit.
~ Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy
Among the chief joys of parenthood is hoodwinking children into the belief that the world is something better than “a snarling fit.” It’s a deception, I think, that can end by being true. Acquaintance with life’s brute zoology is forced on us all sooner or later. What the world never teaches is to presume well of others and be charitable toward ourselves. Retreat to a peaceable kingdom later in life is only possible if you start there to begin with.
There is at least as great perfection in developing an empty theme as in sustaining a weighty one.
~ Montaigne, ‘Of Presumption’ (Essays II,17)
Cold comfort. The only book I ever really wanted to write was Moby Dick. Unfortunately, it’s been done. In the ‘Fossil Whale’ chapter, Melville staggers under the weight of his subject matter: “Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms!” No one, he says, could write a truly great book on the insubstantial flea. Becalmed in the doldrums of endless half-hearted revision, my own novel begins to taste like chalky hardtack, but I’m no nearer the whale. Some insect has just bitten my arm.
Dear Answer Man:
I am in fourth grade, which sucks. The other kids at school are always asking me about my favorite food, favorite color, or favorite brand of sneaker. The problem is that I can never make up my mind. Sometimes I want to eat tacos all day, other days I can’t live without pizza. Some days I like blue and other days red. And once I went to school with a Nike on one foot and a Converse on the other – by accident! I’m in big trouble. Who am I anyway?
~ Tommy Thomas, Age 9
I’m convinced that if Socrates were alive today he would spend all his time at the mall. That’s what it means to live the examined life anymore: to be obsessed with your own consumer choices. So, my fickle young philosopher, you do have a problem, but it’s not that you can’t make up your mind. It’s that your inability to make up your mind bothers you so much. Three thoughts to buck you up:
Fickleness is a hedge against tedium. How boring would it be if you were forced to make a once-and-for-all choice between Mexican and Italian food? Not even Mexicans and Italians want Mexican and Italian for dinner every blessed night.
Fickleness is proof that you’re not dead. Trust me, the day will come when you’ll feel like proof is necessary. But cheer up, consistency is the last thing you should expect from yourself. And I mean that literally: it is the very last thing. Only the dead are consistent.
Fickleness is infinite power. It’s the power of self-definition, first of all. It was Feuerbach or Brillat-Savarin who said it first: ‘you are what you consume.’ There you have the answer to the existential yelp at the end of your letter: Today you are a boy who likes tacos and red and Nikes. Tomorrow you will be a boy who likes pizza and blue and Converse. You can be a different person each day. When you’re a little older and get a job you’ll find that all these various selves are required to share a single bank account, which gets a little crowded, but that’s why credit was invented. Because fickleness is economic power too. As an adult, marketing executives that earn more in a year than you will in ten are going to line up to lick your boots for a buck. Really. Whole industries will rise and fall by your sovereign dime. If it weren’t for your philosophical compulsion to constantly redefine yourself in consumer terms, Tom-Tom, the world economy would collapse – we’d all be dressed in rat skins, eating boiled grass and mashed acorns, and licking salt from the walls of slug-infested caves.
Nothing’s more insipid than a quick, cheap bit of permission.
~ Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten
Small truths can unite distant constituencies. In this case, bluenoses who fret about the moral decline of society and art critics who pine for virgin taboos can both take heart. Permissiveness ends by permitting itself out of existence. New regimes of restriction, sensible or absurd, are inevitable, and the law of habit suggests that our new rules will read suspiciously like the old ones. Actual transgression may be unnecessary, but an Eden without forbidden fruit is a garden no one really cares to tend.
No democratic delusion is more fatuous than that which holds that all men are capable of reason, and hence susceptible to conversion by evidence.
~ H.L. Mencken, ‘The Foundations of Quackery’
I want to be more generous than Mencken here, but just as frightening as the inability of some to be converted by evidence is the ease with which others are converted by ‘evidence’ that doesn’t deserve the name. I served on a jury this week, a mercifully short trial. The experience left me with a novel and unpleasant sense of what it means to call justice blind. As a child you imagine that grownups know what they’re doing running the world. Of course they don’t. The fact that reason sometimes prevails can seem the most unreasonable thing of all – a fluke, even a miracle.