Monthly Archives: December 2011

Marginalia, no.238

He could criticize a theory, but he could not judge a man.

~ Maurice Ashley [of James I], England in the Seventeenth Century

‘Do you consider facts or theories more important?’ I once took a personality test that asked the question. I had this notion at the time that facts were unsubtle, that all the real puzzles worth pondering were on the side of theory. Of course I had it backwards. It’s the relative simplicity of theory that enables us to argue about it. For all the summary descriptions they allow, facts themselves (material objects, physical laws, human individuals) are ultimately imponderable. Facts float on the void.

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Cultivated Interests

A miracle has occurred. I seem to have spent the afternoon with an old college friend in Berkeley and even perused the stacks at Moe’s Books on Telegraph for an hour without purchasing a single volume. There’s a pleasure in sometimes not buying a book that only a bibliomaniac can appreciate. It’s the sort of thrill I suppose a junkie might feel on turning down the chance to get a fix – a shout of freedom from inside the prison yard. No one is really fooled.

I recently ordered a few titles online and the knowledge that they’re in the mail may have kept my book lust in check. I daily expect J.G. Farrell’s The Singapore Grip, Steven Runciman’s Sicilian Vespers and a single-volume selection of Pierre Bayle. In the meantime I’m reading Hudibras and John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay, from Pulphead, on Constantine Rafinesque.

This Rafinesque character (early 19th century polymath, naturalist, etc.) is new to me. I don’t know why he isn’t better known but perhaps his speculation about the Americas being peopled by refugees from Atlantis got him in bad odor. More likely, I think, it was the presumption of being born with an adjective for a surname. As if Charles could have gotten away with the last name ‘Darwinian,’ or Franz with ‘Kafka-esque,’ or Miguel with ‘Cervantick.’

Driving through Oakland and south Berkeley my friend and I mused over the flare-out of the local Occupy movement (which neither of us participated in) and the explosion of local ‘hipster’ culture. Was there much cross-over between the two, I wonder? These hipster types, you can see them a half mile away queued up thirty-deep in front of some obscure bakery or coffeehouse or brunch factory. “It’s a very social movement,” my friend says. “You can’t be a hipster alone.”

It’s also a consumer movement: they apparently have money to spend. My friend says that an acquaintance of his –proprietor of a neighborhood comic shop – will shamelessly cater to any fresh hipster that steps inside, knowing a cash cow when he sees one. The customer might have known a mere title or two before entering but will leave with an armful of graphic novels he’d never heard of before. “They’re serious about cultivating interests.”

The hipsters and the occupiers both remind me more than a little of myself and my friends twenty years ago. Back then, too, it was the economy (stupid) – and the Gulf War wasn’t long over. The Soviet Union and apartheid South Africa were out or on the way out. And when we walked into the local bookshop in our corduroy jackets and Fluevogs I’m sure the proprietor knew that he could unload a few volumes of Beats on us and snicker profitably when we left.

Sometimes it’s easy to be more charitable toward others than toward our past selves.

In Sullivan’s essay on Rafinesque he writes: “It’s the human condition to be confused. No other animal ever had an erroneous thought about nature.” As a part of nature, I suppose it’s the doubly special province of man not only to be confused about the world at large but about himself. The quote could almost have been lifted from Montaigne – or perhaps from Eric Hoffer, whom I’m encouraging my friend to read right now. What we want for ourselves and what we want for the world, who can disentangle the two and divide motives of self-interest from those of self-loathing?

(Not that it’s perfectly germane but Eric Hoffer once wrote that “the only key in deciphering another is our self; and considering how obscure this self is and how dim our awareness of it, the use of it as a key in deciphering others is like using hieroglyphs to decipher hieroglyphs.”)

There’s so much to outgrow. We cultivate interests and then abandon them to wither in the hothouse. We nurse causes to reintroduce them, utterly doomed, into the wild. Still, I hope I never stop outgrowing things. Not that I’m really any wiser now than I was twenty years ago – and I don’t expect to be any wiser in another twenty. A fool (like me) asks only for variety of perspective. There’s something to be said even for the sort of progress that doesn’t go from poor to good or good to better but only from this to that.

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Dragon’s Blood

He understood the speech of birds
As well as they themselves do words

~ Samuel Butler, Hudibras

Christmas afternoon there were a half dozen crows in the sycamores behind the house croaking out satire at my son’s attempt to master the unicycle. Today, though cold, it could almost have been spring for all the birds we saw: a black phoebe, two robins, an Anna’s hummingbird. In the branches above the oleanders my daughter spotted what I think must have been a cooper’s hawk, or a sharp-shinned. I wish I’d had a better look at it with the binoculars before the crows chased it away.

A couple hours later my daughter asked me to tell her again about the bird that had landed on me when I was a boy. Had it pecked at my head? No, it had not. It had only landed there – a little songbird of some kind – and I’d felt its sharp little toes dancing across my scalp. My parents and grandparents saw it happen. No spirit descended, however. No words were uttered on my behalf from heaven. It was years before I could go outside again without a hat.

