Monthly Archives: April 2014

Sickness & Health

I had to forgive myself this past weekend for not finishing a Henry James novel. Earlier this year I’d read maybe a dozen of his shorter fictions, all of them with relish. The Middle Years, The Pupil, The Liar, The Real Thing, and The Altar of the Dead were personal favorites. Time again, I thought, to try one of his later “masterpieces.” Having failed before with The Ambassadors, I turned instead to The Wings of the Dove. I was defeated, however, after only two hundred pages. The psychological minutiae and circumlocutions of James’s portraiture, which I could bear lightly enough in short form, began to feel like one of those leaden bibs donned for x-rays at the dentist’s office. Life, I decided, was simply too short to voluntarily endure suffocation like this for another four hundred pages.

It’s not entirely up to me, of course, but I do hope to continue as a viable organism for a long time yet. Unfortunately, my doctor tells me that my cholesterol is a bit of a problem. Not that it’s so very high, but it’s a little high for a regular Joe, and higher still for a forty-year-old man like myself whose father had a heart attack at age forty-nine. My grandfather too had his first heart attack about fifty, and his father – an Iowa farmer – died of cardiac arrest in the fields near the same age. Accompanied by no extravagant risk factors which might explain it or give prevention an easy target, heart disease with us is a family tradition. With regard to this particular tradition, however, I aim for apostasy.

To that end, my new doctor, a talkative British Indian man my own age, would like to see me on statins. The wife and I have opted first to see what could be done by an aggressive change of diet. As such, though I’m still allowed minor indulgences (a glass of wine, a small square of dark chocolate), the foods I generally prefer to eat are now out of the question. Goodbye therefore to beef. Goodbye to sausage and bacon and cooking with lots of butter. There will be no more French bread and cheese just for the hell of it. I’m learning to feel a little hungry all the time and not to expect much of lunch or dinner.

You grow older and you notice that people tend rather easily to die. Not that death itself is easy, but the routes by which one may arrive at it are surprisingly numerous and convenient. The expressway to the grave is always near at hand. I assume that I will die one day of heart disease, but I might just as easily die of cancer, or an automobile accident, or by fire, or by drowning at sea, or by being crushed in a subterranean parking garage during an earthquake. It must be especially horrible to know that you are right now suffering from a disease that will, in all likelihood, put you into the flowerbed before long. Persons I know and care about are facing that prospect as I write. But living itself is a terminal condition and no one is finally spared the hard prognosis. In the cosmic scheme all human lives are brief. Some are only slightly briefer than others.

One thing I have so far avoided in my grudging play for healthfulness is initiation into the modern cult of exercise. Walking or bicycle riding for pleasure I will gladly engage in, but programmatic exercise regimens of the sort that my neighbors and coworkers apparently enjoy seem to me more than a little absurd. What would our forebears three or four generations ago have made this habit of unnecessary exertion, of middle-age denialists signing up in droves for spinning classes, or CrossFit, or (God forbid) parkour? Though rooted, it seems, in the denial of decay and mortality, there’s nonetheless an element of the hypocritically ascetic in it. If our employment is no longer honest enough that we break a sweat in earning our bread (only white-collar workers exercise), then we will force the sweat of virtue from our pores as an act of penance. Immediately afterwards, of course, we trumpet our accomplishments through social media.

On setting aside The Wings of the Dove I began thumbing again through a small volume of Robert Louis Stevenson’s non-fiction. After the rather tedious company that I’m afraid James had become, RLS was all charm and good humor. In his essay on Thoreau, Stevenson warns against the delicate, fearful, self-obsessed pursuit of healthfulness. “True health,” he says, “is to be able to do without it.” He knew personally of what he spoke, but one shouldn’t press the aphorism too far. Eventually we all, in fact, do without it, but this state in its final form is known as death and not health. Nonetheless, to learn to accept with a good grace the inevitability of one’s own decrepitude, with the restrictions on liberty and pleasure which it necessarily imposes – well, that seems a health goal worthy of pursuit.

