Monday, December 30, 2019

Mother Tongue

From The New Yorker:
Oswaldo Vidal Martín always wears the same thing to court: a striped overshirt, its wide collar and cuffs woven with geometric patterns and flowers. His pants are cherry red, with white stripes. Martín is Guatemalan and works as a court interpreter, so clerks generally assume that he is there to translate for Spanish speakers. But any Guatemalan who sees his clothing, which is called traje típico, knows that Martín is indigenous. “My Spanish is more conversational,” Martín told me. “I still have some difficulties with it.” He interprets English for migrants who speak his mother tongue, a Mayan language called Mam...

Pedro Pablo Solares, a specialist in migration and a columnist for the Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre, travelled throughout the U.S. between 2010 and 2014, providing legal services to migrants. He found that the “immense majority” of Mayans were living in what he called ciudades espejo—mirror cities—where migrants from the same small towns in Guatemala have reconstituted communities in the U.S. “If you are a member of the Chuj community and that is your language, there are only fifty thousand people who speak that in the world. There’s only so many places you can go to find people who speak your language,” Solares told me. He described the migration patterns like flight routes: Q’anjob’al speakers from San Pedro Solomá go to Indiantown, Florida; Mam speakers from Tacaná go to Lynn, Massachusetts; Jakalteco speakers from Jacaltenango go to Jupiter, Florida.
Rachel Nolan, "A Translation Crisis at the Border" (January 6, 2020 issue)

Monday, December 23, 2019

Notes for a Commonplace Book (27): Lost Powers

Charles Dickens:
The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley's Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

A Christmas Carol

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

From the Guardian

This brings us back to impeachment. The question it poses is not whether it will be the thing that drives Donald Trump from office or whether it will be an unalloyed political boon for Democrats or other progressive forces in the country. It won’t be any of these things. Instead, the issue raised by impeachment is whether America, at this stage in its history, has what it takes to stand up against the forces of tyranny – whether there is still a passion among its people, and enough vitality in its institutions, to defend the American ideal against an unprecedented assault.
Andrew Gawthorpe, "Impeachment won't force Trump out of office. But it matters for our republic." Guardian.

(Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Wolf (Paul Bowles)

Last night's Jeopardy featured, of all things, a clue that referred to Paul Bowles's venomous short story "The Frozen Fields," which is one of the few pieces Bowles set in the US and which is also, in its twisted way, a Christmas story. Of course I had to pull it out today and read it again.

The story is set at a family gathering at a rural farmhouse somewhere in the northeast, presumably in the early decades of the twentieth century, and is told largely through the eyes of Donald, a boy of six who is visiting the farm along with his parents. Despite the Norman Rockwellish ambience, all isn't well; there are whispers of illicit goings-on, and Donald's father is a surly martinet who eventually precipitates a family crisis with a rude insinuation uttered during the course of Christmas dinner.

There's no love lost between father and son (the story almost certainly draws on Bowles's difficult relationship with his own father), and when Donald lies down to sleep in the farmhouse bedroom he lets his imagination run free:
On his way through the borderlands of sleep he had a fantasy. From the mountain behind the farm, running silently over the icy crust of the snow, leaping over the rocks and bushes, came a wolf. He was running toward the farm. When he got there he would look through the windows until he found the dining room where the grown-ups were sitting around the big table. Donald shuddered when he saw his eyes in the dark through the glass. And now, calculating every movement perfectly, the wolf sprang, smashing the panes, and seized Donald's father by the throat. In an instant, before anyone could move or cry out, he was gone again with his prey still between his jaws, his head turned sideways as he dragged the limp form swiftly over the surface of the snow.
So, in the end, this atypical Bowles story maybe isn't so atypical after all. It has the same sudden, pitiless violence of many of his North African tales, and the frozen fields of the rural US turn out to be just another kind of desert.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Notebook: December Blue

