Monthly Archives: February 2013

Marginalia, no.288

The ascetic is the inverted libertine.

~ Gilbert Seldes, The Stammering Century

Montaigne observes that “it is much easier to go along the sides, where the outer edge serves as a limit and a guide, than by the middle way, wide and open.” It seems true, at least, that one extremity is more readily traded for another than for anything in-between. The righteous Puritan is less tempted by lukewarm agnosticism than by outright devil-worship.

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Count Franz Graf von Pocci 1875

The heroic age of flowers was full of pathos and adventure.

Illustration by Count Franz Graf von Pocci for Viola Tricolor in Pictures and Rhyme (Germany, 1875).

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Five Years of The New Psalmanazar

I used to joke that I was a glutton for obscurity, that if no one read what I published here I was pleased as pie. That’s a pose, of course, something to make me feel better. I want readers. But as I mellow toward middle age (seven months till forty) I’m becoming more honestly comfortable with the idea that writing, like reading, is something I can engage in without the need for recognition. Writing a good sentence now and then, like reading one, is a pleasure in its own right. I hope I’ve managed a few. At any rate, the attempt seems necessary for me. Trying to write good sentences has made me a better person, or at least prevented me from being as awful as I might have been otherwise.

By the numbers, I’ve written 526 separate posts for The New Psalmanazar since February 22, 2008. I’ve received 48,700 views. I’ve earned 90 regular ‘followers.’ My busiest year, both in terms of production and in terms of readership, was 2010. The busiest day was November 10th of that year, on which I had 616 visitors (I average maybe 40). The post that’s earned me by far the most visitors is Three Paragraphs of Nature. To judge by incoming search traffic, these are  middle school students hoping to plagiarize something for a class assignment (Write 1-3 paragraphs about nature). For some reason, the other search phrases most likely to bring people here have to do with Edward Gorey and the Italian film star Monica Vitti. I mentioned Monica Vitti twice back in September of 2008.

I have a small band of loyalish readers, but most of the people who come to The New Psalmanazar do so accidentally. It’s not what they were looking for, but something they found on the way to what they were looking for. When they do come, I’m glad to say that they tend to stay a while. Most of them spend a couple minutes clicking around and reading. I’m grateful for that. The things that bring people together often smell of random chance. When the results are favorable, we call it serendipity, or fate. That’s how friendships are made. That’s how people fall in love.

Out of pure narcissism, and to commemorate my anniversary, I’ve pulled a dozen or so posts from each of the past five years (excluding posts from the Marginalia series) and created a Best Of page.

Thank you for reading.


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Brief, False Summer

Every February in coastal Northern California we enjoy a false summer two or three days long. The weather has reverted now to what we call winter (cold enough for wool and with occasional rain), but this past Sunday was seventy-three degrees and golden. The grass stood up in astonishment. Trees stretched their fingertips into buds. We went out looking for birds in the wetlands and low hills at the edge of San Francisco Bay. My seven-year-old daughter picked tiny wildflowers and offered them to us in miniature bouquets. She and her brother counted seven or eight butterflies, several of them Monarchs.

My daughter’s middle name – Katharine – honors my childhood art teacher. Mrs. Yates gave private lessons. Every Thursday afternoon I would walk from school to her house in an older part of town. She offered milk and cookies, sometimes tea, at a table in her kitchen, where I worked on pencil sketches and watercolors. Mrs. Yates wore riding boots and kept her long black hair pinned up in a bun. She had a mole on her upper lip. Her radio was tuned to the classical station and I used to think about the names ‘Telemann’ and ‘Mendelssohn’ while I worked. Mrs. Yates once asked me to copy Picasso’s line portrait of Stravinsky without looking at my paper, and with the original turned upside-down.

I learned recently that Mrs. Yates died several years ago. I found her obituary in an online archive of obscure third and fourth-tier weeklies. She apparently still lived in the same house in the same inland railroad town that I left behind when I went to college twenty-two years ago. After my parents moved away, I never had a reason to visit. Mrs. Yates never knew that my daughter was named for her, and I’m sorry about that.

Out in the cattails on Sunday afternoon we found ourselves completely surrounded by wrens. There was a wren every twenty paces, in every direction. I had only heard them previously, but this time they bobbed into sight to briefly sing from a high point or to catch a bug before diving into the dry stalks again. The Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris) is a small thing with prominent white eyebrows. He lifts his tail when singing. Peterson was maybe fair but not very generous, I think, when he described the Marsh Wren’s song as “a reedy, gurgling series of notes.” Supposedly our western wrens are better singers than their eastern cousins.

