Monday, May 13, 2019

"Mala Cosa" (Cabeza de Vaca)


The Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca recounts an incident that was related to him by Native Americans he encountered during his long sojourn across the southern US and northern Mexico:


Narrative of the Narváez Expedition, edited by Harold Augenbraum.

Cabeza de Vaca was one of a handful of survivors of a 16th-century expedition to Florida that went catastrophically wrong. The accuracy of his account of his travels on many points has been questioned, but few things in it are as difficult to believe as the one thing that is unquestionably true, which is that he and three other men did survive eight years wandering among various Native American peoples before finally meeting up with a group of his countrymen near Culiacán in Sinaloa. Along the way he found himself cast in the role of faith healer, and claimed to have performed countless miracles on ailing (and very grateful) Indians.

The passage above has been much pondered. It appears to record some kind of shamanic performance reminiscent in some ways of modern "psychic surgery" cons and fortune-telling bujo scams. How the Indians understood what they told Cabeza de Vaca, and how it differed from what he recorded, is impossible to say. It's the oddest passage in the book.

Ouch


Jeopardy clue: "John & Priscilla Alden lie in the U.S.A.'s oldest maintained cemetery, which like a poem about the couple, is named for this person." Contestants' proposed questions: "Who is Poe?," "Who is Arlington?," and "Who is Mary?"

(The correct question: "Who is Myles Standish?")

Sunday, May 12, 2019

On Ants (Thomas Bewick)


"The history and œconomy of these vary curious Insects are (I think) not well known — they appear to manage all their Affairs, with as much forethought & greater industry than Mankind — but to what degree their reasoning & instructive powers extend is yet a mystery — After they have spent a certain time toiling on earth, they then change this abode, get Wings, & soar aloft into the atmosphere — It is not well known what state they undergo, before they assume this new character, nor what becomes of them after"

(Memoirs)

On Being Alone


"As the lodges afforded so little shelter, people began to die, and five Christians quartered on the coast were driven to such extremity that they ate each other until but one remained, who, being left alone, had nobody to eat him." — Cabeza de Vaca

Adapted from the Lakeside Press edition of Narrative of the Narváez Expedition, edited by Harold Augenbraum.

Friday, May 03, 2019

An Existential Necessity (Luc Sante)



The Paris Review has inaugurated a new blog, Pinakothek. Written by Luc Sante, it's devoted to "miscellaneous visual strata of the past." Here's an excerpt from the second post, "Arcade":
Getting yourself photographed was a pastime and an existential necessity. It reminded you that you existed outside your own head. It showed you your face as others would see it. It gave you an opportunity to compose yourself, although few had the skill to do so successfully, and often the photographer’s haste and hard sell would mitigate against it. Most people come off in arcade pictures as if they had suddenly been shoved onstage to face an audience of thousands.
"Pinakothek" (from a Greek and Latin word for a picture gallery) was also the title of a short-lived feature that Sante maintained on his website a number of years ago.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Hera


Her sons are out of college and living lives of their own by the time her husband leaves. She could stay on in the house but every room has bad memories, so she winds things up and moves back to the river town where she was born. It's the same river but the people have moved on. Old acquaintances, when she happens to bump into someone she recognizes, are pleasant enough but their faces are burdened with histories she no longer shares. Downtown there are newcomers, refugees from a faraway war that has disappeared from the headlines. She rather likes the women, who are friendly, direct, and tough, but finds the men a harder read. She volunteers a bit and joins a gym, and keeps the few grey-haired men who seem to sense an opportunity at arm's length.

On overcast days she likes to walk through town and over the bridge and watch fishermen drop their lines into the dark water. Sometimes the drawbridge rises and a barge goes by, its wake slowly rippling until it breaks on the shore. She wonders what the barges carry and where they are bound, upriver empty and downriver full. Semis cross the bridge and sometimes sound their horns at her; she thinks they wouldn't bother if they could see the lines in her face.