Sunday afternoon. Close enough to shake a stick at to fifty years ago, in my lonely and melancholy youth, Joni Mitchell's Blue was the one record I could never listen to enough. Shut in behind dormroom doors, I played it over and over on a clunky portable hi-fi that was already a museum piece by the time I got hold of it. There was nothing unique in this; Blue was a very popular record, at least among the people I hung out with. Mitchell sang beautifully, in spite of whatever minor technical imperfections she might have had at that point in her development, she was beautiful to look at, but most important, nothing she did before or after, not even gems like Hejira (maybe her "masterpiece," overall), and certainly nothing anyone else was doing to that point, seemed to have the same emotional directness. Sparely produced, with just Mitchell's piano, dulcimer, and guitar and a scattering of contributions from other musicians, Blue seemed to suggest that art — whatever art it was you practiced — could, if wielded with honesty and passion, not to mention genius and dedication, cut through all the pretense and posturing and give a glimpse of how we might talk — or sing — to each other if just once we could drop the masks we all carry around with us, both the ones we show to others and the ones we show to the mirror. All an illusion, perhaps, but that's not how it felt at the time.

Anyway, today I got in the car and drove a few miles to a place I like to go hiking, and I brought along a newly-purchased copy of Blue on CD for the ride. I still have my original LP, but I don't really have a functioning turntable and I'm not a big fan of streaming, so this was actually the first time I'd heard the whole thing in many years. (How did I go so long without being able to listen to "A Case of You"? It's hard to figure.) And I have to say it sounded great, probably better than ever since, whatever the merits of the CD vs. vinyl argument, my car's music system is undoubtedly better than my old hi-fi was. And the emotional impact? Yes, it's still there.
Just before our love got lost you said
"I am as constant as a northern star"
And I said "Constantly in the darkness
Where's that at?
If you want me I'll be in the bar"

On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
— Oh, Canada —
With your face sketched on it twice
But enough of that. It was a seasonably cold but not uncomfortable December afternoon, the skies were partly cloudy, and I hiked for a couple of miles to an overlook I like to visit in the winter when the leaves don't obstruct the views of the nearby reservoir and the surrounding hills. As I neared the top I sensed movement in the sky ahead of me, and looking up I saw an enormous hawk — a red-tail, I think — settle at the top of a bare tree not far off. I switched on my camera but the angle and the light were bad, and before long the hawk leaned forward, leapt off the branch it was perched on, awkwardly bumped another nearby branch, and took flight, quickly disappearing in to the woods behind my shoulder. I finished climbing and sat on the bench that marks the summit for a while, then as I got up to leave I saw the hawk again, in flight above me, and with it a second hawk, probably its mate. The hawks wheeled above me, each in its own tight circle, in effortless command of their element, then gradually drifted further off and out of sight.

On the way home, having traveled several miles by now, I took a back road, and when I neared a small family cemetery adjacent to a horse farm I slowed, thinking it might be a good time and place to see something. Sure enough, as I pulled up, I saw another pair of hawks perched in a tree directly above the cemetery. I switched the camera on even before I opened the car door, but once again the angle was bad and the hawks were too wary. First one then the other took flight, making the same tight circles as the earlier pair, regarding me for a moment or two before likewise moving off.

After I got home, just at dusk, I looked out my kitchen window and saw yet another hawk perched in our peach tree — the one we haven't gotten a peach from in years because of our resident squirrels. This one we've come to think of as an old friend, as we see it in our yard almost every day, and the same or similar hawk has been visiting in the winter for years. It lingered only for a moment, then flew off.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Aubade (November)

Lying awake before dawn, hearing the faint scratching of rain on the gutters, waiting for the first pale light of a winter morning to stretch across the floorboards, he feels the last traces of his dreams dissolve. A car rolls by on the wet street and he hears the damp thud of newspapers being deposited, one after another, into the driveways of the houses along the block. The sparrows have nothing to say.

Saturday, November 16, 2019


If I lived in Japan maybe I'd climb Mt. Fuji, but since I don't I settle for Turkey Mountain, a bump of gneiss that soars to an elevation of all of 831 feet. I like to go up a few times a year, and since the trails can be tricky once there's snow on the ground I suspect today was it for the year. It was a beautiful clear November day, warm enough that I could dispense with my coat for the brief but fairly steep climb.

