Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021)

City Lights Books has announced the death of its co-founder, the writer, bookseller, and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, after an astonishingly long and productive career. Ferlinghetti was 101 and had just published a book a year or so ago, making him (along with Herman Wouk) a rare centenarian author of consequence.

I've never been to San Francisco and it's been years since I read any of Ferlinghetti's poetry, but the bookstore and publishing company remain active, having survived a financial crisis a year ago with the help of donations. Long may it continue along its cantankerous way.

I've owned a handful of City Lights books over the years, but the only two I seem to have now are shown here. Both are fairly minor works by writers I admire, but the press did a nice job on them and I'm glad that they exist.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

The Character of the Cassowary


I wish I were a cassowary
Out on the plains of Timbuctoo.
I'd kill and eat a missionary--
Head, arms, legs, and hymn-book too.
The above lines have been kicking around since at least the 1850s, and nobody seems to know who wrote them. They're geographically inaccurate — cassowaries live in Australia, New Guinea, and thereabouts, not Africa — but they do contain a grain of truth, for this flightless bird is, at least according to most accounts, a singularly surly and aggressive customer, and though it eats neither missionaries nor heathens it does have lethal claws that have led to well-documented, if infrequent, fatalities in human beings who were foolhardy enough not to give the cassowary its space.

Julio Cortázar, who expressed memorable interspecies kinship with the axolotl, had no such empathy with the fearsome cassowary. He describes it in Cronopios & Famas as "unlikable in the extreme and repulsive." In Paul Blackburn's translation, these are its curious properties:
He lives in Australia, the cassowary; he is cowardly and fearsome at the same time; the guards enter his cage equipped with high leather boots and a flame thrower. When the cassowary stops his terrified running around the pan of bran they’ve put out for him and comes leaping at the keeper with great camel strides, there is no other recourse than to use the flame thrower. Then you see this: the river of fire envelops him and the cassowary, all his plumage ablaze, advances his last few steps bursting forth in an abominable screech. But his horn does not burn: the dry, scaly material which is his pride and his disdain goes into a cold melding, it catches fire with a prodigious blue, moving to a scarlet which resembles an excoriated fist, and finally congeals into the most transparent green, into an emerald, stone of shadow and of hope. The cassowary defoliates, a swift cloud of ash, and the keeper runs over greedily to possess the recently made gem. The zoo director always avails himself of this moment to institute proceedings against the keeper for the mistreatment of animals, and to dismiss him.
As entertaining as that fantasy is, reality is hardly less so, and the cassowary's true nature seems to be open to debate. During the travels he described in Gatherings of a Naturalist in Australasia, the naturalist and explorer George Bennett kept several specimens of what he called the mooruk in captivity, and even successfully shipped a pair to England. He found them generally congenial as housemates, although they were perhaps a bit too tame. They certainly weren't fussy about what they ate:
It is well to warn persons, inclined to keep these birds as pets, of their insatiable propensities. When about the house, they displayed extraordinary delight in a variety of diet ; for, as I have previously related, one day they satisfied their appetites with bones, whetstones, corks, nails, and raw potatoes, most of which passed perfectly undigested ; one dived into thick starch and devoured a muslin cuff, whilst the other evinced a great partiality for nails and pebbles; then they stole the Jabiru’s meat from the water. If eggs and butter were left upon the kitchen-table, they were soon devoured by these marauders ; and when the servants were at their dinner in the kitchen, they had to be very watchful ; for the long necks of the birds appeared between their arms, devouring everything off the plates ; or if the dinner-table was left for a moment, they would mount upon it and clear all before them. At other times they stood at the table, waiting for food to be given to them, although they did not hesitate to remove anything that was within their reach. I have often seen them stand at the window of our dining- room, with keen eye, watching for any morsel of food that might be thrown to them. The day previous to the departure of the pair for England, in February 1859, the male bird walked into the dining-room, and remained by my side during the dessert. I regaled him with pine-apple and other fruits, and he behaved very decorously and with great forbearance.
All in all, the presence of the birds seemed to be just one more challenge among many for the domestic staff:
One or both of them would walk into the kitchen ; while one was dodging under the tables and chairs, the other would leap upon the table, keeping the cook in a state of excitement; or they would be heard chirping in the hall, or walk into the library in search of food or information [sic], or walk up stairs, and then be quickly seen descending again, making their peculiar chirping, whistling noise ; not a door could be left open, but in they walked, familiar with all.
Perhaps the mooruk has a gentler disposition than its larger cousins. The smallest cassowary species, it is now often known as Bennett's cassowary in honor of its scientific discoverer.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Weeks of Inward Winter (Charlotte Brontë)


"Those who live in retirement, whose lives have fallen amid the seclusion of schools or of other walled-in and guarded dwellings, are liable to be suddenly and for a long while dropped out of the memory of their friends, the denizens of a freer world. Unaccountably, perhaps, and close upon some space of unusually frequent intercourse—some congeries of rather exciting little circumstances, whose natural sequel would rather seem to be the quickening than the suspension of communication—there falls a stilly pause, a wordless silence, a long blank of oblivion. Unbroken always is this blank; alike entire and unexplained. The letter, the message once frequent, are cut off; the visit, formerly periodical, ceases to occur; the book, paper, or other token that indicated remembrance, comes no more.