The mail brings letters, catalogs, bills. She keeps her rooms tidy, cooks casseroles that last for days, reads into the night, rises with the dawn. Sometimes she sees great flocks high above and hears the faint cries of birds returning to Canada for the summer. She resolves to make the same trip some spring, when the moment is ripe and the last ice floes have broken up.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Notes for a Commonplace Book (24): Temporary Separateness


Alice Munro:
This lucky woman, Joan, with her job and her lover and her striking looks—more remarked upon now than ever before in her life (she is as thin as she was at fourteen and has a wing, a foxtail of silver white in her very short hair)—is aware of a new danger, a threat she could not have imagined when she was younger. She couldn't have imagined it even if somebody had described it to her. And it's hard to describe. The threat is of change, but it's not the sort of change one has been warned about. It's just this—that suddenly, without warning, Joan is apt to think: Rubble. Rubble. You can look down a street, and you can see the shadows, the light, the brick walls, the truck parked under a tree, the dog lying on the sidewalk, the dark summer awning, or the grayed snowdrift—you can see all these things in their temporary separateness, all connected underneath in such a troubling, satisfying, necessary, indescribable way. Or you can see rubble. Passing states, a useless variety of passing states. Rubble.
"Oh, What Avails," from Friend of My Youth

Thursday, April 04, 2019

Music Notes: "Idumea"



Charles Wesley, one of the founding fathers of Methodism, is said to have penned some 6,500 hymns, among them "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing." I can't say for sure — not having heard them all — but I suspect he never wrote another as weirdly beautiful as "Idumea":
And am I born to die?
To lay this body down
And as my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown?

A land of deepest shade
Unpierced by human thought
The dreary region of the dead
Where all things are forgot

Soon as from earth I go
What will become of me?
Eternal happiness or woe
Must then my fortune be

Waked by the trumpet's sound
I from my grave shall rise
And see the judge with glory crowned
And see the flaming skies
The peculiarities begin with the title itself, which seems to have come not from Wesley but from a later arranger. Why "Idumea"? According to reference works, Idumea (or Edom) was an ancient kingdom south of the Dead Sea. It is mentioned in the Bible, though not, as far as I can tell (and I'd welcome an exegesis) in any context that would explain the lyrics above. The noted folklorist A. L. Lloyd, in his liner notes to the version of the song performed by the English folk group the Watersons, thought it unnecessary (or was it impossible?) to explain the allusion.

Then there's the way the song begins: in mid-sentence, in mid-thought. Hymns tend to speak in a collective voice; this one is first-person singular and sounds almost like a monologue spoken in character, along the lines of Spoon River Anthology. Even the hymn's theology seems a tad unorthodox. Christianity, as a religion that offers, in effect, a choice of afterlives, has long alternated in its vernacular forms between a kind of "Joy to the World / God is Love" cheeriness and a darker strain, whether expressed in threats of hellfire and brimstone or in the death-obsessed pessimism of the danse macabre and Blind Willie Johnson's "You Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond." But Wesley's description of
The dreary region of the dead
Where all things are forgot
sounds more like the pagan, antinomian conception of the underworld (peopled by Homer's "exhausted dead") than it does the Christian vision of a place where sinners are sent to be paid back for their misdeeds. Is this because the speaker's voice is supposed to be an ancient, Idumean one? Is it because Wesley, though an evangelist and missionary, was also a classically educated scholar for whom the tropes of Greek and Roman literature would have been part of his intellectual training? Or was Wesley, good Methodist, really a secret Modernist avant la lettre (Pound's Cantos, after all, also begins with "And …")? All the elements are there: cryptic reference to antiquity, fragmented monologue …

According to Lloyd, the hymn fell out of favor in England, but remained popular among parishioners in what he calls "remoter settlements of the Upland Southern states of America." One can only wonder what they made of it.

The above note was originally published in A Common Reader's blog Book Case in 2003. I have dusted it off and revised a few points.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Customer Service Wolf



Three installments from Anne Barnetson's droll comic about the adventures of a lupine bookshop clerk. Having served in that role for many years in an earlier phase of my life I can vouch for its essential accuracy.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Berlin (Jason Lutes)


Two brilliant pages from Jason Lutes's mammoth graphic novel set in the waning years of the Weimar Republic.


