Sunday, August 16, 2009

`It Does Not Detain Us'

As kids we called it the fruit cellar, probably because our mother stored canned peaches on the shelves in that corner of the basement. Before our family moved in 54 years ago, it served as the coal cellar. A hinged steel door on the side of the house was opened when the coal-and-ice man made his delivery. The room was dirty, damp and wreathed with cobwebs. It smelled musty, and magazines and newspapers stored there spawned mildew. It was creepy and intriguing, especially when I discovered my father hid his stash of Playboys and other men's magazines under the refuse.

My brother stores some of his book overflow on the shelves that once held Ball jars. Among them I found paperbacks that were mine 40 years ago, some with earlier incarnations of my signature. Here is the Signet Classic edition of Dead Souls in the MacAndrew translation (a novel I'm rereading in the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation); the Anchor edition of Selected Letters of Rilke (price: $1.45); the Dell edition of The Anarchists, edited by Irving L. Horowitz; and the Evergreen Black Cat edition of Revolution in a Revolution by Che Guevara's one-time protege Regis Debray.

Fortunately, we have continuity with our younger selves (Gogol, Rilke) as well as radical disconnection (anarchism, Debray). One unmixed with the other would imply a disturbing stasis or fluidity, respectively, in one's personality. I remember the kid attracted to radical politics in the late nineteen-sixties, but I'm glad he has evaporated. He, too, is a part of me. I prefer to claim the book-hungry teenager falling in love with Russian fiction and German poetry. His is the path I chose to follow (though more Russian than German). Thoreau had the gift of viewing his life as evolutionary. In his journal for Jan. 5, 1860, he writes that

“...a man receives only what he is ready to receive, whether physically or intellectually or morally....We hear and apprehend only what we already half know. If there is something which does not concern me, which is out of my line, which by experience or genius my attention is not drawn to, however novel and remarkable it may be, if it is spoken, we hear it not, if it is written we read it not, or if we read it, it does not detain us. Every man thus tracks himself through life, in all his hearing and reading and observation and travelling.”

In, say, 1969, the year I turned 17, I'd like to think I already half knew which path to follow and which to scorn: “If we read it, it does not detain us.”

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