"Always there are excellent reasons for these lapses, if the hermit but knew them. Though he is stagnant in his cell, his connections without are whirling in the very vortex of life. That void interval which passes for him so slowly that the very clocks seem at a stand, and the wingless hours plod by in the likeness of tired tramps prone to rest at milestones—that same interval, perhaps, teems with events, and pants with hurry for his friends.

"The hermit—if he be a sensible hermit—will swallow his own thoughts, and lock up his own emotions during these weeks of inward winter. He will know that Destiny designed him to imitate, on occasion, the dormouse, and he will be conformable: make a tidy ball of himself, creep into a hole of life's wall, and submit decently to the drift which blows in and soon blocks him up, preserving him in ice for the season."

Villette

Friday, February 12, 2021

The Memory of Things (Charlotte Brontë)



There's an intriguing recognition scene about 200 pages into Charlotte Brontë's final novel, Villette. The narrator, Lucy Snowe, is a young Englishwoman with sad memories and no strong family ties who crosses the Channel and finds employment in a school for girls, first as a servant and eventually as a teacher of English. There she becomes acquainted with a fellow expatriate, a young physician she knows, initially, as Dr. John, who is regularly called on to attend to the pupils in the school. After several months at the school, Snowe undergoes an emotional crisis. Though Protestant, she visits a Catholic church and gets a sympathetic if puzzled reception in the confessional; after leaving, she collapses in the street.

She comes to in a strange room, but the objects that surround her aren't entirely unfamiliar.
It was obvious, not only from the furniture, but from the position of windows, doors, and fire-place, that this was an unknown room in an unknown house.

Hardly less plain was it that my brain was not yet settled; for, as I gazed at the blue arm-chair, it appeared to grow familiar; so did a certain scroll-couch, and not less so the round center-table, with a blue-covering, bordered with autumn-tinted foliage; and, above all, two little footstools with worked covers, and a small ebony-framed chair, of which the seat and back were also worked with groups of brilliant flowers on a dark ground.

Struck with these things, I explored further. Strange to say, old acquaintance were all about me, and "auld lang syne" smiled out of every nook. There were two oval miniatures over the mantel-piece, of which I knew by heart the pearls about the high and powdered "heads"; the velvets circling the white throats; the swell of the full muslin kerchiefs: the pattern of the lace sleeve-ruffles. Upon the mantel-shelf there were two china vases, some relics of a diminutive tea-service, as smooth as enamel and as thin as egg-shell, and a white center-ornament, a classic group in alabaster, preserved under glass. Of all these things I could have told the peculiarities, numbered the flaws or cracks, like any clairvoyante. Above all, there was a pair of hand-screens, with elaborate pencil-drawings finished like line engravings; these, my very eyes ached at beholding again, recalling hours when they had followed, stroke by stroke and touch by touch, a tedious, feeble, finical, school-girl pencil held in these fingers, now so skeleton-like.

Where was I? Not only in what spot of the world, but in what year of our Lord? For all these objects were of past days, and of a distant country. Ten years ago I bade them good-by; since my fourteenth year they and I had never met. I gasped audibly, "Where am I?"
Snowe has good reason to wonder (and I've quoted only a small portion of an extended passage of discovery). She has been rescued by Dr. John, who (we learn now) is identical with the John Graham Bretton who is the son of the godmother with whom Lucy spent long periods during her adolescence, and she is now recuperating in his home. Neither Bretton nor his mother, who is also in the house, has recognized Lucy yet. The familiar articles Lucy sees around her are well-remembered objects from her childhood, brought along by the mother when she left England.

At this point Brontë, through Snowe, admits that she has been deceiving us. Snowe has, in fact, recognized Bretton chapters earlier, but has withheld that information both from him and from the reader.

That Lucy Snowe might have lost touch with the Brettons when she became an adult is not implausible. Like many a Brontë character, she lacks an intact nuclear family and seems to have been set adrift into life. That John Bretton wouldn't recognize his former housemate is, perhaps, harder to swallow. But it's a stroke of genius that Charlotte Brontë has understood how memories of childhood can be eerily embodied in knickknacks and furnishings that in themselves are entirely banal, and also to understand the disorientation that can occur in someone who re-encounters those objects in a strange environment to which they don't seem to belong.