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Marginalia, no.328

The cheerful obverse to all these lacunae is that they save us…from drowning in the indiscriminate flood of total recall.

~ Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Broken Road

Forgetting most of what I do and say makes it easier to accept the fact that I’m required to spend so much time in my own company. I can hardly tell you what I did yesterday, though a galaxy of non-biographical trivia revolves around the central vacuum of memory. These gaps in recall feel vaguely incriminating. Where was I on the night of November 19? You may as well slap me in cuffs, officer.

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Military Uniforms of the Russian Emperor from Le Petite Journal 1890s

Invasion by Russia used to be an experience in sartorial aesthetics.

Military uniforms of the Russian emperor, from Le Petite Journal (1890s).

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What do SpongeBob, Socrates, and space aliens have in common? I have a post up at The Dabbler today which examines this very serious question.

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Reading John Aubrey

In an 1852 journal entry, Henry David Thoreau describes visiting the Cambridge library and looking over an aged volume by Samuel Purchas, possibly Hakluytus Posthumus (1625). The experience of reading the book, says Thoreau, was “like looking into an impassable swamp, ten feet deep with sphagnum, where the monarchs of the forest, covered with mosses and stretched along the ground, were making haste to become peat.” This is his way of recommending something. For Thoreau, old books like Purchas’s “suggested a certain fertility, an Ohio soil, as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in.” And yet, he complained, they were “rarely opened, are effectually forgotten and not implied by our literature and newspapers.”

I’m not sure it’s true, or means very much, to say that the old books are no longer “implied by our literature and newspapers,” but there is something especially rich and peaty in the English literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Shakepeare and Marlowe and Jonson, of course, are just a beginning. There are in addition the poets (too many to mention) and the philosophers, plus Burton and Browne and Traherne, and translators of genius like Philemon Holland, Thomas Urquhart, and John Florio, whose 1603 version of Montaigne T.S. Eliot considered the best work of translation in the English language.

The flavor of that golden era resurfaces here and there throughout the eighteenth century and even into the nineteenth. You taste it in Swift, for example; in Walton’s The Compleat Angler; in Gilbert White; in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy; in Charles Lamb; and even, I suggest, in certain writings of our own Benjamin Franklin, and in Moby Dick. By the twentieth century, however, it appears only in works of self-conscious copy-catism, like Holbrook Jackson’s pleasantly Burtonesque The Anatomy of Bibliomania or John Barth’s The Sot Weed Factor.

For the best of the authentic old flavor, you must take a slice of the old books themselves. This I recently did. Visiting a favorite used bookshop, I was able, in the panicked last moments before my wife finally extracted me from the stacks, to pick out a copy of John Aubrey’s Brief Lives. I had first discovered Aubrey (1626-1697), as most people do, through quotations from his work borrowed by other writers. Rose Macaulay, for example, published a wonderful commonplace book titled The Minor Pleasures of Life, which includes more quotes from Aubrey than from any other author.

The Penguin edition of Brief Lives, introduced and edited by Oliver Lawson Dick, is a mere selection from Aubrey’s original, but it still includes more than 120 of his short biographies. Aubrey’s subjects span the Elizabethan era through to the restoration of Charles II. He seems to have been related to half of the people he mentions, and many were still living when he wrote. Reading the book from cover to cover is like watching old England march by in grand procession – poets, mathematicians, peasants, doctors, divines, alchemists, soldiers, scientists, astrologers, aristocrats – while an inveterate gossipmonger whispers in your ear all their public foibles and personal shames.

Aubrey’s diction and spelling (preserved in my copy) reek gloriously of the seventeenth century. The preposterous, winning names of some of his subjects are enough in themselves to summon the era – names like Hasdras Waller, Ithamara Reginalds, Hierome Sanchy, Venetia Digby, Carlo Fantom, Wenceslas Hollar, Caisho Borough, Leoline Jenkins, and Sylvanus Scory. Aubrey’s gift for physical description and telling anecdote are unbeatable, his stories by turns poignant, superstitious, snarky, and uproariously bawdy. Every paragraph is a pleasure and a surprise.

