Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Gulley Jimson & Co.

Because summer means going to the beach, and going to the beach means gulls.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Collection internationale

Until relatively recently, the availability of foreign-language reading material in the US was a bit hit-or-miss, unless you happened to live in a major city. What student editions existed of texts in French and other languages tended to be heavily (and often annoyingly) annotated, and they were often abridged or censored to remove passages that might corrupt the youth of America. This series from the early 1960s was an interesting attempt to remedy the situation, at least for French, which was the prestige language of the day. They were published by Doubleday under the direction of an academic named Bert Leefmans, and the publisher promised that "no English, except the Doubleday copyright line, will appear in any of the books." Below is a two-page advertisement that ran in the French Review in 1961.

The books were comparable in price to Doubleday's Anchor series, and bore a simple cover design created by the noted artist and graphic designer Leonard Baskin. The selection of titles wasn't particularly edgy, but at least the edition of Candide was presumably better than the one I used, which had all the naughty bits removed. The line doesn't seem to have lasted very long, and I've only come across used copies once or twice.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

A Certain Necessary Something (Charles Simmons)

The writer Charles Simmons, who died two years ago, wrote a half-dozen novels, of which I've read only two. As far as I know he never published a volume of poetry, but this strangely affecting bit of verse is embedded in his 1998 novel Salt Water (a kind of retelling of Turgenev's First Love, set on the coast of New England). It's purportedly written by one of the characters, a teenage girl, and presented to a boy she's smitten with a bit more than he is with her.
Thoughts for a Beach Party

We're all alone—at least the others are
asleep. We touch and smile. No words, just thoughts,
of which a chance one sparkles, and we laugh.
There'll come a day, I fear, when you are out
of reach and memory is all of you
I have; and then another day when that
is gone. That morning I'll awake and rise
and eat an ordinary breakfast, dress
and go to leave—to find that I forgot
a certain necessary something, just
my comb, my keys, a paper, or a book—
a light makes darkness clearly black: a part
of me is lost. And then I'll wonder what
you were and where you were and try to reason
out an emptiness and hunt for non-
existent strings to pull you back in view.
What then? These words I've understood and truths
I've known because of you, these lonely fires
that add a little light and comfort on
the mind's black stretching beach of night,
the shifting tide forgetfulness will rise
and snuff them out, when it has carried you,
who lit them off to sea. What fumbling hand
and wet will kindle up the blazes then?
It must be difficult to write a poem in character, especially in the character of someone who's supposed to be young and awkward. Even if you have the technical chops to write passable verse, you can't make it sound too accomplished. But I like the straightforwardness of the piece, which is polished but has only a few gaudy passages ("the mind's black stretching beach of night") that sound like the work of a self-conscious poet. Does the elegiac tone make her sound a bit too wise beyond her years? Perhaps, but it also gives her a bit of depth that, as a relatively minor character in a quite short book, she might not otherwise have had.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

The Folks Back Home

It's very difficult, at least for me, to make out the long inscription on this Real Photo postcard, but the language is apparently German, and it may be from Switzerland. It shows three women, two men, a boy holding a gun, and a dog, posing in a group in front of a vine-covered cottage. There's a flourishing garden in the foreground, possibly including poppies, and a whole social history in the hats the figures wear, no two of which are alike.

The very few bits I can make out in the inscription on the reverse of the card include the names Meinhof and Dietrich and a reference to an address of (I think) Kapellenstr[asse] 31, which might be in Bern or Basel. The most intriguing is a reference to America, including the name of the state of Kansas in parentheses. Perhaps some of the family members were now living in the New World.

Just a few scratch-marks in ink now, but they were presumably perfectly legible to the recipients, whoever they may have been.