Friday, January 22, 2021

One of the most desperate characters in the City

Over the years I've devoted several posts to the colorful early history of Manhattan's Water Street Mission, an institution that was founded in 1872 by reformed convict Jerry McAuley (and which still exists, though under a different name). Above is a little handout card from the mission that can be fairly precisely dated to 1882-84, after McAuley had moved on to start a second mission further uptown.

According to Samuel Hadley's Down in Water Street, McAuley's immediate successor or co-successor was the John O'Neil whose name appears on the card, but O'Neil was only in charge briefly before giving up the helm to one J. F. Shorey, who was already in place as superintendent by November 1884. Hadley himself took charge in 1886. Below is the floral design on the other side of the card.
There doesn't seem to be much other information available on the O'Neils. The only significant source I've found is the New York Times obituary from 1879 (below) for a Mrs. John O'Neil "who identified herself for years with Jerry McAuley's Water-Street Mission." Here we learn that her husband John, who apparently survived her, had been a career criminal and "one of the most desperate characters in the City" before his eventual reformation. He might not have been cut out for the task of superintending the mission, but he seems to have settled down to a productive life.
Around the same time there was another John O'Neil in New York City who was notorious for criminal activities, specifically burglary, but whose very recognizable modus operandi was a clever con involving pawn shop tickets. One of his arrests came just a few weeks after the death of the Water Street Mrs. O'Neil, but there's no reason to suspect that the two men were one and the same. The website Professional Criminals of America — REVISED, based on an 1886 volume devoted to the topic, has a photo and details of the activities of the unreformed O'Neil.

Previous Water Street Mission posts:

The Madonna of Cherry Hill
Death of a Salesman
A Manhattan Mission
Cassie Burns
The Water Street Mission, Revisited
Tracts (2): Jerry McAuley's Story

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Notes for a Commonplace Book (29)


Thomas De Quincey:
Of this at least, I feel assured, that there is no such thing as forgetting possible to the mind; a thousand accidents may, and will interpose a veil between our present consciousness and the secret inscriptions on the mind; accidents of the same sort will also rend away this veil; but alike, whether veiled or unveiled, the inscription remains for ever; just as the stars seem to withdraw before the common light of day, whereas, in fact, we all know that it is the light which is drawn over them as a veil -- and that they are waiting to be revealed, when the obscuring daylight shall have withdrawn.

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
I suspect that Borges, who knew De Quincey's work well and regarded it highly, likely had this passage in the back of his mind when he wrote his famous short story about a man who suffers a head injury and becomes literally unable to forget anything.

That no memory is ever entirely erased is not, perhaps, an entirely untestable proposition. One could easily imagine experiments that would demonstrate the existence of "inscriptions" of which the mind has no conscious memory. But in the end it probably should be regarded as a supposition that is both certainly true — in some sense — and at the same time utterly unfathomable to rational inquiry. And it makes me think of gravity, which, if the little I understand of it is correct, never loses a faint pull on an object no matter how distant it travels.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Nobody Should Be Surprised


If anyone in this country is still harboring illusions about the man in the White House and his core of thugs, it's about time they asked themselves why — or how. Defeated at the polls, trounced in the courts (often by judges he put in their posts), repudiated by much of his own party, defied now by the (Republican) Senate majority leader and his own hand-picked vice-president, the sociopath has no avenues left but an appeal to violence, and violence, directly provoked by his own words, is exactly what we have. Is there really anyone left who can look at the scene in Washington today and not realize that the whole Trump cult has been nothing but a lie? It didn't "get a little out of hand"; it was rotten to the core from the very start, and every opportunist who thought it was possible to make common cause with MAGA cap-wearing, gun-waving fascist lunatics and somehow keep their hands clean has a lot to answer for today. How could anyone think that it was possible to make common cause with an unscrupulous monster who was willing to put his own ego ahead of the very principles of democratic government and the rule of law, and who was willing to unleash armed goons to achieve his ends? Does American democracy no longer matter? Was it really all worth selling out for a bit of partisan advantage, the chance to make an extra buck and bruise a few liberals?

Make no mistake; Trump is doomed. It's a lot easier to provoke a riot than it is to run a country when you've lost your last shred of legitimacy. The country's battered institutions will re-group, preserve what's left of their integrity, and move on to other crises. But the damage is done, literally and figuratively. Elections, as they like to say, have consequences; no one has any right to be surprised at the consequences of the presidential election of 2016. Learn the lesson. Next time it may be worse.