Saturday, March 28, 2009

`What a Good Job for Me'

I was assigned to work for less than three hours on Friday and wasn’t expecting a break, so I didn’t bring a book to school. Given a gratuitous 30 minutes to kill, I poured a cup of coffee in the staff room and searched the shelves for something to read other than the obligatory copies of Sports Illustrated and O. Pickings were slim but I found Jack the Bum and the Haunted House (1977) by Janet Schulman, with illustrations by James Stevenson, longtime cartoonist and illustrator for The New Yorker. The title says it all. Jack, with the help of some kids, finds a place to live in a haunted house. He ends up a hero by catching a jewel thief who hides his loot in the house. The wealthy owner offers Jack a job as watchman in the century-old house, which he plans to turn into a museum. Jack responds:

“`Who says I want a job? I am a bum.’”

The owner coaxes him, leading to this exchange:

“`All you have to do is be yourself.’”

“Jack grinned. `What a good job for me – at least for a while,’ he said.”

Now I work with kids, and I’ve almost always worked as some kind of writer, so, like Jack, all I’ve had to do (most of the time) is be myself. I’ve been fortunate. Some jobs are too awful to contemplate, and I’ve avoided most of them. I endorse Jack’s shrewd caveat: “`What a good job for me – at least for a while.’” On Thursday night I reread the introduction Guy Davenport wrote for the North Point Press edition of Montaigne’s Travel Journal, collected in Every Force Evolves a Form. Two sentences glowed with significance. First, this:

“In his ability to convey a sense of place with a few deft details (a topiary garden, an historical site, local anecdotes) Montaigne can be compared to Bashō, whose Journey to the Far North is the ideal form of all journeys of passionate pilgrims to shrines and to places which they have already visited in their imagination.”

Anyone who notes the similarities between Montaigne and Matsuo Bashō is a reader who deserves attention and respect. Davenport sent me back to the 17th-century poet’s prose and his frog haiku. When I came home from work on Friday I found Frank Wilson had linked to a story in the National Geographic about Bashō in which Howard Brown writes: “Basho has become many things to many people—bohemian sage, outsider artist, consummate wayfarer [“Jack the Bum”], beatific saint, and above all a poet for the ages.” Note, too, the ravishing autumn photo accompanying Brown’s story.

Here’s the second sentence I noted in Davenport’s essay:

“We all lead a moral inner life of the spirit, on which religion, philosophy, and tacit opinion have many claims. To reflect on this inner life rationally is a skill no longer taught, though successful introspection, if it can make us at peace with ourselves, is sanity itself. The surest teachers of such reflection, certainly the wittiest and most forgiving, are Plutarch and Montaigne.”

1 comment:

S. said...

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