Tag Archives: Thoreau

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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Healthy Animal Insensibility

“I felt no trace whatever of fear; it was pure delight and welcome.” William James, on the infamous morning of April 18, 1906, woke to a real earthquake, his first. He was visiting Stanford University, thirty miles below San Francisco. A number of the brick dormitories and other campus buildings collapsed, though James was unharmed. Fascinated, he traveled into the city where he spent all day touring the rubble and watching the progress of the fire.

James was impressed by the general lack of histrionics. Survivors survived and made little fuss about it. The dead made no fuss at all. What particularly interested him was the strange vigor and excitement that he – and so many others – reported feeling. It was out of place, but undeniable. “Mental pathos and anguish, I fancy, are usually effects of distance,” he wrote. “At the place of action, where all are concerned together, healthy animal insensibility and heartiness take their place.”

Three hundred and some years earlier, Michel de Montaigne was nearly killed in a riding accident. He was knocked to the ground, delirious and vomiting blood. His companions were horrified at his apparent suffering, but Montaigne himself experienced the moment quite differently. Though he expected to die, he was in a state near ecstasy. “It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go.”

“I believe,” he says, “that this is the same state in which people find themselves whom we see fainting with weakness in the agony of death, and I maintain that we pity them without cause.” Our pity of the dying, Montaigne suggests, is an effect of distance similar to what James describes. To move from health to the worst extremities of disease and injury seems, from where we stand, a horrible traverse. But the conclusions we draw from our perception of the moment may not correspond at all to the inward experience of the sufferer. (It would be nice to believe this.)

There are, of course, various philosophical approaches to suffering. One is to suggest that suffering is the basic condition of existence and the lack of it only a brief anomaly. Another is to see in suffering something which may contribute toward a higher good, in this world or the next. Yet another is to deny that suffering is real at all. It’s tempting, but wrong, to read this last view into James and Montaigne. They don’t mean to suggest that suffering is illusion, only that we are wrong to imagine we always understand or recognize it.

Human beings have no monopoly on suffering and death. All living things die, and most, it seems, are capable of suffering to one degree or another. How many trillions of creatures were starved, maimed, crushed, tortured, devoured, or killed by disease before our ancestors ever came down from the trees? Some people find the idea of a life founded on these conditions intolerable and so they choose to believe in a primordial state without disease or violence, and a historic fall from that condition to our present one. They feel that suffering and death prove a sort of satanic disruption in the cosmos.

If there is a mystery to suffering, we’re not likely to solve it. Part of what James, at least, seems to have experienced, was the thrill of survival. I felt it myself in the first days after a car accident in which I was knocked unconscious and for an hour or two lost my memory. Even when we do not personally survive, however, survival is the universal rule. The world continues without us, and the life that we shared in for our portion of eternity is practically indestructible. I draw no conclusions, but this may provide a handle by which to turn the problem around in curious ways. In a passage from Walden Thoreau almost exonerates a murderous universe:

“I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another; that tender organizations can be so serenely squashed out of existence like pulp, – tadpoles which herons gobble up, and tortoises and toads run over in the road; and that sometimes it has rained flesh and blood! With the liability to accident, we must see how little account is to be made of it. The impression made on a wise man is that of universal innocence. Poison is not poisonous after all, nor are any wounds fatal.”

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Marginalia, no.160

[Y]our knowledge of the past – apart, occasionally, from a limited visual record and the odd unreliable survivor – comes entirely from written documents.  You are almost completely cut off, by a wall of print, from the life you want to represent. You can’t observe historical events; you can’t question historical actors; you can’t even know most of what has not been written about.  Whatever has been written about therefore takes on an importance which may be spurious.  A few lines in a memoir, a snatch of recorded conversation, a letter fortuitously preserved, an event noted in a diary: all become luminous with significance – even though they are just the bits that float to the surface.  The historian clings to them, while somewhere below, the huge submerged wreck of the past sinks silently out of sight.

~ Louis Menand

The present moment has a swaggering step, a Jovian aspect. As the platonic ‘moving image of eternity,’ it’s sure of its own importance. The past, immediate or distant, is only a mass extinction, a forgotten myth, irrecoverable and irrelevant in the blinding splendor of Now. Menand’s summary of the historian’s plight (from his foreword to Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station) may just as well describe our relation to our personal or family past. ‘The written word is the choicest of relics’ (Thoreau), but most everything is forgotten. Only a few survivors are pulled from the water: a half-dozen letters from a childhood friend; a great-grandmother’s birth certificate; the scribbled recollections of an uncle; a photograph of a boy on the pier with his brother and grandfather, holding a little trophy of a fish. The ship went down unnoticed in the rippling sea behind him.

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The Experience of Being Human

I honor those bloggers – like the indefatigable Patrick Kurp – cast in the heroic mold, who manage to publish something fresh and vigorous every day.  I am not one of them.  These days the demon Work devours my energies and what little I can hide away needs careful preserving for the nourishment of my other, better-loved demon, Novel.  I still manage to read, but reading refreshes rather than consumes.  Reading is to writing what indulgent recuperation at an alpine spa is to the wasting fevers, writhings and bilateral expulsions of a near-mortal illness.

My son and I are presently forging through Mervyn Peake’s adventurous Letters from a Lost Uncle.  And on the train or after midnight, when the machinery of my mind has burnt up all lubrication and I couldn’t write (or re-write) another goddamn sentence if the lives of a dozen day-old puppies depended on it, I pick up Sarah Bakewell’s luxuriously subtitled How to Live: A Biography of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.  Of course, no sooner had I ordered the book from the UK and paid my international shipping fees than its stateside release was announced for later this month.

Poor souls who have spent any time whatever in my virtual company will know that I am a great admirer of Montaigne.  I am not as much an admirer of Ms Bakewell, but my complaints with her method or style (or subtitle) are mostly trivial and her book has been a pleasure.  Early in an opening chapter – and periodically throughout her 350 pages – Bakewell describes the queer sensation so many readers experience on first acquaintance with Montaigne: the sense that he is writing about them as much as himself.  In his frank self-portraiture and embrace of amor fati, the happy acceptance of all the foibles and inadequacies that make him as an individual different than anyone else, Montaigne somehow helps us to better see what we all have in common, ‘the experience of being human.’

I don’t know that he was any great lover of Montaigne, but I’m reminded of a passage from Thoreau’s journals (February 12, 1851) describing the discovery – or rediscovery – of such communion:

I think that we are not commonly aware that man is our contemporary, – that in this strange, outlandish world, so barren, so prosaic, fit not to live in but merely to pass through, that even here so divine a creature as man does actually live.  Man, the crowning fact, the god we know.  While the earth supports so rare an inhabitant, there is somewhat to cheer us.  I think that the standing miracle to man is man.

Let’s not wax too poetical about this.  Montaigne accomplishes something remarkable in the Essays by his honesty, his curiosity and his habitual suspension of judgment, but thankfully he’s no magician, no demigod.  The point is his – our own – humanity.  The waking from intellectual isolation and the reminder, by a punch in the gut as often as a caress, that we all share and partake in a single, immutably mutable human nature – that is, to my mind, the point.

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Marginalia, no.134

Is the literary man to live always or chiefly sitting in a chamber through which nature enters by a window only?  What is the use of the summer?

~ Henry David Thoreau, Journal

Such variations are observed among members of homo lectoris that an extra-planetary naturalist cataloging his divergent specimens might understandably question their inclusion in a single species.  There are, for instance, some of a Manichaean sort who look to books for a preferred alternative to a cheerless world of sense.  And then there are others (the superior sample, in my opinion) for whom books are themselves the stony or fibrous products of nature.  Elsewhere in the Journal, Thoreau complains about having to go indoors at all to find a book.  They ought, he felt, to be discovered outside growing up from the gnarled roots of oaks or the pebbly banks of a stream.

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Marginalia, no.104

He who resists not at all will never surrender.

~ Thoreau, from the Journal

We can forgive Thoreau for this one since he was still in his twenties when he wrote it.  It’s something like that impish bit of advice according to which the best way to escape temptation is to give in right away.  Duh.  For all their pleasures, aphorisms make unreliable philosophy, and their temptations are most alluring to those least recommended to utter them – that is, the young.

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Ink and Bones: Thoreau

There is an old Everyman Library edition of Thoreau that has long held a lease on my bookshelf. I bought the book when I was seventeen. I’ve hardly cracked it open in the intervening years, but thumbing through Walden recently I was surprised to see how many different passages I’d underlined.

Frankly, I’m unsure whether all this underlining is proof of adolescent precocity or pretension. At seventeen I probably imagined that marking up books was evidence of my own cleverness, or that it would help me retain and absorb into my own perspective any bits of wisdom a book had to offer. But it turns out that one’s skill with a highlighter and one’s intellectual penetration are entirely unrelated, and we hardly ever get to choose for ourselves what guides and influences our philosophic vision of life. (If I could write that down on a slip of paper and send it back in time for my seventeen-year-old self to discover tucked between the pages of Walden, I might have saved myself an awful lot of trouble.)

Still, it’s a curious exercise to skim through old books like this and see what one considered potent or arresting so many years ago. Clearly, what is memorable for a seventeen-year-old boy isn’t always memorable for a man in his thirties. As I glanced through the pages, I was mildly surprised to realize I had no memory whatsoever of any of the passages I’d once marked in that thick blue ink. I felt like I was reading the book again for the first time: all the sharp judgments Thoreau metes out on his fellow citizens, all that heady introspection, all those dreamy flourishes. One especially dreamy passage still stands out:

A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but breathed from all human lips; -not to be represented on canvas or marble only, but to be carved out of the breath of life itself.

“Choicest of relics” – The religious resonance of the term calls to mind lines of worshipers huddled outside stone cathedrals waiting to kiss the bones of saints and beg their aid. For the believer, relics communicate power, an irreducible personhood, and a special relationship to the divine. But whereas a saint’s famous book might be considered a relic in autograph, that status does not extend to the printed and disseminated word. Reprints and translations don’t count.

They count for Thoreau. No doubt it’s a function of his crypto-Protestantism, his iconoclasm, his essential American-ness. Thoreau finds in the written word a relic democratic and universal, capable, like a splinter of the True Cross, of infinite multiplication – and yet conformable to every heart, the simultaneous and legitimate possession of a million persons uniquely.

Thoreau’s own book, then, becomes a little reliquary; the words inside are his bones, persisting long after the rest of him has rotted away. Is it worth the little acts of veneration my ink marks represent? As a good Transcendentalist, Thoreau probably wouldn’t claim any special status for his own relics; by his own rules every word must have an equal relationship to the divine.

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