According to Eliot Weinberger, killing wrens used to be bad luck in parts of western Europe and the British Isles, though an exception was made once a year when groups of ‘wren boys,’ dressed in women’s clothes or suits of straw, would make an annual hunt. “The slain wren was hung on a pole with its wings outstretched or carried on a bier decorated with ribbons and mistletoe or even in a miniature house complete with doors and windows. Its size was exaggerated: the boys pretended to stagger under the weight of the pole or bier, and in some places the bird was bound with heavy ropes and placed in a cart pulled by four oxen.”

There are places out in the marsh where the dense cattails – six and seven feet tall – have been bent down in wide swathes, as if herds of bison or elephants had laid down and spent the night. But maybe it was only the wrens.

At the ranger-staffed Nature Center not far from the marsh there are dioramas of dusty, taxidermied animals – a fox and a mule deer, a kite, owl, muskrat and rattlesnake, and a bird I hope to spot someday: the Loggerhead Shrike that impales its kill (insects, rodents, etc.) onto sticks or barbed wire for easier manipulation while eating. There’s also a room in the Nature Center that describes the lives of the Ohlones, a group of American Indian tribes that once occupied the coast from Big Sur to San Francisco.

The Ohlones appear to have arrived here about 9,000 years ago, before the bay filled with water in the long thaw after the ice age. There are probably villages still buried in the silt and mud beneath the bay. The Ohlones did not farm but caught fish and waterfowl from boats made of tule reeds. They hunted game and gathered acorns in the oak and redwood forests. After the Spanish friars came, their population was concentrated around the nearby missions of San Jose and Santa Clara, where they caught European diseases and died off in large numbers. The last fluent speaker of an Ohlone language died in 1939.

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Marginalia, no.287

He had not the gift of expression, but rather the gift of suggestion… His mind was never quite in focus and there was always something left over after each discharge of the battery, something which now became the beginning of a new thought. When he found out his mistake or defect of expression, when he came to see that he had not said quite what he meant, he was the first to proclaim it, and move on to a new position, a new misstatement of the same truth.

~ John Jay Chapman, “William James”

I think of the Boudin Bakery of San Francisco which has used the same sourdough starter for over 150 years, kneading a portion of the ancient “mother dough” into loaves of endless elaboration. William James was not alone in saying (or trying to say) the same things over and over again. There is a mother dough at the root of all we say and think, a leaven of shared nature that expresses itself in questions, desires and fears that we all recognize. For all the really shocking variety among human individuals and cultures, it is this habitual defect of expression, of misstating the same truths, that impresses me most.

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Captain Occupations of Women Series Trading Card Old Judge and Dogs Head Cigarettes 1887

The 1880s: When careers of all sorts were open to bosomy women.

Trading card from the series “Occupations of Women,” issued by the Old Judge and Dog’s Head Cigarette Company, 1887.

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Marginalia, no.286

When Vesalius demonstrated that the head of the human femur is not flared, stating that the ancient Greek master had used a quadruped’s hip for his descriptions, his opponents responded that Galen had not lied and, if the human hip did not conform to his description, it was because men’s anatomy had changed. This, they claimed, was due to centuries of wearing tight trousers instead of loose-fitting tunics and togas, as the ancients had done.

~ F. Gonzalez-Crussi, A Short History of Medicine

Mr. Poe may well sigh for “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome.” I see it too, as, from barbarian regions of tight trousers, the weary, way-worn wanderer returns to his own native shore, and to dear Helen’s hyacinthine something-or-other. Surely, at such a moment, not even the Nicean barking of the neighbor’s dog in the filth-ridden alley below can spoil the consolation of having preserved a flared femur. Thank the gods for superior-quality traveling togas.

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Reading Notes: Carl Becker

The goal of philosophy in the eighteenth century was to dismantle corrupted and corrupting civic and religious institutions and to reshape the individual and society according to objective standards of nature. In place of St Augustine’s defunct city of God, the philosophers would build a heavenly city of their own, presided over not by an enthroned Christ and his saints, but by glorified Reason and the immaculate judgment of enlightened posterity.

In The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, Carl Becker (former professor of history at Cornell University, deceased in 1945) argues that although the animating spirit of the period is still, to a degree, felt today, the philosophers of the Enlightenment were actually nearer in their presuppositions and ideals to medieval precursors than to ourselves. I think he’s only half successful in demonstrating this, but the book hardly suffers for it, thanks to the author’s nimble synthesis and pleasant William-Jamesian prose.

