Tag Archives: Eliot Weinberger

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.237

Their scrolls tell the story of Dinanukht, a half man, half book, who sits by the waters between the worlds, reading himself.

~ Eliot Weinberger, An Elemental Thing

You can only be the reader – never the writer – of your own heart. Whatever the outward story of your life, your heart is not a fairy tale. It is not a piece of science fiction. It is not a Jane Austen novel. It is neither Iliad nor Odyssey. It is not the Bible. It is what’s left after the waters recede: an old grocery list, a letter from a dead relative, a few pages from a dictionary in a language you don’t understand. At the very best it’s a mud-stained half chapter from Don Quixote.

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Exotic/Domestic

Among the varieties of homo scribus there is a kind of author who employs exceptional language to explore subject matter which is, at least on its surface, fairly unexceptional. Examples abound and I’ll let you think of your own. In any case it’s the author’s prose and the peculiar quality of his or her reflections on familiar things that give readers their pleasure.

However, there’s another kind of author who explores exceptional themes through language which is, on its surface, unexceptional (or at least undistracting). The fireworks here are more in the subject matter and not so much in the language. In fact, the author may use an intentionally understated style to accent, by contrast, the exotic quality of his subject.

Eliot Weinberger – new to me – seems to be an author of the second sort. I almost passed over his essay collection, An Elemental Thing, despite the lovely cover. The canned praise on the back of it scared me. To believe it, Weinberger’s work is totally without precedent, the accomplishment of things yet unattempted in prose and rhyme, the sole flaw in the rule about there being nothing new under the sun.

Weinberger’s book isn’t really so unprecedented. You could point to whole armies of anthropologists and historians, among others, and maybe to Borges too. God spare us such monsters of spontaneous generation anyway. If it had been truly unprecendented I’m sure I would have hated it. (And here’s a lesson for overpraising reviewers: islands are places we like to imagine ourselves bringing a few favorite books, but a book itself makes a poor island.)

An Elemental Thing is a well-curated little museum, worth the price of admission, and Weinberger is a gifted collector. Page after page he holds up curious objects for our consideration without getting himself too much in the way: the recurring Aztec apocalypse, the tiger as symbol and victim, the mysticism of the Taoists, the levitating saints of Italy, the Mandaeans of Iraq, the heathenish folklore of the wren, the ritual life of a Chinese emperor, the Empedoclean follies.

There’s such a thing as too much exoticism, however, and Weinberger pushes a bit beyond my limit. Reflecting on it, I can’t help wondering where this immemorial western obsession with the misty, musty East comes from. Weinberger does occasionally sample from nearer to home but he spends more than half the book stepping over the fewmets of other latter-day Orientalists: Pound perhaps, and the dime-a-dozen Zen-pushers of the twentieth century.

If the West discovered the East in Alexander’s time, the East seems only to have discovered the West in the last century or so – or am I wrong? Was there ever such a thing, I wonder, as an Egyptian Herodotus? Or a Mongol Polo that sojourned among the Venetians and famously wrote it all down? Montesquieu in the Persian Letters had to invent his own Usbek.

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