Monthly Archives: January 2013

Marginalia, no.285

The only thing I can think of that distinguishes a man is a death sentence, Mathilde thought: it’s all there is that can’t be bought.

~ Stendhal, The Red and the Black

Death sentences aren’t sold only because we each get one free of charge at the moment of birth. There are ways to move up the date, but this is not recommended. As boys, my brother and I used to joke that dying was the only thing you ever really had to do in life; everything else was purely elective. Funny, I don’t remember us being morbid kids, and neither of us had read ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ yet.

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Three Paragraphs of Influenza

I was sick at home with the flu the other day when my daughter brought me her copy of Tove Jansson’s Moominpappa’s Memoirs to read. The story opens with Moominpappa himself sick in bed, acting like a baby, afraid he’s going to die and that all the treasures of his life experience will be lost. So he sits up and begins writing his memoirs while sipping a rum toddy and smoking his pipe. Moominpappa has romantic notions about himself. He was born, he says, under propitious stars. Though an orphan, he suspects he is a child of royalty. He admits to making slight embellishments in recounting his life story, but only for the sake of providing “local color.”

Is there such thing as a Protestant Sick Ethic? I feel like a cheat when I read while sick in bed. If I’m reading and hear my wife (a responsible person) walking down the hall toward the bedroom, I’ll drop my book on the floor or hide it under the covers. Not that my wife would scold me for reading, but I can’t avoid scolding myself if I’m caught. If you’re so sick and miserable, I tell myself, then be sick and miserable all the way. Surely, if you’re well enough to enjoy a book, you can’t be that sick, can you? Probably you’re just lazy. If I were more adventurous, like Moominpappa, I might not care. I might read in bed all day long, every day of my convalescence, and never feel guilty about it at all.

Being ordered to read by my daughter simplifies things. I’m only humoring her, putting on a good show of fatherly indulgence despite the fact that I’m suffering. But I wonder if reading while sick in bed may actually be therapeutic. A good book expands our scope of life, and even a minor illness like seasonal flu can feel restrictive. Reading is a form of experience, and if the world as we experience it in a book isn’t quite the same thing as the world at large, sometimes it’s close enough. Facing a storm at sea, Moominpappa asks his friend Hodgkins if he’s ever been in a gale before. “Certainly,” Hodgkins says. “In the picture book A Voyage over the Ocean. No waves can be bigger than those.”

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Marginalia, no.284

The Chevalier de Firmin (1681-1722) fought thirteen duels, killing three opponents and wounding three others, to enforce his insistence that Charles Coffin surpassed Jean Santeul as a modern Latin poet. Just before he died, Firmin confessed he had never read a single line written by either man.

~ Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

We can thank the good Chevalier for showing us, by the example of his life, the essential human condition. Convictions may be poorly informed and arbitrarily held, so long as you have them. After all, what would be left of history and culture if people gave up fighting over things they know nothing about?


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Mushrooms Good and Bad

Moral ambiguity is unknown among the spore-bearing fungi.


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Reading Notes: Diderot

There’s a lot of name-dropping in Rameau’s Nephew, which may be why Diderot never published the book in his lifetime. It recounts a long, probably fictitious conversation between Diderot himself and the brilliant but unsavory person named in the title, the real-life down-at-heels nephew of the French baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau.

When not performing intricate pantomimes and discoursing on musical theory, Rameau’s nephew (who does most of the talking) explains how he makes his living as a sponge and buffoon in the homes of the rich, as a procurer of young women for randy aristocrats, and as a teacher of music who never really teaches anything. There’s a bit of Falstaff in him, but he’s more sophisticated, more craven.

“For long ages,” says Rameau, “there was an official King’s Jester, but at no time has there been an official King’s Wise Man.” He plays the jester therefore. Like some of Shakespeare’s jesters, he’s venomous as well as diverting:

“People laud virtue, but they hate and avoid it, for it freezes you to death, and in this world you need to keep your feet warm… Virtue commands respect, and respect is a liability. Virtue commands admiration, and admiration is not funny.”

“If it is important to be sublime in anything, it is especially so in evil. You spit on a petty thief, but you can’t withhold a sort of respect from a great criminal. His courage bowls you over. His brutality makes you shudder. What you value in everything is consistency of character.”

What exactly is Diderot about in Rameau’s Nephew? It’s hard to say. He’s giving the devil his due, perhaps, or purging himself, through the puppet of Rameau, of all the uncharitable thoughts he’s harbored about his fellow men. Or maybe he’s trying to inoculate himself (and us) against the allurements of cynicism and easy hypocrisy:

“One swallows the lie that flatters, but sips the bitter truth drop by drop.”

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Marginalia, no.283

That creature was its own tormentor, and I believe its name was Boswell.

~ Samuel Johnson in Boswell’s Life of Johnson

The moth was Boswell, but what was the candle? Wine? Women? Maybe it was Johnson himself. The disciple is sometimes burnt in the flame of the master’s example. He may admire himself right out of existence.

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New Year’s Notes

I took some time off work and tried not to look at screens. I looked, instead, at people, at books, at the rather impressive rain, at various animals, plants and things, and at the moon through my son’s new telescope, which was a Christmas gift. How sad it would be if we suddenly had no moon.

In the eighteenth-century, William Herschel thought the moon’s craters might be ring-shaped cities. In The First Men in the Moon (1901), H.G. Wells imagined the craters were huge mechanical doors to an oxygen-rich interior where Selenites lived safe from the absolute zero of night on the surface. It’s been cold on the surface here too. There was ice in the grass this morning.

My daughter has assigned names to all the neighborhood cats. She’s made a field guide with pictures of each. There’s Sam and Jenny, Orange Soda and Orange Cream, White William and Cinnamon, others too. The neighborhood cat she admires most is called Alice Featherlegs. Alice is a short hair, dirty blonde, a bit chubby, eager to roll on her back for a belly scratch.

In old Rome a soothsayer that read omens by the behavior of birds was called an auspex (a haruspex read the livers of sacrificed animals). Today when we say that a moment is ‘ausipicious,’ we mean, without quite meaning it, that the bird-sign is favorable. My daughter reads omens by cat-sign. If she gets a “cattish feeling” and then Alice Featherlegs appears, it’s a very special day and wonderful things might happen. She might get a letter in the mail, or a gift, or dessert after dinner.

Assuming I don’t surprise myself by dying before September, this is the year I will turn forty. I’ve started it with a head cold. This put a damper on any New Year’s Eve plans we might have cooked up, but the wife and I kept vigil until the required hour and I sipped a bit of medicinal scotch to bury the old year and bless the new. I’m feeling a bit better now.

I don’t often make New Year’s resolutions, but this year I’ve resolved to read less. According to my notes, I read more than seventy books in 2012. Some people read more than that, but it sounds like a lot to me and, frankly, not all the books that I read were worth it. If I read a little less this year I might have time to think a little more. I might also have more time for re-reading, which I’ve decided doesn’t technically count.


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