The son and wife are sick. While roasting a chicken for dinner we sat on the couch and watched an episode of David Attenborough’s The Life of Birds. This was the episode on mating rituals and practices, avian pornography. Thankfully, my daughter is too young, and my son too feverish, to ask any pertinent questions. Until today I never suspected the existence of Amazonian calfbirds and never imagined anything like their weird mating-season chorus a hundred feet up in the forest canopy.

In my high school German class I took the name Sigurd after Sigurd of the Volsungs. I’d read as a boy in our copy of The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends about how Sigurd had killed the dragon Fafnir and roasted his heart, and how, when he tasted the blood of the dragon for the first time, Sigurd immediately understood the language of birds (nuthatches in particular). This seemed to me more desirable than fluency in German.

I said it might have been spring for all the birds we saw today, but that’s not quite true. The mourning dove was missing. Sibley and Peterson will tell you that the mourning dove is resident year-round in coastal northern California, but good luck spotting one in winter. By holding my hands together just so and blowing into them with a faint trill I can pretty well mimic a mourning dove’s call. I impressed my son this past summer by carrying on a ten minute conversation with one of the locals, but I couldn’t tell you what we said to each other.

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Marginalia, no.237

Their scrolls tell the story of Dinanukht, a half man, half book, who sits by the waters between the worlds, reading himself.

~ Eliot Weinberger, An Elemental Thing

You can only be the reader – never the writer – of your own heart. Whatever the outward story of your life, your heart is not a fairy tale. It is not a piece of science fiction. It is not a Jane Austen novel. It is neither Iliad nor Odyssey. It is not the Bible. It is what’s left after the waters recede: an old grocery list, a letter from a dead relative, a few pages from a dictionary in a language you don’t understand. At the very best it’s a mud-stained half chapter from Don Quixote.

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Marginalia, no.236

As fair Grimalkin, who, though the youngest of the Feline Family, degenerates not in Ferosity from the elder Branches of her House, and, though inferior in Strength, is equal in Fierceness to the noble Tyger himself…

~ Henry Fielding, Tom Jones

My daughter loves all cats, but three especially: our own irascible grimalkin, age eighteen, whom she dotes on and defends from all insult; the ghostly white long-hair that pads out from the greenbelt at night; the shy little black that hides under bushes and for whose welfare she often weeps. My father used to preach that we should only love dogs and should despise cats. But without intending it he taught a secret doctrine too: his favorite animal was the tiger.

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Exotic/Domestic

Among the varieties of homo scribus there is a kind of author who employs exceptional language to explore subject matter which is, at least on its surface, fairly unexceptional. Examples abound and I’ll let you think of your own. In any case it’s the author’s prose and the peculiar quality of his or her reflections on familiar things that give readers their pleasure.

However, there’s another kind of author who explores exceptional themes through language which is, on its surface, unexceptional (or at least undistracting). The fireworks here are more in the subject matter and not so much in the language. In fact, the author may use an intentionally understated style to accent, by contrast, the exotic quality of his subject.

Eliot Weinberger – new to me – seems to be an author of the second sort. I almost passed over his essay collection, An Elemental Thing, despite the lovely cover. The canned praise on the back of it scared me. To believe it, Weinberger’s work is totally without precedent, the accomplishment of things yet unattempted in prose and rhyme, the sole flaw in the rule about there being nothing new under the sun.

Weinberger’s book isn’t really so unprecedented. You could point to whole armies of anthropologists and historians, among others, and maybe to Borges too. God spare us such monsters of spontaneous generation anyway. If it had been truly unprecendented I’m sure I would have hated it. (And here’s a lesson for overpraising reviewers: islands are places we like to imagine ourselves bringing a few favorite books, but a book itself makes a poor island.)

An Elemental Thing is a well-curated little museum, worth the price of admission, and Weinberger is a gifted collector. Page after page he holds up curious objects for our consideration without getting himself too much in the way: the recurring Aztec apocalypse, the tiger as symbol and victim, the mysticism of the Taoists, the levitating saints of Italy, the Mandaeans of Iraq, the heathenish folklore of the wren, the ritual life of a Chinese emperor, the Empedoclean follies.

There’s such a thing as too much exoticism, however, and Weinberger pushes a bit beyond my limit. Reflecting on it, I can’t help wondering where this immemorial western obsession with the misty, musty East comes from. Weinberger does occasionally sample from nearer to home but he spends more than half the book stepping over the fewmets of other latter-day Orientalists: Pound perhaps, and the dime-a-dozen Zen-pushers of the twentieth century.

If the West discovered the East in Alexander’s time, the East seems only to have discovered the West in the last century or so – or am I wrong? Was there ever such a thing, I wonder, as an Egyptian Herodotus? Or a Mongol Polo that sojourned among the Venetians and famously wrote it all down? Montesquieu in the Persian Letters had to invent his own Usbek.

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Marginalia, no.235

Love and Cough cannot be hid.

~ George Herbert, Outlandish Proverbs

Apparently I always think of this when I’m sick. A potion to inspire the one, a syrup to cure the other. From Solomon’s Song to Burton’s Anatomy, love and sickness go hand in hand. The wife and kids have had the flu this past week. It’s my turn now. The muscles in my right thigh ache. There’s a canker sore inside my lower lip. I spend all day blowing Rorschach tests into handfuls of tissue. But someone made a mistake. Love – at least in its more vigorous forms – is out of the question.

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