Monthly Archives: November 2011

Three Paragraphs of Black Friday

Consumer aggression is an American tradition. The ghost of H.L. Mencken was in sardonic ecstasies this past weekend over video clips of Black Friday berserkers punching, pepper-spraying and shooting their way through crowds of competing shoppers to win deep discounts on unnecessary purchases. Everyone loves a good slugfest.

Watching it all from my father’s recliner, I recalled that Homeric scene in Tom Jones when Molly Seagrim, taunted by the crowd in the churchyard, took up a thigh bone from an open grave, “fell in among the flying ranks, and dealing her blows with great liberality on either side, overthrew the carcasse of many a mighty heroe and heroine.” Rather than a thigh bone, today’s Molly Seagrim swings an iPhone or a Blue Ray player.

Of course, it’s equally traditional to be shocked – simply shocked – by such behavior. Like court-appointed advocates for the defense, journalists and economists speculated in the aftermath that The American Consumer had been suffering from “austerity fatigue” and was possessed by the demon of “pent up demand.” This kind of insanity, they mean to say, is just what we need.

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Marginalia, no.234

She had carried me, dead, in her heart for three kilometers.

~ Jules Renard, Journals

To bear news of a death (prematurely in Renard’s case) will convince anyone that words have mass and weight. I once learned of an acquaintance’s suicide before his girlfriend, a close friend of mine, knew about it. I understood that to tell her myself would mean the end of our relationship as it had existed. I told myself it was a friend’s duty to see that she didn’t hear it from a stranger. Which seems right. But it’s also true that, as a nineteen-year-old ravenous for anything savoring of adult life, I was secretly thrilled at the prospect of being the awful messenger. I carried his corpse for two hours before finally delivering it to her.

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Marginalia, no.233

Every one was a little someone else.

~ Henry James, The Great Good Place

I like to think we’re given middle names to acknowledge the transdimensional interloper that manages to occupy precisely our little corner of space-time all our lives. This is the person who is us but never quite ourself and who, if we’re not careful, will make a fool of us and get us into all kinds of trouble. By naming him, perhaps, we keep him in bounds. But woe to them that go by their middle names.

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Marginalia, no.232

He was amused by her evident belief in the curative power of animals. She seemed to think that it must steady him to look at a buffalo.

~ Nathaniel West, Miss Lonelyhearts

We spent a week camping at Yellowstone when I was nine. There were elk and moose and buffalo to be seen and we spent a large part of each day either looking for them or looking at them. With the heat and altitude, it was a tiring business. Back at the campsite my grandfather (who swore that his bypass scar was from an Indian tomahawk) simmered ground buffalo patties and onions and Campbell’s condensed mushroom soup. If looking at a buffalo had failed to steady us, eating one did the trick nicely.

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Everyone Is Doing It

Twenty years ago I was somehow able to think about sex all day long. I could think about sex even when I wasn’t thinking about it. Temporarily distracted by bus schedules, term papers, potential muggers, or the likelihood of being able to pay my rent, sex still bubbled away undisturbed at the back of the old brain. Somewhere along the way, however, I traded my preoccupation with sex for a preoccupation with mortality. Death is the slow simmer now.

You might think that this would make me no fun to be around, but not so. I can be very charming when I happen to notice you or when I’ve downed a couple drinks. I don’t think my friends would consider me a morbid person. But then no one who knew me as an eighteen-year-old would have considered me a sex-obsessed monomaniac either.

Twenty years ago my experience of sex was, let’s say, comprehensively limited. I knew a bit about it, of course, the various scenarios in which it might occur, the basic biological processes involved. I knew people who had actually had sex. My experience of death today is similarly limited. I know a bit about it, the various scenarios in which it might occur and the basic biological processes involved. I know people who have actually died. But death for me (knock on wood) is still virgin territory.

Faced with the great catalog of life’s alumni, some people will panic at the thought of their own graduation day. Others find comfort in the thought of joining the beloved and admired who have gone before. Some may look to death as a final opportunity for rebellion or individualistic self-expression, but you might just as well see it as the ultimate surrender to peer pressure.

If death is a problem for you, religion may offer some limited assistance. “Limited” because you’ll always question your motives for faith if fear of death is what brings you to it. You may be so scared of dying that you’ll believe anything to make it seem less horrible. Anyway, religious solace only goes so far. If death is mere illusion, then life probably is too, and you’re back where you started. And even if there is a resurrection for dessert, you still have to eat your vegetables first.

Philosophy isn’t very helpful either. Spinoza wrote that the wisdom of a free man is a meditation on life rather than death, but he had to meditate on death a bit even to write that sentence. Socrates said that the whole business of philosophy was learning how to die. He said this because his sort of philosophy was all about cutting the threads that bind the divine and ethereal soul to the stinking, lice-ridden flesh – which is, conveniently, what death does too.

Montaigne wanted to endorse something like Socrates’ notion of philosophy in his earlier essays, but he couldn’t reconcile himself to making life into a death cult. Montaigne’s solution to the problem of death – if you want to call it a solution – was to not think of it as a problem in the first place. In his final essay, Of Experience, he recommends that we gratefully accept the world as God hands it to us, sex and death and all. It’s not as if we’re in a position to negotiate a better deal.

Death manages to feel like a problem anyway. I’m afraid of my children dying, or my wife. I’m less afraid, I think, of my own death, but I may be fooling myself. Twenty years ago I never would have admitted that I was afraid of sex, but of course I was terrified.

I can’t think about any of this without remembering Woody Allen’s 1975 send-up of Russian literature, Love and Death. In one scene, Boris (Allen) gets conscripted into the army that will face off against Napoleon, but before leaving he visits his cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton), whom he’s always loved. Full of foreboding on his own account, he asks Sonja if she’s scared of dying.

“Scared is the wrong word,” she answers, “I’m frightened of it.” An interesting distinction, Boris says.


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Marginalia, no.231

That is so, said Cebes.

~ Plato, Phaedo

We want to object. Socrates’ interlocutors, as Plato supplies them, are often unsatisfying in this regard: they surrender a mile as easily as an inch. Which may actually be an argument for the reliability of Plato’s reportage. Any philosophic horse will tell you that gadflies are only dealt with in one of two ways: by a well-aimed but ultimately ineffective swish of the tail, or by granting them all they want in the hope that they’ll just go away.

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Marginalia, no.230

Copernicus has ruined humanity forever.

~ Luigi Pirandello, The Late Mattia Pascal

That last gin and tonic was a mistake. If it weren’t for the Pole, I would only imagine myself spinning. As it is, I close my eyes and have to feel the whole globe hurtling through space.


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