Monthly Archives: October 2012

Marginalia, no.276

Talking is one of the creative arts, for by it you build up things that have, until talked about, no existence, such as scandals, secrets, quarrels, literary and artistic standards, all kinds of points of view about persons and things.

~ Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train

One of the things I admire most in others is a gift for conversation. I’m an awful talker. Like a bad lover who takes and never gives, I consume, by ear and eye, probably five thousand words for every one that I produce. And the less I have to say, the harder it is for me to say it. I need a blank piece of paper, a day of mental digestion, or a stiff drink to show me what I think. Then we’ll talk.

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Photos taken during the Poppycock-Balderdash debate of 1893 show the candidates’ policy positions in stark relief.

Johnny Clarke (actor) as Mr Nubbly ca. 1865, by Samuel Alex Walker.

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Political Melancholy

The Fall 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly has arrived in the mail, it’s theme: Politics. I consider LQ a guilty pleasure. Guilty because Lewis Lapham is a bit much sometimes, and because it’s expensive and takes up space we can hardly spare; but pleasure because it has such a nice smell, such a soft cover, and is so indulgently, gorgeously illustrated. Holding it, flipping through the pages, reminds you what a beautiful object a print periodical can be.

If you’re not familiar with LQ, it’s a magazine produced on the cheap, at least when it comes to paying its contributors, since most of them are dead. The bulk of each issue’s 200 or so pages are filled with well-chosen passages from authors of times past. “Contributors” to the current number – who run the gamut in brow elevation – include Solon, Emma Goldman, Gil Scott-Heron, Mark Twain, Montesquieu, Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson, Malcolm X, Monty Python, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, H.L. Mencken, and (everyone’s fave) Notker the Stammerer, who flourished in the ninth century. This is like calling Montaigne and P.G. Wodehouse “contributors” to this blog because I quote them so often.

Politics, I said, was the theme, and of course it’s just what we need more of right now. Please, yes, more politics. Having suffered through a year plus of presidential electioneering and three very special televised debates, politics is the one thing none of us can get enough of. So, thank you, Mr Lapham. Really, it’s like treating a cold with a juicy cough in the face.

And yet, and yet… I open the pages and admit there is a same-as-it-ever-was kind of comfort in the words of founding mother Abigail Adams, wife to our second and mother to our sixth president. This from a 1775 letter:

I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature, and that power, whether vested in many or few, is ever grasping, and like the grave cries ‘Give, give!’ The great fish swallow up the small, and he who is most strenuous for the rights of the people, when vested with power, is eager after the prerogatives of government. You tell me of degrees of perfection to which human nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances.

Dear Mrs Adams! Such a graceful ager! I thought so ever since you were played by Laura Linney (opposite the immortal Paul Giamatti) in the 2008 John Adams miniseries. But who’s this now, Abby? Step aside and let’s make space for Mr Mencken, late of Baltimore, who comes in the person of Democritus Americanus to guffaw at the tragicomical farce of our benighted polity. God bless, he intones, our sacred candidates on the stump:

They will all promise every man, woman, and child in the country whatever he, she, or it wants. They’ll all be roving the land looking for chances to make the rich poor, to remedy the irremediable, to succor the unsuccorable, to unscramble the unscrambleable, to dephlogisticate the undephlogisticable. They will all be curing warts by saying words over them and paying off the national debt with money that no one will have to earn. They will all know by then, even supposing that some of them don’t know it now, that votes are collared under democracy not by talking sense but by talking nonsense, and they will apply themselves to the job with a hearty yo-heave-ho.

It’s said we get the leaders we deserve. Mencken might agree, despite not coining the phrase himself. Personally, I guess we’ve been luckier than that on balance. But to think poorly of our elected representatives, and express ourselves in that direction, is a time-honored American tradition. Likewise, lamenting the decay of the present era relative to days of yore is a pastime of Homeric antiquity. Mostly, in our own case, it’s bunk. If we can survive the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the 1970s, I think we’ll survive the next few years, whether the election-day map is red or blue.

