Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Water-Cure

Daniel Defoe:
I heard of one infected creature, who, running out of his bed in his shirt, in the anguish and agony of his swellings, of which he had three upon him, got his shoes on and went to put on his coat; but the nurse resisting and snatching the coat from him, he threw her down, run over her, ran down stairs, and into the street directly to the Thames, in his shirt, the nurse running after him, and calling to the watch to stop him; but the watchman, frightened at the man, and afraid to touch him, let him go on; upon which he ran down to the Stillyard stairs, threw away his shirt, and plunged into the Thames; and, being a good swimmer, swam quite over the river; and the tide being coming in, as they call it, that is, running westward, he reached the land not till he came about the Falcon stairs, where landing, and finding no people there, it being in the night, he ran about the streets there naked as he was, for a good while, when, it being by that time high water, he takes the river again, and swam back to the Stillyard, landed, ran up the streets to his own house, knocking at the door, went up the stairs, and into his bed again. And that this terrible experiment cured him of the plague, that is to say, that the violent motion of his arms and legs stretched the parts where the swellings he had upon him were (that is to say, under his arms and in his groin), and caused them to ripen and break; and that the cold of the water abated the fever in his blood.
A Journal of the Plague Year

Defoe, in the person of the Journal's purported author, H. F., notes that he can not vouch for the veracity of the incident.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Woods

I've gone for a walk today, as I often do when I can spare the time. I put my things away, pulled on my jacket, and headed up the hillside behind the garden. At the far edge of the last plowed field, looking down over the village, there's an unmarked trail that leads into a ragged stand of sumac, aspen, and yellow birch. Go a little further, as the trail dips and climbs and weaves over outcroppings, little clearings, and rockfalls, and you come before long to the deeper woods, the smooth-barked beeches and great oaks, the mottled sycamores, the tulip-trees that rise like columns and disappear into the canopy above.

These woods have become my refuge when I need to be apart. I rarely meet anyone else up here, though the paths are well-worn. The others who tread here must do so in their own hour. On those rare occasions when I do meet someone we nod and smile, if we are strangers, then continue on our way; or if it is a friend we might linger for a moment's conversation, but then move off, respecting each other's need for solitude.

In a little hollow, near the foundation of an old cottage, there is something like a tiny shrine, though I have no idea what religion — if any — it might belong to. It's just a little alcove formed of stone, set above the ground a bit. Maybe once, long ago, it had some utilitarian purpose, a place to stash a pail to keep it out of the way, or something like that. As time passed and the cottage was abandoned the alcove was adopted and set to a new purpose, consecrated perhaps, to some resident spirit whose name is now no longer known — or maybe it just became the backdrop for some children playing some game invented on the spot. Occasional visitors, myself among them but I see I am not the only one, keep it swept out and adorn it, from time to time, with whatever is in our pockets or strikes our whimsy: bits of thread, wildflowers, a coin or a button. Sometimes I find snails sheltered inside, tiny ones, small enough to take shelter on the underside of a leaf, or the big brown ones that are said to be good eating though we never eat them. I'm careful not to disturb them if I can avoid it. They are there for their own reasons, as unknown to me as mine are unfathomable to them.

I go walking when I can, but that doesn't mean I come here often. Naturally there are many other things that I do; I have responsibilities. Who among us has the luxury of idleness? During the day, like everyone else, I work where I am needed, here and there, or in the fields around home. I have a wife, friends, I have children and animals to mind. And because I am not a hermit but a man who lives and works among men and women, who as we all know are spread over the surface of the earth as far as the mind can imagine, I have been known to travel, for weeks at a time even, journeying into cities and landscapes that are very different from my own familiar precincts, attending to the affairs that we share with others, in so far as it adheres to the habits and the laws we hold in common.

In time I always return, to the ones I love, to my own fields and hills. When I'm settled I make my way up to the woods again, noting the changes since my last visit, because these woods are in their own way a kind a river, of the sort of which a man once said that you could not set your foot in it twice without it being a different stream. Its current is a slow one, to be sure, but perhaps, measured in its own, infinitely longer scale of time, it flows just as swiftly as the river that lies, hidden by trees, behind me in the valley from which I have climbed.

There is much more I could say about my affairs, and I may get to all that, in time. The story of a man's life, of his works and days, can not be told in one sitting, nor from one vantage point, not even from so fine a prospect as the top of this hill, where the woods, as I walk on, have now thinned out into blueberry scrub, where the air cools and the wind scours, flicking a scattering of fine, sparse sand around the bare rocks. I eat and drink, I love, I watch my fellows age and I watch their children grow and seek their own way in the world, as I have sought my own, without, perhaps, finding it any more or less than they will in their turn. I spend my days doing what it has fallen to me to do, being whom I have become, whom I have been, perhaps, from the very start.