Postscript: When I came up with a title for this post perhaps I had in mind these lyrics by Peter Blegvad:
I sent a card to the folks back home
a picture of a burning aerodrome
it came back stamped: address unknown
I was alone
in the meantime

Monday, July 29, 2019

Notes for a Commonplace Book (26)

Sally Mann:
At its most accomplished, photographic portraiture approaches the eloquence of oil painting in portraying human character, but when we allow snapshots or mediocre photographic portraits to represent us, we find they not only corrupt memory, they also have a troubling power to distort character and mislead posterity. Catch a person in an awkward moment, in a pose or expression that none of his friends would recognize, and this one mendacious photograph may well outlive all corrective testimony; people will study it for clues to the subject's character long after the death of the last person who could have told them how untrue it is...

It would be an interesting exercise to determine if there's some threshold number of photographs that would guarantee, when studied together so that the signature expressions were revealed and uncharacteristic gestures isolated, a reasonably accurate sense of how a person appeared to those who knew him.

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Upon the Retina

A Mr. Warner, photographer, on reading an account of Emma Jackson in St. Giles's, addressed a letter to Detective Officer James F. Thompson, informing him that "if the eyes of a murdered person be photographed within a certain time after death, upon the retina will be found depicted the last thing that appeared before them, and that in the present case the features of the murderer would most probably be found thereon." The writer exemplified his statement by the fact of his having, four years ago, taken a negative of the eye of a calf a few hours after death, and, upon a microscopic examination of the same, found depicted thereon the lines of the pavement on the slaughterhouse floor. This negative is unfortunately broken, and the pieces lost.

The Cincinnati Lancet & Observer (1863)

Monday, July 22, 2019

Notes Against a Manifesto

What is to be done? Is there anything more exasperating than the cycle of analysis regarding our political situation? How did we get here? Whose fault is it? The implicit argument too often seems to be that there is no dilemma, no reason to trade off one thing for another and not have it both ways, as long as you listen to me. I'm neither a prophet nor a political scientist — and no one listens to me (nor would I expect them to) — but at a fundamental level all of this profound wisdom seems to me to miss the point.

The manipulation, the lies, the social and economic and cultural anxieties, to which we all have been subjected are amply documented, and all of it takes its toll, warps our understanding and our better natures, makes us putty in the hands of demagogues. Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner, wrote Tolstoi, and that is true for the novelist but not satisfactory to the moral philosopher. If we're nothing more than the sum of our influences — and perhaps we're not, we can't prove the contrary — then we're not moral agents at all.

The social sciences are concerned with the study of causes; literature (of the best kind, something I insist on the existence of, Literature-with-a-capital L) is about freedom. Not freedom as the absence of chains or bars (not all of us have that luxury), but freedom as the consciousness of the ability to be a moral agent, in whatever sphere, even in the most constrained of circumstances.

Stalin supposedly commanded writers to be "engineers of human souls," but no writer worthy of the name is capable of doing any such thing. (Milan Kundera, among others, has said all of this better in his writings on the novel.) Engineers of the soul are, in any case, a dime a dozen. Nevertheless, writers can, and do, interrogate the world, and no sphere can be barred to them, politics least of all. Writers have (or don't have) responsibility because we all do (or don't).

The symbol of moral freedom is not, in my view, the broken chain but the absence of a net, the high-wire act with nothing to fall back on. A single false step will be relentlessly exposed. Anything else, all the deadly sins, can, in time, perhaps be forgiven, but not bad faith.

For the pious of various stripes there is rarely any dilemma; their convictions will always protect them from the pitfalls of freedom. But such security is itself highly contingent, for if the net that protects them is whisked away where are they then? (The argument that the net must necessarily exist because we need it is pure sleight-of-hand.) Some, it is true, manage to maintain something that amounts to faith without believing there is a net beneath them, and with them I have no quarrel. I'm not really interested in how people get to virtuous action, or what flags they wrap themselves in to justify its opposite. But at some point you need to be able to look in the mirror and recognize what you see.

In the end the overriding issue at the moment is comfortingly binary: Fascism, yes or no?