From the top you can see time. The Manhattan skyline, some forty miles away, is clearly distinguishable if you look south, a nearby reservoir and the Hudson River are closer at hand to the southwest, but the surrounding woods, from this perspective, probably appear more or less as they have for hundreds, even thousands of years, and the stone beneath my feet is roughly a billion years old. It feels pretty solid and I suspect it'll be around for a while to come.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

A Social Call

Joseph Conrad:
Razumov had been admitted twice to that suite of several small dark rooms on the top floor: dusty window-panes, litter of all sorts of sweepings all over the place, half-full glasses of tea forgotten on every table, the two Laspara daughters prowling about enigmatically silent, sleepy-eyed, corsetless, and generally, in their want of shape and the disorder of their rumpled attire, resembling old dolls; the great but obscure Julius, his feet twisted round his three-legged stool, always ready to receive the visitors, the pen instantly dropped, the body screwed round with a striking display of the lofty brow and of the great austere beard. When he got down from his stool it was as though he had descended from the heights of Olympus. He was dwarfed by his daughters, by the furniture, by any caller of ordinary stature. But he very seldom left it, and still more rarely was seen walking in broad daylight.

Under Western Eyes
Edward Gorey created covers for several Anchor Press editions of Joseph Conrad's books, including Chance, Victory, and The Secret Sharer, but as far as I can tell he never did this novel, which is shown here in a design by Diana Klemin, Anchor's art director, which was issued in 1963 as part of a serious of uniform editions with introductions by Morton Dauwen Zabel. The passage above, with its jumble of forlorn objects and wraith-like women, seems tailor-made for him. Laspara and his daughters play no great role in the plot of the novel, but Conrad seems to have enjoyed describing them.

Klemin chose two photographs corresponding to the two cities in which the novel is set. One shows the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, the other includes, at right, the tiny Île Rousseau in Geneva, where Razumov goes for a bit of privacy when he wants to do some writing.

Monday, November 04, 2019

The Great Circle of the Catalogue (George Gissing)

Marian Yule, the daughter and amanuensis of a London literary critic, contemplates her fate in the famous reading room of the British Museum:
Oh, to go forth and labour with one's hands, to do any poorest, commonest work of which the world had truly need! It was ignoble to sit here and support the paltry pretence of intellectual dignity. A few days ago her startled eye had caught an advertisement in the newspaper, headed ‘Literary Machine’; had it then been invented at last, some automaton to supply the place of such poor creatures as herself to turn out books and articles? Alas! the machine was only one for holding volumes conveniently, that the work of literary manufacture might be physically lightened. But surely before long some Edison would make the true automaton; the problem must be comparatively such a simple one. Only to throw in a given number of old books, and have them reduced, blended, modernised into a single one for to-day’s consumption.

The fog grew thicker; she looked up at the windows beneath the dome and saw that they were a dusky yellow. Then her eye discerned an official walking along the upper gallery, and in pursuance of her grotesque humour, her mocking misery, she likened him to a black, lost soul, doomed to wander in an eternity of vain research along endless shelves. Or again, the readers who sat here at these radiating lines of desks, what were they but hapless flies caught in a huge web, its nucleus the great circle of the Catalogue? Darker, darker. From the towering wall of volumes seemed to emanate visible motes, intensifying the obscurity; in a moment the book-lined circumference of the room would be but a featureless prison-limit.

New Grub Street

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Halloween, 2019

On this rainy October morning, a reminder that the work of transforming dead matter into life (and vice versa) never stops.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Tomorrow's All We've Got

From songwriter-musician-bookseller-writer Amy Rigby, one track from a collection of old demos from the 1980s and '90s entitled A One Way Ticket to My Life, available from Rigby or Bandcamp.

I like this kind of homemade project. The songs were recorded on cassette, in cramped apartments rather than in a studio, and of course a record company back in the day would have wanted to start from scratch and re-record the vocals under optimal conditions, then layer on a lot of extra crap to make it radio-friendly, and if the producer was on the ball the final product might have sounded pretty good. But it would have lost something too, and a lot of these tracks might not have made it onto the record in the first place. In fairness, only about half of the nineteen tracks here are anything I'd go out of my way to hear again (the rest are tolerable), but for demos that's probably a pretty high percentage, no? Amy's husband Eric Goulden aka Wreckless Eric has cleaned up the recordings a bit but that's all.

