Thursday, December 03, 2020

Beans

Thomas De Quincey:
Mr. Poole propounded the following question to me, which I mention because it furnished me with the first hint of a singular infirmity besetting Coleridge's mind:—"Pray, my young friend, did you ever form any opinion, or, rather, did it ever happen to you to meet with any rational opinion or conjecture of others, upon that most revolting dogma of Pythagoras about beans? You know what I mean: that monstrous doctrine in which he asserts that a man might as well, for the wickedness of the thing, eat his own grandmother as meddle with beans."

"Yes," I replied; "the line is, I believe, in the Golden Verses. I remember it well."

P.—"True: now, our dear excellent friend Coleridge, than whom God never made a creature more divinely endowed, yet, strange it is to say, sometimes steals from other people, just as you or I might do; I beg your pardon—just as a poor creature like myself might do, that sometimes have not wherewithal to make a figure from my own exchequer: and the other day, at a dinner party, this question arising about Pythagoras and his beans, Coleridge gave us an interpretation which, from his manner, I suspect to have been not original. Think, therefore, if you have anywhere read a plausible solution."

"I have: and it was a German author. This German, understand, is a poor stick of a man, not to be named on the same day with Coleridge: so that, if Coleridge should appear to have robbed him, be assured that he has done the scamp too much honour."

P.—"Well: what says the German?"

"Why, you know the use made in Greece of beans in voting and balloting? Well: the German says that Pythagoras speaks symbolically; meaning that electioneering, or, more generally, all interference with political intrigues, is fatal to a philosopher's pursuits and their appropriate serenity. Therefore, says he, follower of mine, abstain from public affairs as you would from parricide."

P.—"Well, then, Coleridge has done the scamp too much honour: for, by Jove, that is the very explanation he gave us!"
Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Virgil

Richard Holmes:
Coleridge continuously haunts De Quincey's pages, as a sort of battered Virgilian guide to the opium Inferno.
Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804-1834

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Circular


There are few things in life I enjoy as much as acquiring books — maybe even moreso than reading them — but I've reached a point where doing so on more than an occasional basis can no longer be regarded as responsible. It's not so much the expense — like many people I should be economizing, but the world is awash in cheap used books — as it is a question of space and of what will have to be done with my modest horde after I'm gone. More fundamentally, it's a question of what the point is of accumulating additional books. I'm not a "collector" in any serious sense, and I can't claim to be rescuing and preserving material that isn't readily available elsewhere, so the personal library I have put together can only serve me, either for reading or for reference, and thus it all boils down to what I "need" to read.

When you're young the world unfolds with seemingly infinite avenues for exploration; only in time do those avenues close themselves off one by one, eventually leaving only the one narrow track you've chosen (or that is chosen for you). And so it is with reading. At first there are countless new books and authors to be encountered; gradually you learn which are most suited to your tastes and interests. You are solemnly instructed that there is a "canon" (or "canons") of sorts — books that one is supposed to read — and you read some of those and maybe never catch up with others. But eventually you realize that reading everything of merit isn't an achievable or even a desirable goal. You preserve an openness to the unencountered but you accept that the world doesn't actually care if you've read Proust (I haven't).

So now I find myself reading not in linear fashion, as if I were steadily checking off the list of books I am obliged (by whom?) to read, but in a circle, re-reading often, sometimes reading the same book twice in quick succession, and now and then incorporating things that I never thought of reading but reached for more or less at whim (New Grub Street). I love Dickens (and contrariwise have no desire to read Henry James again), but I would rather read Bleak House repeatedly than grimly force myself through Martin Chuzzlewit or Barnaby Rudge out of some mistaken sense of completeness or duty. Do I "miss out" in this way? In a sense, but nothing is subtracted if one is always reading something from which one gets joy, or enlightenment, or whatever it is one seeks as one turns the pages.

So like many people I keep a list of prospective reading, but I recognize that I'm never going to get around to most of those books, and that it doesn't matter. I'll get to some, will only think about others, and will live without the rest. And that's a good thing, because there will always be something good beckoning just over the horizon.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

That White House story...

This isn't an easy moment for people who perform in front of an audience for a living, but musicians, actors, and the like still need to eat and pay the rent, and some of them have gotten pretty creative this year about finding alternative sources of income. Singer-songwriter Peter Case, a favorite here, has two long-planned CDs in the pipe, but in the meantime he has put out a volume bringing together selections from his fifty-year output as a songwriter (one song here dates to his teens) with vivid tales of his life as a busker and touring musician. The selections in Somebody Told the Truth range from perfect pop tunes like "Zero Hour," first recorded in 1980 with the Plimsouls, to the spooky urban legend "Spell of Wheels," to more recent retrospective and political songs like "The Long Good Time" and "Water from a Stone." It's good to have them together, even if the selection is far from complete.

In the "stories" section, the standout is "The White House Story," which I've heard Peter tell live at least once (it's twice, if memory serves), and which he swears is gospel truth. I won't spoil the tale by summarizing it, but let's just say it involves a Spanish newspaper, a Secret Service agent, and an unnerving late-night ride through the streets of Washington DC.

Somebody Told the Truth bears the imprint of Boom & Chime Books and is distributed by Phony Lid Books, but it should be obtainable through Bookshop.org, and elsewhere.

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Joy


Today was a beautiful day and I'm not just thinking of the blue skies and unseasonably mild weather here in New York State. I'm a skeptical person by nature; I have no illusions about the obstacles that lie ahead for both the country and the Biden-Harris administration. Nor should anyone underestimate the tenacity of the paranoia and corruption that are rooted in our public life. But with all that it comes as a deep relief that in the middle of a terrible pandemic Americans in unprecedented numbers not only managed to find a way to cast their ballots but saw through all the dishonesty and bigotry and found the moral clarity to do the right thing. The pall that has hung over us for four years has been driven off. A celebration is indeed in order.

Monday, November 02, 2020

When the Ship Comes In


Arlo Guthrie's version of an early Bob Dylan composition feels like just what I need today.



And the sands will roll
Out a carpet of gold
For your wearied toes to be a-touchin’
And the ship’s wise men
Will remind you once again
That the whole wide world is watchin’

Monday, October 26, 2020

Turning out


Saturday was the first day of early voting where I live. My wife and I have already voted by absentee ballot, but yesterday I happened to walk by the local early voting site, which is in pool complex in our village park, and was surprised by how many people were lined up to vote -- wearing masks -- with a steady stream of cars discharging more. I live in a reliably blue district in a safely blue state, but it was heartening to see so many people taking this election seriously, even if one party doesn't think that "rank democracy" is as important as property rights and in fact has based its entire strategy on an anti-democratic electoral college and on erecting as many hoops as possible to make it difficult for people to vote.

In ordinary times a president who has lied and blustered his way through four terrible years, who continues to downplay a pandemic that has killed more than 230,000 Americans and done long-term damage to the economy, who can't even pretend to feel empathy, who has contempt for science, and who has thrown in his lot with violent militias and bonkers conspiracy theorists, would have no chance of re-election. And, if the polls are correct*, he doesn't. Ojalá.

I refer anyone who is stil wavering to the endorsements -- all of them unprecedented -- from Scientific American, Nature, and USA Today.

* The polling wasn't all that accurate, frankly, but the prediction of the final result was correct.