Berlin is published by Drawn & Quarterly.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Fear


Ruth Otis Sawtell & Ida Treat:
Our greatest adventure we found at Mérigon. Mérigon, with its face to the sunny roadside and its back to the dark gorge where the Volp rushes past the Plantaurel, has been the haunt of something wild and sinister. The peasants called it la Peur, the Fear. All one summer it blasted the valley. Crops drooped, cattle died. There were cries in the night, whirring of wings where no birds flew. At last the men of Mérigon set out to hunt la Peur. Guns in hand they scoured the fields, the river, the rocks, until some one—with a silver bullet—shot it down. He brought back no trophy, only the vague word of having killed "something like a bird," but from that moment the blight was lifted from the countryside. To-day you can not find a man in Mérigon who will admit participating in that hunt. But there is something in the atmosphere of the valley suggesting that if la Peur should rise again, there would still be men to hear the flutter of its wings.

Primitive Hearths in the Pyrenees

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Compliments of the Dead



This appealing book is the product of two American women, Ruth Otis Sawtell (1895-1978), a noted anthropologist and academic (and, later, author of mystery novels), and Ida Treat (1899-1978), who was, among other things, a journalist, academic, and New Yorker contributor in the Shawn era. There couldn't have been many American women engaged in the serious study of the European Paleolithic during the Roaring Twenties, but there certainly were two, and their account of their caving adventures and fieldwork, though obscure now, is more substantial than the typical Americans-abroad fare of the day. It was handsomely produced by D. Appleton & Co. with lots of drawings* and photos of artifacts and cave art and a gold-stamped front cover (at least in my copy — there seems to be a variant with a plain red binding). It's out of date now (even the famous paintings of Lascaux were unknown when they wrote it), but still enjoyable.

My copy, which I bought at one book sale or another years ago, came with the business card shown below paper-clipped to the title page. Francis G. Wickware was an editor at Appleton, and may well have been the editor of the book (he had a background in geology and was probably of a scientific bent). If the book was a gift from him the circumstances are somewhat puzzling, as "the late" has been scrawled above his name. Primitive Hearths in the Pyrenees was published in 1927, thirteen years before Wickware's death; perhaps just before he died he set a copy aside for someone he knew would be interested.


* The drawings were executed by Paul Vaillant-Couturier, one of the founders of the French Communist Party. He was married to Ida Treat at the time (they later divorced) and participated in the fieldwork.

Update: Below is the cover art for one of Ruth Sawtell Wallis's mystery novels. I suspect that this is not how she actually dressed during her excavations.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Memory Man



These three slender books by the Guatemalan Jewish writer Eduardo Halfon are published by Libros del Asteroide, a Barcelona-based company that publishes a wide range of modern literature, all in the same attractive format. Two of the three, or more accurately two and a half of the three, have been published in English translations by Bellevue Literary Press, along with another Halfon book (which I haven't read) entitled The Polish Boxer.


Each book succeeds as an individual work, but they're also part of a larger whole in which characters and events may be alluded to in one but more fully developed in another. Halfon, who spent part of his childhood in the US and is bilingual (though he doesn't do his own translations), has underlined the fluidity of his project by lifting sections of Signor Hoffman and combining them with the contents of Duelo for the US translation.


All three are narrated by someone named Eduard Halfon who is a Jewish-Guatemalan writer exploring the details and consequences of his personal and family history (but who should nevertheless not be confused with the author). Imagined events aren't necessarily deprecated in favor of real ones; thus Duelo (a title that can mean both "mourning" and "duel") centers around a half-remembered story about an uncle who drowned as a child in Lake Amatitlán. The fact that the drowning never happened both is and isn't less important than the ways it is (mis)remembered. The narrative begins in Guatemala but eventually travels to Florida and Germany (and to Italy in Poland in the English version).

The books have an understated force that becomes cumulative when they are read together (in whatever arrangement or order). Halfon doesn't bludgeon the reader, even when he deals with weighty matters (the Holocaust is a shadow over the entire enterprise), but instead prefers to work by indirection. His books echo each other but they also reverberate across entire fields of history.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Roma: Words Unspoken



I had been looking forward to seeing Alfonso Cuarón's Roma as soon as it made it to a local theatre, and it didn't disappoint. I'm not a movie critic and won't attempt a synopsis or analysis of the film*, but in a very quick summation it's about a few months in the lives of a well-to-do (but perhaps downwardly-mobile) Mexico City household around 1971. (Cuarón drew on his own family memories, and he has meticulously — even obsessively — recreated the texture of the world he grew up in.) At one crucial point the family's story intersects dramatically with the tumultuous course of the broader history of twentieth-century Mexico. The film is beautifully designed, acted, and shot (in black and white), and has the sweep and richness of a great novel. I'll be watching it again.