Of a Lady Honywood, for example, Aubrey writes:

“Said she (holding a Venice-glass in her Hand), I shall as certainly be Damned, as this Glasse will be broken: And at that word, threw it hard on the Ground; and the Glasse remained sound; which gave her great comfort.”

Of John Hoskyns:

“Now when I have sayd his Inventive faculty is so great, you cannot imagine his Memory to be excellent, for they are like two Bucketts, as one goes up, the other goes downe.”

Of Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke:

“She was very salacious, and she had a Contrivance that in the Spring of the yeare, when the Stallions were to leape the Mares, they were to be brought before such a part of the house, where she had a vidette (a hole to peepe out at) to looke on them and please herselfe with their Sport; and then she would act the like sport herselfe with her stallions. One of her great Gallants was Crooke-back’t Cecil, Earl of Salisbury.”

Of James Harrington:

“Anno Domini 1660, he was committed prisoner to the Tower; then to Portsey castle. His durance in these Prisons (he being a Gentleman of a high spirit and a hot head) was the procatractique [originating] cause of his deliration or madnesse; which was not outrageous, for he would discourse rationally enough and be very facetious company, but he grew to have a phansy that his Perspiration turned to Flies, and sometimes to Bees.”

Of Sir William Petty, when he was challenged to a duel:

“Sir William is extremely short-sighted, and being the challengee it belonged to him to nominate place and weapon. He nominates for the place, a darke Cellar, and the weapon to be a great Carpenter’s Axe. This turned [his opponent’s] challenge into Ridicule, and so it came to nought.”

Of Shakespeare Aubrey reports (how reliably I don’t know) that as a young man he was briefly apprenticed to a butcher in Stratford and used to make florid speeches whenever he prepared to kill a calf. Francis Bacon Aubrey assures us was a pederast. He tells us also that William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood, liked to meditate in the dark and had caves dug on his property just for this purpose.

It goes wonderfully on and on.

I don’t suppose that Aubrey’s Brief Lives is quite the sort of thing that Thoreau had in mind with his image of a rich old book like “an impassable swamp, ten feet deep in sphagnum.” He may not have approved. But where Purchas’s books may or may not have failed make a promising seedbed for future literatures to spring in, there can be little doubt, I think, that Aubrey’s did. At least I like to imagine there’s a direct line of descent from Brief Lives to the modern literature of celebrity gossip, hearsay, and personal sniping that is so ubiquitous in the tabloids and newspapers and blogosphere of the English-speaking world. No one today, however, can match Aubrey for humor, wit, and limitless antique charm.

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Marginalia, no.327

Discharge of a nuclear weapon will be deemed a warlike act even if accidental.

~ Insurance policy for a violin

It’s one of those exclusion clauses you don’t even blink at because you’re sure it will never apply. But the gods are not mocked and I had just started playing when Uncle Jim, the lazy bastard, shifted on the couch and detonated the warhead in his back pocket. What a mess! He apologized, and of course it was an accident. But we all know you can’t trust Jim to compensate you for things like that. He’ll buy you a burger at In-N-Out one day and call it even.

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Marginalia, no.326

I gazed at her with the reverence of an ornithologist at the glimpse of an Auckland Island merganser.

~ Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Broken Road

In the nineteenth century, when Europeans and other mammals tried to settle the Auckland Islands, the local mergansers showed the world that they would not give up their roosting grounds without a fight. Rather than fly off when threatened, as any bird might do who was used to the predatory habits of mammals, they scurried along and made a stand at the nearest pile of rocks. History teaches us that valiant actors of this sort are generally honored, as the Auckland Island merganser was, by the tribute of total extinction.

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