In any case, Amy Rigby has just published a memoir, Girl to City, relating how she left Pittsburgh in her teens and set out for the big city and art studies at Parsons School of Design, wound up in a band (as you do), and eventually went on to a solo career, juggling touring, day jobs, relationships, a marriage, and parenting, and managed not to lose her mind along the way. It's a nifty book, full of lively glimpses into New York's bygone downtown music scene, and best of all is that Rigby herself comes off as a whole person, vulnerable and fallible and self-conscious but also surprisingly resilient (and talented). It's available direct from Rigby's website, as well as the usual places.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Scalded to Death by the Steam

I think this is what is called character development. Newlywed Cesca (Ann Dvorak) romps through a disturbingly peppy rendition of the most gruesome lines of the railroad disaster ballad "The Wreck of the Old 97." Just off-screen is her husband, mobster Guino Rinaldo (George Raft), who is about to get his at the hand of her brother, Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), whose relationship with Cesca is itself more than a little creepy. From Scarface (1932).

The lyrics to the ballad are sung out of order, as the death of the engineer here occurs before the train crashes. Ann Dvorak was not related to the subject of the previous post.

Friday, October 04, 2019

They Don't Sing This One in Church

I picked this Canadian edition of Josef Škvorecký's novel about his countryman Antonín Dvořák one afternoon in Kingston, Ontario, and read it and enjoyed it soon after, but then I put it away for many years and I can't say I remembered much about it until I picked up a used CD of the New World Symphony the other day, and then of course I had to read it again. It's an odd book, splendid and sad and often hilarious. It's not quite "about" Dvořák and not really about him being in love at all (though that element is in there too), but instead it manages to trace a portrait of him largely through the eyes of the people around him (family members, other musicians, casual acquaintances), sometimes in scenes decades after his death. Many of the characters are historical figures from the music world and quite a number of them are Americans, including Will Marion Cook, the black violinist and composer who winds up having to "explain" (i.e., sanitize) the lyrics of a raunchy African-American musical number during the composer's sojourn in the US. "Is it a kind of spiritual?," asks Dvořák, whose English is limited, and Will replies, "Exactly, except they don't sing this one in church." Dvořák, a devout Catholic but one with an earthy streak, eagerly soaks up the music in any case.

According to an interview with Škvorecký, the title was the suggestion of his English-language publisher. The Czech title is Scherzo capriccioso, and it was originally issued by 68 Publishers in Toronto (that is, by the author and his wife, who were publishers to the emigré community), in an edition with illustrations that sadly weren't used in the translated version. I understand no Czech but Paul Wilson's translation reads extremely well.

One change in the translation that everyone, including the author, seems to have liked, is to move to the very end a chapter involving the celebrated classically-trained black singer Sissieretta Jones. Dvořák is long dead when the chapter opens, and Jones, who had known him and performed for him, is now old, retired, mostly forgotten, and living in Providence, Rhode Island. She receives a visit from an old colleague, and at the same time a phone call from Jeanette Thurber, who as patron of music had been responsible for first bringing Dvořák to America. In the brief chapter the narrative moves back and forth over the years, while in the present a boat outside, rocked by the waves, bumps repeatedly against a dock as Jones reflects on what, if anything, all of it was for. It's a small but unsettling detail, a reminder of the ceaseless tides that in the end carry everything away.

Naturally the novel should be read to the accompaniment of your favorite rendition of the New World Symphony.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019


He arrived knowing nothing of the city and no one there. Cities in general were mysteries to him, this one, which he had no ties to, most of all. What did he expect to find there? What did he have to offer?

The trolleys and bus station were run down, the domain of mumbling alcoholic ghosts. The museum was closed for restoration. The sidewalks downtown were torn up, vacant lots boarded over, stores shut behind steel curtains, out of business, waiting for a renewal that showed no sign of coming. Only the streets, arteries jammed with cabs and utility vans, seemed to function.

The river made a hairpin turn through the center of town, crossed by aging iron spans. Barges lay moored along the shore but never seemed to move. Deserted warehouses, their siding shredded, their rooves broken, sagged amid eddies of dust and trash.

A park opened out along one shore on the outskirts leading north, and under the great oaks and balding sycamores leaves blew about, their colors fading to rust. Radios blared from picnickers far off, and a soccer game was in progress. The sun at least was warm and strong. He skirted the edge of the field, watching strangers.

The further out of town he went the more the city seemed to come alive, though not in order to beckon to him. Little shops with Coca-Cola signs stood open among rowhouses; groups of men clustered outside eyed him critically, their conversations breaking off as he approached. He decided he had come too far, cut back across the park, heading south again towards whatever was going to pass for now for home.

