Monthly Archives: July 2011

Marginalia, no.216

A wonderful thing in their nature: they cannot abide oil in any wise, but water they love well; insomuch , as if they be cut off, or fallen from the place where they grew, they wind and creep thereinto.

~ Pliny, Natural History (Philemon Holland trans.)

He’s referring to cucumbers. I thought I would test the claim and so removed a cucumber from the fridge and set it overnight by a saucer of water to see if it would, in fact, “wind and creep thereinto.” What a disappointment. The next evening, however, a couple slices of the uncooperative vegetable did manage, by a mysterious locomotion, to find their way to my gin and tonic.

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“The Zucchini Brothers Circus Air Force: no match for modern artillery.”

Detail of illustration by Dusan Petricic for a Serbian children’s book.

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Marginalia, no.215

Cosmus Medices, that rich citizen of Florence, ingenuously confessed to a near friend of his, that would know of him why he built so many public and magnificent palaces, and bestowed so liberally on scholars, not that he loved learning more than others, ‘but to eternize his own name, to be immortal by the benefit of scholars…’

~ Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy

Among those set to the task was Marsilio Ficino, appointed by Cosimo de Medici to head the Florentine Academy. Late in life Ficino was accused of being a wizard astrologer. In the choice phrasing of the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Ficino finally “succeeded in purging himself.” Of the charges, one hopes. We read in Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions (in a story lifted from Hermippus Redivivus), that de Medici himself as a young man had consulted an astrologer and been guaranteed immortal fame with a seat alongside Augustus Caesar and Co. Why all the exertion then? The lesson seems to be: hedge your bets with mortar and mortarboards.

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“Like a storm-tossed sea of drowning sailors, your hair…”

Engraving by Albin Brunovsky (1935-1997).

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Marginalia, no.214

The devil is a citizen of every country, but only in our own are we in constant peril of an introduction to him. That is democracy.

~ Ambrose Bierce, Disintroductions

According to Bierce, we can blame the Declaration of Independence when we fall into casual acquaintance with persons we’d prefer not to know. For example, I once shook hands with the Angel of Death in a hospital elevator in Boise, Idaho. I was fifteen at the time but I recall that he was well-mannered and looked something like you might expect: ancient and bony, with a firm, cold grip. He was often at the hospital, he said, visiting friends. Bierce suggests a practice of disintroductions to remedy unfortunate meetings like this. If it could be arranged, I suppose a disintroduction to Death or the devil might be worth something. So long as we could be sure to stay strangers.

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Marginalia, no.213

Time is for dragonflies and angels. The former live too little and the latter live too long.

~ James Thurber, The Thirteen Clocks

Paul Giamatti confessed in an interview that he’s always had a “middle-aged soul.” It was a great relief when he finally turned forty. Some persons (according to the cliche) are wise beyond their years: these are old souls. Others dwell in perpetual unreflecting adolescence. I suspect, however, that a majority of us have middle-aged souls, if we would admit it. We inhabit a zone of comfortable ripeness tending slightly toward decay. We panic an hour at midnight once each week while we trim our aspirations. We bank our spiritual flabbiness like the earned interest of experience.

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Marginalia, no.212

Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.

~ Robert Louis Stevenson, An Apology for Idlers

A trick of alliteration will prevent forgetting: if the bark comes off in puzzle pieces, it’s a ponderosa pine. We camped all week in a grove of ponderosas and incense cedars, and when it wasn’t trees and mountains that distracted, it was birds: ravens, Steller’s jays, red-breasted sapsuckers, western tanagers, and black-headed grosbeaks. I’d spent an hour worrying which books to bring and settled on a Wodehouse collection, some Flann O’Brien, and Tove Jansson’s Moominsummer Madness for the kids. The Jansson we serialized at bedtime, but I only managed half a Wodehouse story and a mere two paragraphs of O’Brien. No complaints, however. The best holidays are perfect failures.

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