Every generation, however, has its special pathology, its popular malaise. Yesterday aboard my commuter train, while reading Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Renaissance Essays, I think I may have hit on our own diagnosis. In his piece on Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Trevor-Roper notes Burton’s admiration, from a bookish distance, for the Dutch and Swiss society of his day:

Those admired societies, in so far as they were active and industrious, animated by a desire for improvement, were, he believed, ‘free from melancholy’. From which it appears that ‘melancholy’ is not merely a temporary depression of spirits but a kind of pervasive social inertia, an incapacity for deliberate self-improvement and rational activity.

“An incapacity for deliberate self-improvement and rational activity.” Yes, this sounds about right: melancholy not as a merely personal burden but as a social malady, the reigning humor of a nation.

Burton has his special chapters on love melancholy and religious melancholy. If he were American and writing today, perhaps he would give us a chapter on the subject of political melancholy. The disease, I suspect, is untreatable at the state or federal levels. Though collectively expressed, it is rooted in individual cases. Personal treatment is necessary by personalized means. We can only wonder what a national cure might look like.


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Leo reflected on the cheery Denisovs next door. “Maybe all happy families aren’t alike after all,” he said.

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Marginalia, no.275

By reflecting a little on this subject I am almost convinced that those numberless small Circuses we see on the Moon are the works of Lunarians and may be called their Towns.

~ William Herschel [qtd. in Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder]

A little reflection is sometimes too much. As a boy I was puzzled by those signs on the side of the highway that read “$1,000 Fine for Littering.” I finally decided the message was a strange sort of permission: If you want to throw thousand dollar bills out the window of your car, well, that’s just fine.

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Marginalia, no.274

Life is the sum of the functions by which death is resisted.

~ Xavier Bichat, Physiological Researches on Life and Death

The most succinct explanations are sometimes the most inadequate. Bichat himself died at age thirty after falling down the stairs. I’m tempted to say that he was asking for it. But what is any man’s death except the sum of the functions by which he eventually succumbs to gravity?

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Marginalia, no.273

So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for every thing one has a mind to do.

~ Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography

When it comes to things that really count, how many of us ever do what we’d rather not? It’s just that our wanting, and the doing that serves it, is complicated – and we are dishonest. We make personal myths of divine guidance or brute compulsion in order to avoid the embarrassment of desire.

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Reading Notes: Richard Mabey

  • Weeds, Richard Mabey

Mabey is a charming, erudite guide to the non-celebrity flora. He leads us from the medieval employment of weeds in sympathetic magic and the theological doctrine of ‘Signatures’ to the cutthroat world of 17th-century soldier-herbalists like Nicholas Culpeper; from John Ruskin’s strange disgust at the idea of photosynthesis (reducing flowers to mere “gasometers”) to the surprising botanical marvels of London’s WWII bomb craters. At tour’s end we gasp in dystopian delight at science-fiction futures when human beings and all their works are remorselessly consumed in an avalanche of kudzu.

Mabey treats his readers to a vernacular glossary of delicious variety, plants with names like gallant soldier, love in idleness, henbane, fat-hen, shepherd’s purse, pellitory-of-the-wall, stinking mayweed, giant hogweed, yellow rattle, self-heal, and (my personal favorite) welcome-home-husband-though-never-so-drunk. Mabey introduces us to “species that relish beheading,” an alfalfa seedling that sprouts “in the moist warmth of a patient’s eyelid,” plants with “leaves smelling of beef gravy,” and “the notorious Atheist’s Fig” that sprouted from the coffin of a provincial blasphemer.

A weed, Mabey reminds us, is really nothing more than a plant growing in a place we wish it wasn’t. Anything at all might become one, under the right (or wrong) conditions. “A tendency to weediness in a plant is as much a matter of opportunity as a fixed character trait,” he writes, and we’re reminded of certain people we’ve known – maybe of ourselves. In their metamorphic qualities, their talent for endurance, their rabid opportunism, their capacity for adjusting themselves to the environment, and the environment to themselves, “the species they most resemble,” says Mabey, “is us.”

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