Pictured above is Cleodegaria (played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), one of the family's Oaxacan servants and the film's emotional center. One criticism that has been leveled at the film is that we don't really get to learn much about what she thinks and feels, but I think that apparent silence is itself the point. (As it happens, I think we can get a fair idea of what she thinks and feels, but to do so requires attention to more than words.) Roma isn't your typical Hollywood have-it-both-ways movie in which all conflicts are resolved and all the characters overcome the limits of their personal histories, their class or racial backgrounds, and are at last fully revealed as equal agents. Being constrained and unheard is part of the social reality of Cleo's life (as it is, in different ways and degrees, of the lives of the family she serves); for a director to pretend otherwise would be a betrayal.

* For a full and thoughtful review, Alma Guillermoprieto's NYRB review, "The Twisting Nature of Love" is a good place to start.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Owl



Winter can be a frustrating time for the saunterer, but now and then you get a lucky break. On a mild Sunday afternoon in January I put the dog in the car and drove a few miles to a park where there are four thousand or so acres of woodlands and fields. The park road up the hill I wanted to visit was closed, so I left the car at the bottom and took a trail that hooked around to the top. The trail was deserted and the woods silent except for the occasional sound of a jet passing overhead. At the summit, stone camping shelters stood empty and alone among unmown fields and scattered oaks, their fires cold, but solitary electric lights burned, even in daylight, to mark the entrances to the rest rooms. On our way back down I heard an owl hoot several times in quick succession not far off in a stand of pines, but I never spotted it. As we drove out a hawk crossed in front of us and alit in a tree. I pulled over but I knew it would fly off if I opened the car door and so made no attempt to get a better look.

On the way home I decided to turn onto a back road I don't usually take. I saw a jogger up ahead of me on the left, and as I slowed I noticed something in the neglected field on my right: a barred owl, perched on a dead tree. I pulled over, turned on the four-way flashers, reached for my camera, and rolled down the window.


I see owls with some regularity, sometimes by accident and sometimes by intention, but most often by having the intention of seeing them by accident. Contrary to the assumptions many people have, they're not necessarily exclusively nocturnal, and barred owls, which are frequently active by day, aren't particularly skittish. Still, I've never had one pose so cooperatively, at eye level just a few yards off and in decent light.


Fortunately, the dog, who barks or howls at anything from squirrels to Canada geese, either didn't see it or didn't register it as potential prey. He no doubt wondered why we had stopped. I took pictures for several minutes, while the owl kept an eye on the field and now and then swiveled its head to regard me with apparent neutrality. I kept expecting it to fly off but it never did. Eventually it was I who drove away instead.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Measureless Nights


Winter mornings, waiting for dawn. (But then with the streetlight right outside the window it's never truly dark.)

John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts: "An ocean without its unnamed monsters would be like a completely dreamless sleep." They had mariners in mind but they could easily have reversed the simile. A dreamless, utilitarian sleep is like a disenchanted sea. Nothing emerges from it that we don't already know.

Or we dream but remember nothing, our dream-selves wandering off through rooms we will never see. Borges, on the philosophers of Tlön, who held that "While we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and in this way every man is two men." He might have added, "or none."

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Thaw



A scene from Paweł Pawlikowski's Cold War, the follow-up to his Oscar-winning Ida from five years ago, which was one of my favorite movies of the last twenty years. I'd rate Cold War one notch below the earlier film, mostly for some choppiness in the latter half and an ending I didn't much care for, but it's still a very consequential movie (and with some of the same cast members, notably Joanna Kulig, who had a cameo in Ida but utterly dominates here). And of course it's in black and white, as all films worth watching should be. (I'm exaggerating, of course, a little.)

Cold War is about various things but the action principally concerns music makers making various kinds of music, and there's an almost programmatic sequence, from a bagpiper at the film's opening who's playing sounds that could be a thousand years old to more recent folk and classical music to jazz and kitsch and Bill Haley and the Comets (heard above). All of the music, as far as I could tell, is diagetic (that is, it's either being performed as part of the action or is listened to by the characters) except for the Goldberg Variations accompanying the credits.

Claire Messud has a thoughtful appraisal in the New York Review and Lisa Liebman at Vulture has a good article on the music in the film.