Monthly Archives: December 2012

Municipal Bat Roost San Antonio TX ca1910 LOC

“‘I just flap these arms real hard like,’ he said.”

San Antonio, Texas, 1910. Library of Congress.

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Marginalia, no.282

[A]nother neophyte, at the point of death, asked anxiously whether, in the realms of bliss to which he was bound, pies were to be had comparable to those with which the French regaled him.

~ Francis Parkman, Pioneers of France in the New World

The native medicine man of New France was helpless against the wily Jesuit patissier. Food is still employed as a tool of proselytism. The homeless are lured to downtown missions by the promise of a hot meal, but forced to hear a sermon first, while suburban churches compete for membership by constant refinement of their espresso techniques.

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Marginalia, no.281

There was a belief that the breath of young women might be helpful in prolonging life. According to Mr. Wadd, one physician actually took lodgings in a girls’ boarding-school for this purpose. ‘I am myself,’ wrote Philip Thicknesse in 1779, ‘turned of sixty, and in general, though I have lived in various climates, and suffered severely both in body and mind, yet having always partaken of the breath of young women, wherever they lay in my way, I feel none of the infirmities, which so often strike the eyes and ears in this great city of sickness, by men many years younger than myself.’

~ T.H. White, The Age of Scandal

I can’t help wondering how diet, oral hygiene, and the presence or absence of halitosis factor in here, but I don’t expect that exhaling into the faces of old men is very beneficial for the young women in question. In fact it might be detrimental. Longevity studies have shown that lifelong bachelors (without, one supposes, easy access to the breath of young women) are more likely to die young. However, women living alone (who don’t, one assumes, regularly share their breath with men) tend to live longer than married women. Clinical trials may be in order.

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Reading Notes: Robert MacFarlane

My initial high hopes for The Old Ways were dampened by its heavy-handed opener, but when MacFarlane started talking about his barefoot hike on the “Broomway” – a tidal public right-of-way between the Essex coast and Foulness (wonderful name) – he had me.

He had me, that is, but lost me again after two promising but poorly accomplished sailing expeditions, and after uncritically introducing us to an “artist” friend in the Hebrides whose masterpiece involves wrapping a human skeleton in calf’s flesh and putting it into a hollowed-out glacial erratic.

According to his publisher, MacFarlane provides us in this book with an example of “exquisite” prose artistry. Sometimes, it’s true, he finds a way between his words. Too often, however, MacFarlane’s breathy phrases, pet descriptors, and gushings over Edward Thomas’s awful poetry bog him down.

The Old Ways might have been a better book if MacFarlane had kept the purple prose in check; if he had more love for the complete sentence; if he was less of a landscape sentimentalist; and if he’d not tried to reproduce dialogue in novelistic style but kept to straight narrative.

Reading MacFarlane, I did feel encouraged to do some fresh walking in the hills, but for company I’ll take Thoreau.

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Marginalia, no.280

Yes, God exists, but he knows no more about it than we do.

~ Jules Renard, Journals

The best available answer for what is clearly something other than the best of all possible worlds? There are closets in Connecticut where Christmas gifts are hidden that will never surprise anyone.

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Illus by Jan Marcin Szancer for Brzechwa Dzieciom 2 1955

“Everyone likes a foxy cook.”

Illus. Jan Marcin Szancer, Brzechwa Dzieciom (1955).

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Marginalia, no.279

Hrapp soon died…and difficult as he had been to deal with during his life, he was now very much worse after death, for his corpse would not rest in its grave; people say he murdered most of his servants after death, and caused grievous harm to most of his neighbours.

~ Laxdaela Saga

The histories of nations and families alike are thick with just this sort of zombie, deceased persons of such potent awfulness that their malice keeps spending itself even after death. The sign of a virtuous life and a spirit of philanthropy is to leave your survivors unhaunted and simply stay buried.

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Reading Notes: Adam Gopnik

Once upon a time in a freshman college course our professor asked us to name the three most influential people of the twentieth century. It was a trick question, because two of them died before 1900, but the three he wanted were Darwin, Marx and Freud. In an early chapter of Angels and Ages, Adam Gopnik references the same triumvirate but suggests a revision is needed for the twenty-first century. Darwin stays, but Marx and Freud get voted off the island. Then Gopnik adds Lincoln.

Darwin and Lincoln. The ostensible premise of Gopnik’s book – an abbreviated dual biography – is that “literary eloquence is essential to liberal civilization.” Darwin he presents as exemplar of the spirit of liberal scientific inquiry, Lincoln of the spirit of liberal (in the broad sense of the term) statecraft. More than what they had to say, it was their particular way of saying it that assured the victory of their causes and laid a foundation for modernity.

It’s a stretch, perhaps. Lincoln, in his oratory, is popularly acclaimed for a certain literary or quasi-literary eloquence, and we can imagine that his political victories might have been harder won without the solemn periods and flourishes. But Darwin, I think, is a different story. Selections from his letters – often witty and acerbic – suggest certain gifts. But the particular kind of eloquence displayed in his more famous work is – at least to my ear – hardly “literary.” On the Origin of Species is precise and considered, but not often read for its poetry.

The fact is that Gopnik never really argues for his own thesis. He only states it, and then seems to forget it. Taken on their own, the biographical chapters on Lincoln and Darwin are enjoyable enough, but the synthesis is weak. Apart from the fact that, in certain spheres, both his subjects exert considerable posthumous influence, what exactly unites them? Is there any one thing that we specially owe to Darwin and Lincoln together? Not really.

Gopnik could possibly have given us a diverting New Yorker article, but he gives us an awkward book instead. There’s too much strain in his comparisons, too much rhetorical blurring of his subjects’ radically divergent lives and concerns in order to present them as twinned souls. In the end, you get the feeling that if Lincoln and Darwin had not, by chance, been born on the same day, the idea of pairing them like this would never have occurred to Gopnik, or to anyone else.

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