Monday, September 23, 2019

The 23rd of September

There aren't so many reasons to note this day (or opportunities to play this song) that one can afford to let the convergence go unobserved. The band is the Vulgar Boatmen and the singer is Professor Robert Ray.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Peter Case: A Kickstarter Campaign

Musician and songwriter Peter Case has an ambitious two-record project in the works, and is looking for financial support to put him over the top in his Kickstarter campaign. He'll be recording an album of original songs, entitled Doctor Moan, as well as a second devoted to acoustics blues covers, The Midnight Broadcast. The rewards for sponsors range from signed CDs and LPs to house concerts, but time is of the essence; I encourage you to check it out. More info is available at Kickstarter and Peter's website.

Update: The project was successfully funded. Look for the records around June 2020.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Family reunion

Four years ago I posted the above image, dated 1887, of a young French woman named Alexandra Marie Fulton de Lipowski. Thanks to a message from a Lipowski descendant I can now post the following photo, which shows her older sister Marie.

The photographs were taken at the same studio, Photographie Prost in Meaux, and in all likelihood they were taken on the same day, as the clothing and pose are nearly identical except for the sisters' pins. Marie's photograph has remained with the family, but Alexandra's somehow wandered across the Atlantic, where I found it in an antique shop. The reverse of the photo is shown below.

Both of the sisters lived long lives. Alexandra, who was married at least twice, died in 1971 at the age of 97. Her sister Marie had died the previous year at 98.

Thanks JH for the information. Alexandra's photograph has now rejoined the family in France.

Monday, August 26, 2019


The larger the scale, the more predictable the world is. The planets and stars move on determined courses, the earth revolves, day becomes night, the seasons change, all obeying established patterns. The closer you focus, the murkier it becomes. Will it rain tomorrow? Will it be a harsh winter? Will the breeze blow down the last leaf this morning, or the next?

And then there are phenomena — things appearing to view. We can predict comets — some of them, at least — but not every flash of a meteor shower. We can't be sure of the consequences of all of our own actions, though with some the baneful results are easy enough to foresee. And why does a bird appear one evening, and not the next? They obey their own unknowable laws, and cross through our vision only by accident.

And yet that's too facile. We ourselves are on unpredictable courses, and our fellow beings are inextricably mixed up in ours, for better or worse. The bird at top is no wild thing but someone's racing pigeon, and bears a band of human possession. I saw it two days in a row at the same location on the summit of a nearby dam. It showed no fear of me, and perhaps was lost, or maybe it was just resting before heading home. On the third day it was gone.

As for the last creature, I found it on its back, not far from the dove, and set it aright, for someone else to ponder.

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?

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Ouch (2)

Jeopardy clue: "Inscribed on Woody Guthrie's guitar: 'This machine kills' these." Contestant's response: "What is 'trees'?"

(Correct question: "What is 'fascists'?" Kudos to Jeopardy for remembering, especially now.)

Sunday, July 07, 2019

In Kakania

Robert Musil:
The administration of this country was carried out in an enlightened, hardly perceptible manner, with a cautious clipping of all sharp points, by the best bureaucracy in Europe, which could be accused of only one defect: it could not help regarding genius and enterprise of genius in private persons, unless privileged by high birth or State appointment, as ostentation, indeed presumption. But who would want unqualified persons putting their oar in, anyway? And besides, in Kakania it was only that a genius was always regarded as a lout, but never, as sometimes happened elsewhere, that a mere lout was regarded as a genius.
The Man without Qualities (Wilkins-Kaiser translation). "Kakania" was Musil's coinage for the kaiserlich und königlich Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Lucas, His Long Marches

Julio Cortázar:
Everybody knows that the Earth is separated from other heavenly bodies by a variable number of light-years. What few know (in reality, only I) is that Margarita is separated from me by a considerable number of snail years.

At first I thought it was a matter of tortoise years, but I've had to abandon that unit of measurement as too flattering. Little as a tortoise may travel, I would have ended up reaching Margarita, but, on the other hand, Osvaldo, my favorite snail, doesn't leave me the slightest hope. Who knows when he started the march that was imperceptibly taking him farther away from my left shoe, even though I had oriented him with extreme precision in the direction that would lead him to Margarita. Full of fresh lettuce, care, and lovingly attended, his first advance was promising, and I said to myself hopefully that before the patio pine passed beyond the height of the roof, Osvaldo's silver-plated horns would enter Margarita's field of vision to bring her my friendly message; in the meantime, from here I could be happy imagining her joy on seeing him arrive, the waving of her braids and arms.

All light years may be equal, but not so snail years, and Osvaldo has ceased to merit my trust. It isn't that he's stopped, since it's possible for me to verify by his silvery trail that he's continuing his march and that he's maintaining the right direction, although this presupposes his going up and down countless walls or passing completely through a noodle factory. But it's been more difficult for me to check that meritorious exactness, and twice I've been stopped by furious watchmen to whom I've had to tell the worst lies since the truth would have brought me a rain of whacks. The sad part is that Margarita, sitting in a pink velvet easy chair, is waiting for me on the other side of the city. If instead of Osvaldo I had made use of light years, we probably would already have had grandchildren; but when one loves long and softly, when one wants to come to the end of a drawn-out wait, it's logical that snail years should be chosen. It's so hard, after all, to decide on what the advantages and the disadvantages of these options are.
Translated by Gregory Rabassa. Lucas, the narrator, is a kind of alter ego of the author. The above piece is the final chapter of the book (which has been out of print for many years).

Thursday, July 04, 2019

The Age of Ubu

"A painting by Jean-Martin Bontoux of King Ubu in Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi, late twentieth century," via The New York Review of Books. The image accompanied an article by Charles Simic, who wrote in part:
One only had to watch the confirmation hearings for Trump's cabinet to fully grasp the sort of men and women who are now in charge in all spheres of life in this country. Lacking any feeling of empathy for their fellow Americans and their problems, convinced in their minds of their superiority because of their immense wealth, eager to pillage this country even more, they are bound to do evil because that's the kind of people they are. In the meantime, the crimes and injustices that are bound to multiply in the months and years ahead is what we have to look forward to. Ubu Roi may not be a great play, but we don't deserve Shakespeare.
"Year One: Our President Ubu"

Two years on, the situation has only grown more grotesque.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Notes from a Commonplace Book (25)

Quoted entirely out of context:
Being in a strange land and among strange men and things, meeting with customs and surrounded by circumstances widely different from all their previous experience, ignorant of the precise state of affairs here, and wanting education and flexibility by which they could adapt themselves to their new and unwonted position, they necessarily form many impracticable purposes, and endeavor to accomplish them by unfitting means. Of course disappointment frequently follows their plans. Their lives are filled with doubt, and harrowing anxiety troubles them, and they are involved in frequent mental, and probably physical, suffering.
Report on Insanity and Idiocy in Massachusetts, by the Commission on Lunacy, Under Resolve of the Legislature of 1854.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Curiosity Cabinet

This entertaining popular account of the Victorian mania for natural history was published by Jonathan Cape and Doubleday in 1980, and has apparently been out of print for decades, perhaps because its color plates would have made it too expensive to reprint. That's unfortunate, because Lynn Barber (on whom more below) did a first-rate job of researching, organizing, and writing the book, and has many interesting things to say both about natural history as a popular Victorian pastime and about weighty scientific figures like Owen, Agassiz, Philip Gosse, and Darwin, not to mention the likes of Frank Buckland, who seemingly ate everything he studied. I read it not too long after it appeared and have occasionally revisited it. Many fine books on the history of 19th-century natural science have appeared before and since but I suspect that few are as entertaining. Barber has a solid command of the major scientific advances and controversies, but she also has a sharp wit and a knack for a good anecdote.
The diary of Caroline Owen, wife of the zoologist Richard Owen, records an odd incident when she was visited by a lady who produced out of her reticule 'a thing which she had been told was an unborn kangaroo.' She (the lady visitor) had brought it to show Richard Owen, but 'she was hesitating about bringing such an "indelicate" subject to a gentleman.' Caroline set her fears at rest by assuring her that the kangaroo had not only been born but had lived for some time, and they then settled down to tea and chat, since Richard was not at home anyway, but it is surely strange that a woman who had no qualms about carrying a dead kangaroo around with her would then start blushing and trembling at the thought of showing it to a gentleman. It reminds us, if we need any reminder, that Victorian delicacy had very little to do with natural modesty and a great deal to do with cultivated prurience.
Of Buckland's gustatorial experiments there is much to report, including:
While at Oxford, he feasted on panther, sent down from the Surrey Zoological Gardens. 'It had, however, been buried a couple of days,' he noted, 'but I got them to dig it up and send me some. It was not very good.'
And here is Barber on science versus religion in the days before Darwin upset the apple cart:
When we talk about the 'clash' between religion and science in the Victorian era, we are talking about the 'clash' between an articulated lorry and a grain of sand. Science counted for absolutely nothing compared to religion. It stood, at best, in the relation of a handmaid to religion but, like a handmaid, it could be sacked if it ever showed signs of being uppity.
The jacket flap of the book identifies Lynn Barber as "a British journalist educated at Oxford," and notes that "she is currently working on a new book focusing on another aspect of Victorian popular culture." (Unmentioned in the author bio is the fact that her journalism had included seven years at Penthouse.) As far as I can tell, she never published the "new book" alluded to, but she didn't disappear into obscurity either. She has had a long career as a writer and interviewer for various publications (she has been called "the rottweiler of Fleet Street"), and has published a memoir recounting her affair, while in her teens, with a dashingly charming older man who turned out to be not only involved in various criminal activities but married to boot. That account, An Education was made into a likeable 2009 film starring Carey Mulligan, which I saw several times before I realized that she and the author of The Heyday of Natural History were one and the same. As to her curious career path and Heyday's place in it, Barber has this to say:
There are whole subjects I used to know that I have since forgotten. I have a certificate that says I can do shorthand at 100 wpm – how did I acquire that? Did I bribe the examiner? I got top marks in A-level Latin – eheu fugaces, I can't translate a line of Horace now. In my brief, improbable career as a sex expert, I wrote a manual called How to Improve Your Man in Bed that was accepted at the time as an authoritative guide. How did I have the chutzpah to do it? I also spent five years researching and writing a book, The Heyday of Natural History, which involved reading all the popular natural history books of the Victorian era. Gone, all gone. I seem to have an auto-erase button in my brain that says that once I have 'done' a subject, I no longer need retain it.
Luckily, talent is the one thing she has apparently never been short on.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Stephen O. Saxe (1930-2019)

The printing historian Stephen O. Saxe died on April 27th of this year, according to a memorial notice in the New York Times today (June 16th) and a brief note from the American Printing History Association, of which he was a founder. Saxe followed an interesting career path that led him from Yale Drama School to television set design to book design at Harcourt, Brace, but it was for his activities as an amateur (in the best etymological sense of the word) that he is best known, at least among printing scholars and enthusiasts. Among his publications was the book pictured above, the definitive study of the 19th-century iron presses that were the first major revolution in printing technology after Gutenberg. (Appropriately, the book was first published in a letterpress edition by Yellow Barn Press, though a trade edition followed.)

I met Stephen Saxe once. I had written to him with a couple of questions about some research I was doing and he generously invited me — a stranger and total novice to the field — and a printmaking friend to his home in White Plains, where he spent a couple of hours showing us his printing equipment and some treasures from his library, including an extraordinary 19th-century French specimen book filled with elaborate typographical decorations. (The APHA announcement has a nice photo of Saxe at his home.) There aren't many of his kind still around.

Update: Amelia Hugill-Fontanel has written a longer appreciation for the APHA website: "Stephen O. Saxe, A Partner in Printing History, (1930–2019)."

Monday, June 10, 2019

Mistaken Identity

An incident that Julio Cortázar (a noted admirer of Verne) would no doubt have appreciated, as related by Alejandro Zambla:
I remember how at sixteen, I convinced my dad to give me the six thousand pesos that Hopscotch cost, explaining that the book was "several books, but two in particular,"* so that buying it was like buying two novels for three thousand pesos each, or even four books for fifteen hundred pesos each. I also remember the employee at the Ateneo bookshop who, when I was looking for Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, explained to me patiently, over and over, that the book was called Around the World in Eighty Days and that the author was Jules Verne, not Julio Cortázar.
"Bring Back Cortázar," from The Paris Review (online) October 17, 2018.

I can sympathize, though, with the poor bookseller, who was no doubt used to dealing with cronopios like this fellow (played by Marty Feldman):

* The phrase is borrowed from the "Table of Instructions" of Hopscotch.