The four lectures that make up the book were originally delivered at Yale in the early 1930s. The first and fourth of them haven’t aged so well. Becker’s sense that religion has definitively spent itself as a moral and social force in the West seems premature and weakens the first lecture. In the fourth, his speculations about the future history of the Communist Revolution, and what it may come to mean for future generations when its lessons are generalized across western society, also feels flat.

Becker’s second and third lectures – the best parts of the book – focus on the eighteenth century’s radically revised notions of nature and history. Nature, in the broad sense of the term, encompassing mankind and the material order as a whole, is no longer approached by way of metaphysics. It is no longer things as God intended them to be but as they are not due to sin and the devil. Instead, nature becomes things as they actually are and as they reveal themselves to empirical examination. History, severed from sacred myth and the burden of a transcendent, unified narrative, becomes an object of critical inquiry.

By looking to nature (things as they are) to discover the essential elements of human identity, and by reading history as a long cautionary tale, what aspects of society do not invite revision? The past, for Enlightenment thinkers, becomes a story of mostly Greek curiosity smothered under two thousand years of superstition. Nature, encountered in the unfamiliar cultures of the Americas, Asia and the South Pacific, shows us the arbitrariness of our own institutions and customs. What’s to stop us from turning the whole cart over and starting again? God may not condemn us for our failure, but posterity will honor our success.

There are problems, of course. If there is no God, and if man is inescapably a product of nature, then Christianized western culture is a product of nature too. It could hardly be otherwise. How can we therefore accuse it of deforming man? Whatever is must be according to nature. And then by what measure is any cultural status quo, or any particular innovation, to be judged? Becker teases out these ironies rather effectively. “They denied that miracles ever happened,” he says of the philosophers, “but believed in the perfectibility of the human race.”

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Dr Johnson Hates My American Guts

Brunching Johnson by Henry Wallis
“Sir, I perceive that you are a vile Whig.” Dr Johnson seems to be saying this or thinking it of one person or another pretty much all the time. Re-reading Boswell’s hulking tome last month, I eventually came to understand that, in fact, I am among the vile.

Not that I really am a Whig; no one’s a Whig anymore (and I hope I’m not especially vile either). But for Johnson it seems that “vile Whig” and “American” are largely synonymous.

In his pamphlet titled Taxation No Tyranny (1775), quoted by Boswell, Johnson says of those bratty Americans that “their numbers are, at present, not quite sufficient for the greatness which, in some form of government or other, is to rival the ancient monarchies; but by Dr. Franklin’s rule of progression, they will, in a century and a quarter, be more than equal to the inhabitants of Europe.”

“When the Whigs of America are thus multiplied,” he continues, “let the Princes of the earth tremble in their palaces… [T]heir own hemisphere would not contain them. But let our boldest oppugners of authority look forward with delight to this futurity of Whiggism.” Said with a hearty sneer.

Elsewhere Johnson refers to the fractious colonists as “a race of convicts” who “ought to be thankful for any thing we allow them short of hanging.” Curbing an impulse of otherwise catholic philanthropy, he professes himself “willing to love all mankind, except an American.”

It’s hard sometimes to tell when Johnson is speaking in earnest and when he’s simply “talking for victory” (that is, taking a side and arguing it so as to win the question), but Boswell considered him sincere on this particular subject.

In Johnson’s mind, the divine right of kings was necessary to the smooth working of society (even if you did have to cut off their heads occasionally), and social subordination in the style of the British class system no less so. God may be no respecter of persons, but that’s divine prerogative and not a privilege accorded mortals.

Whiggism, on the contrary, suggests that class distinction, being a moral and historical fiction, may be jettisoned (or replaced, say, by an index of wealth or education) – and that the consent of the governed is the validating basis of any government.

As an American of colonial-era ancestry, this is mother’s milk to me. And so I perceive that I am indeed a vile Whig, a half-anarchist in the old Tory’s eyes. But it’s silly, at this distance, to take much offense, especially when you’re on the winning side.

“There is a reciprocal pleasure in governing and being governed,” the old sage says, and “subordination tends greatly to human happiness.” Boswell (child of privilege and heir to a semi-feudal estate) nods his purely disinterested agreement. “Were we all upon an equality,” Johnson suggests, “we should have no other enjoyment than mere animal pleasure.”

Cue the sounds of belching pigs and copulating monkeys. It’s a Whig’s world now, or something like it.


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