At night, like everyone else, I dream. Eyes closed, I step into the borderlands that lie between things as they are, as I know them to be, and things that are — what? — as I don't know them to be? If my dreams, now, seem as real as my waking life, am I then living only half my life at a time? Am I the same man in the hours between midnight and morning that I am between dawn and dusk? The longer I live the less sure I am of the answers to any of these questions.

Written in 2007, the above text has various fictional elements, although in essence it could almost serve as a journal of how I've been spending much of my time of late. It was originally conceived as part of a larger project that instead went in an entirely different direction.

Friday, April 22, 2016


Two poems about change, stone, farming, New England — and, obliquely, the ancient world. First up, Robert Frost:
Of the Stones of the Place

I farm a pasture where the boulders lie
As touching as a basket full of eggs,
And though they’re nothing anybody begs,
I wonder if it wouldn’t signify

For me to send you one out where you live
In wind-soil to a depth of thirty feet,
And every acre good enough to eat,
As fine as flour put through a baker's sieve.

I’d ship a smooth one you could slap and chafe,
And set up like a statue in your yard,
An eolith palladium to guard
The West and keep the old tradition safe.

Carve nothing on it. You can simply say
In self-defense to quizzical inquiry:
"The portrait of the soul of my Gransir Ira.
It came from where he came from anyway."
Second, Paul Goodman:

These people came up here
only two hundred years ago.
A half a dozen names
of fathers in the graveyard
have brought us to the farmer
who used to be my neighbor.

But now his sons have quit
the beautiful North Country
for Boston where they will not find
a living or even safety.
The boy has joined the Navy
to bomb other farmers
where our Navy ought not to be.

“I set my mind on Ritchie.
I bought all the machinery for him
and the blue-ribbon cattle.
Now it has no point.”
So they have sold and gone
to San Diego
to see the boy on leave.

There will not be another
generation in America,
not as we have known it,
of persons and community
and continuity.
This poetry I write
is like the busy baler
that Sawyer bought for Ritchie,
what is the use of it?

But I am unwilling to be Virgil
resigned and praise what is no good.
Nor has the President invited me.
Frost's "eolith palladium" caught my eye. An eolith is a kind of flint nodule once thought to be artifactual in nature, but now considered to be the product of natural geological forces. The original Palladium or Palladion was an icon of Pallas Athena taken from the citadel of Troy and eventually transported to Rome by Aeneas; the word has since become generic for any kind of protective icon. The name of the element palladium is a later coinage, also ultimately derived from the compound epithet Pallas Athena.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Missed connections

There were plenty of other kids in the neighborhood when I was small, and most of the time I played with them, but I had another friend who lived maybe three or four miles away, which meant that for us to get together, outside of school, one of us had to be driven. There wasn't, in the end, anything particularly special about our friendship, and I long ago lost track of him, though we never had a falling-out. What I really remember about him is that for a long time I had it my head that there was a trail through the woods that began somewhere not far from my house and came out near his. I don't remember why I believed this. It may have originated in a dream, perhaps a recurring one, or maybe it just arose somewhere along the permeable boundary between the real and the imaginary that often characterizes the mind in early childhood. Perhaps in some alternate world the door to which was only briefly open in those years there really was such a path.

The truth is, though, that I did live in a neighborhood largely surrounded by woods and abandoned fields, and though I knew those spaces fairly well when I was young, knew how to access them, knew what wonders or secrets they had to offer, that time is long past. I don't live there anymore, though I'm not so far away that I couldn't go back and take a look around if I really wanted to (and if the current homeowners weren't alarmed by the sight of a strange man wandering around just outside the perimeter of their back yards). In the end, though, that territory is no longer mine. It was a child's world, defined by coordinates of time and space that I've long since breached.

There were trails through those woods, and no doubt there still are, though they may be different from the ones I knew. The curious thing is that of all those pathways now closed off forever the one I remember the clearest is the one that never existed at all.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Notes for a commonplace book (18)

Milan Kundera:
Man desires a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished, for he has an innate and irrepressible desire to judge before he understands. Religions and ideologies are founded on this desire. They can cope with the novel only by translating its language of relativity and ambiguity into their own apodictic and dogmatic discourse. They require that someone be right: either Anna Karenina is the victim of a narrow-minded tyrant, or Karenin is the victim of an immoral woman; either K. is an innocent man crushed by an unjust Court, or the Court represents divine justice and K. is guilty.

This "either-or" encapsulates an inability to tolerate the essential relativity of things human, an inability to look squarely at the absence of the Supreme Judge. This inability makes the novel's wisdom (the wisdom of uncertainty) hard to accept and understand.

— From "The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes"