Monday, November 19, 2018

'And Made Himself a Jest to the Bystander'

Global-warming true believers and other enthusiasts of Big Ideas were satisfyingly disposed of more than two centuries ago by William Cowper:

“Discoverers of truth are generally sober, modest, and humble; and if their discoveries are less valued by mankind than they deserve to be, can bear the disappointment with patience and equality of temper. But hasty reasoners and confident asserters are generally wedded to an hypothesis, and transported with joy at their fancied acquisitions, are impatient under contradiction, and grow wild at the thoughts of a refutation.”

Cowper is writing a letter to his friend the Rev. John Newton on this date, Nov. 19, in 1781. His context has nothing to do with politicized science. Rather, it’s a more obscure crackpot theory propounded by Martin Madan (1726-1790) in Thelyphthora, or A Treatise on Female Ruin (1780). In short, though a staunch Methodist, Madan was advocating polygamy. Cowper, his first cousin, published an anonymous refutation, “Anti-Thelyphthora.” In his wonderful 2005 novel about Cowper, The Winner of Sorrow, Bryan Lynch touches on this controversy. Cowper almost pities Madan: “Never was an air-built castle more completely demolished than his is likely to be.”

Once they have fabricated or adopted a hypothesis, people will defend it against logical argument and all contradictory evidence. The truth value of what they believe becomes less important than vilifying dissenters. Dogma must be defended. Cowper writes:

“Surely the poor lunatic who uses his blanket for a robe, and imagines that a few straws stuck whimsically through his hair are a royal diadem, is not more to be pitied, perhaps less, than the profound reasoner who turns over shelves of folios with infinite industry and toil, and at the end of all his labour finds that he has grasped a shadow, and made himself a jest to the bystander.”

Sunday, November 18, 2018

'Time, That Sedulous Artist'

I don’t have a problem. I can stop any time I want. Sometimes I get lucky and I’d be a fool to pass up such a deal. On Saturday, for instance, I visited Kaboom Books. I enjoy chatting with John Dillman, the owner. We talked about cats, Edward Hoagland, Africa and blindness. John claims to dislike cats but a fat tabby, a neighborhood nomad, was asleep on his counter.

I made the rounds of his shop, scouting for the usual suspects – Chekhov, Sisson, Ford, Montale, Epstein, Stead, Mandelstam, Santayana, Liebling, Yourcenar, Davenport. I found a first edition of Liebling’s Mink and Red Herring, but it’s priced at $70 and I already have a hardcover reprint. On a bottom shelf I spied Me Again: Uncollected Writing of Stevie Smith (1981). Sure, I’ve read it before, and this copy is beat-up and brown, but Smith is irresistible, and for five bucks it’s a steal. Some find Smith too cloyingly cute. I find her brave, funny and wise when it comes to her favorite subject, death. Penelope Fitzgerald agreed when she reviewed the posthumously published volume in 1981:

“Eccentricity can go very well with sincerity, and, in Stevie’s case, with shrewdness. She calculated the effect of her collection of queer hats and sticks, her face ‘pale as sand’, pale as her white stockings, and also, I think, of her apparent obsession with death.”

More gold: Mainly on the Air, a Max Beerbohm collection, mostly of radio talks, first published in 1946. This is the enlarged edition from 1957, hardcover, for twelve dollars. Facing the title page is a photo by Cecil Beaton of a still dapper Beerbohm. Judging from the “Gelato” sign in the background, he’s sitting on a wall in Rapallo. The volume concludes with a lecture Beerbohm delivered in 1943 on the odious man and writer Lytton Strachey, whom he knew and about whom he has reservations. The piece is filled with splendid passages:

“It takes all kinds to make a world, or even to make a national literature. Even for spirits less fastidious than Strachey’s, there is, even at the best of times, a great charm in the past. Time, that sedulous artist, has been at work on it, electing and rejecting with great tact. The past is a work of art, free from irrelevancies and loose ends. There are, for our vision, comparatively few people in it, and all of them are interesting people. The dullards have all disappeared—all but those whose dullness was so pronounced as to be in itself for us an amusing virtue. And in the past there is so blessedly nothing for us to worry about. Everything is settled. There’s nothing to be done about it—nothing but to contemplate it and blandly form theories about this or that aspect of it.”

How could I resist? I can stop any time I want.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

'One of Those Time-Warped Bunkers That's All Dark Wood and Bile'

In the last twenty-four hours I’ve succumbed to temptation and ordered four books from three online dealers, one in Indiana, another in Ohio and, of course, Amazon. In a week or so I expect two titles by Charles Gullans to be arriving from the Midwest – Arrivals & Departures (1962) and Letter from Los Angeles (1990). Landing even sooner in my mailbox will be Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp (2018) by J√≥zef Czapski and the latest by Max Hastings, Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975. There’s no theme expressed here except one reader’s wayward tastes. I’m grateful for the availability, ease of purchase, reasonable pricing and speed of delivery but plagued by a guilty sense of nostalgia. My mental model for buying books is still closer to what Orwell describes in “Bookshop Memories” (1936) than to my computer and a credit card.

Several essay contributors to Henry Hitchings’ Browse: The World in Bookshops (2016) share my conflicted sense of paradise lost. Second-hand bookstores are where I learned the value and thrill of serendipity. Enter with a reasonably open mind and a suppressed sense of expectation and leave, perhaps, with treasure. Most of my schooling was conducted in downtown Cleveland. Get off the bus at Public Square and enter Schroeder’s in the 1893 Cuyahoga Building. On sale were magazines and new paperbacks, including a good stock of Random House Vintage Books. That’s where I first bought The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. Schroeder’s closed in 1979 after seventy-one years, and the building was torn down in 1982 to make way for the BP American Building, which Jacobs would have hated.

Next stop, after visiting the main Cleveland Public Library on Superior Avenue, was Kay’s Books on Prospect at East 6th. This was heaven, three floors of bookish clutter housed in a former Chinese restaurant. Thirteen years ago I wrote about Kay’s, where I worked in 1975, and that post still attracts the occasional comment from a former patron or employee. I have dreams set in Kay’s, usually in the damp basement, and mourn the bargains I resisted for financial reasons. Like the other clerks I worked six days a week and cleared less than $100 after taxes. That’s where I first bought and read Mark Smith’s The Death of the Detective (1974), a novel I recall with guilty pleasure.      

After Kay’s came Publix Books, a classier joint all together, opened by Bob and Ann Levine in 1936. The books I recall buying there bring a blush of shame to my cheeks – Emerson’s journals and novels by John Hawkes and Michel Butor. The mood was hushed and the prices were pretty steep for a high school/college student, but the Levines gave off an old-fashioned sense of respect for learning and books, and Bob usually wore a bowtie.

I’ve read Hitchings’ two books devoted to Dr. Johnson, and trust that he’s a legitimate bookman. He opens his introduction to Browse with a series of vignettes of bookshop memories. One, from 2004, is especially amusing and describes an exchange with a clerk in a shop on Charing Cross Road – “One of those time-warped bunkers that’s all dark wood and bile.” On sale is a sixth edition of Johnson’s Dictionary, published a year after his death. Hitchings asks its price and the clerk tells him he couldn’t afford it. “And then he says,” Hitchings writes, “that my big overcoat makes me look like a shoplifter and I’d better shove off or he’ll call the police.” That’s the personal touch I miss.

Friday, November 16, 2018

'But First and Foremost, He was Human'

Some years ago I was seeing a Syrian-born cardiologist whose parents were still in Damascus as the country’s civil war was warming up. In this context, “civil war” is a journalistic euphemism for industrial-scale slaughter. I’d never met a doctor quite like him. Seemingly unconcerned with the pressure of waiting patients, he sat across from me in the examination room and talked, and only briefly about my coronary concerns. We started with his country’s fate, Bashar al-Assad and the Ba’ath Party. At some point I mentioned the allusion in Othello to Aleppo, which is when I learned my doctor was a serious amateur Shakespearean. He regularly attended productions of the plays and – this is the part that impressed me – periodically rereads them. We swapped tags and lingered on Macbeth, the briefest of the tragedies and second-bloodiest of the plays. Less than a year later he moved to another hospital, outside my insurance plan, and I haven’t seen him since and have no idea what has happened to his parents. I thought of him again while reading Theodore Dalrymple’s “A Letter to an Aspiring Doctor”:

“A doctor should be an educated man in a broader sense than just medicine, albeit that, with so much to learn and keep up with, this is increasingly difficult. You should read at least a little philosophy, some of the history of medicine, and as much literature as possible. If there is one author I would recommend to you, it is Chekhov, himself a doctor. He managed to reconcile tolerance, understanding, humor, compassion, anger at injustice, and maintenance of high personal moral standards without permitting any of them to distort his character.”

With a few edits, Dalrymple (Dr. Anthony Daniels) could be writing to and about any of us, doctors or otherwise. He is working in the Johnsonian moral tradition:

“Whatever your inner state of turmoil when confronted by the immense showcase of human folly or unpleasantness, you must retain your outer equanimity, which does not come naturally and at first will take a mental toll on you. But habit will become character, and eventually you will learn to accept people as they are—even if they don’t deserve it.”

Dalrymple’s citing of Chekhov is fitting. If writers were to have a patron saint, I would nominate the Russian physician. The other contender for the title was also a doctor dead too young from tuberculosis: John Keats. Included in Memories of Chekhov (trans., ed. Peter Sekirin, McFarland and Co., 2011) is a remembrance of Chekhov by Odessa-born Dr. Grigory Rossolimo, who met Chekhov at Moscow University in 1879, when both were first-year medical students and Chekhov was already writing stories. Rossolimo writes: “After his graduation from medical school, he did not quit medicine, but worked as a country doctor. He treated his patients with great care and softness; he was a doctor, but first and foremost, he was human.”

Thursday, November 15, 2018

'The Promise of One, and the First Fruits'

“Books of common-place are the amusements of literature.”
A quaint notion today, I suppose. How many readers are sufficiently moved by a passage in the book they are reading to transcribe it for future use or “amusement”? Starting in high school I kept a commonplace book in a large double-entry accounting ledger. Into it I pasted articles and columns clipped from newspapers and magazines, and copied quotations from books that struck me as interesting, amusing or memorable. I wish I had kept it but I’ve always travelled light and tend to discard such things. It would constitute a piece of legitimate autobiography, of interest to me and no one else. At the time, I had no idea what a commonplace book was, and to this day I usually read with pen in hand.

The quotation above is the first sentence in the preface to a curious old volume, The American Common-place Book of Prose, edited by the Rev. G.B. (George Barrell) Cheever (1807-1890) and published in 1828 by Russell, Shattuck and Co. of Boston. Cheever was a theologian, pastor of the Church of the Puritans in New York City and a well-known abolitionist. I borrowed the first edition from the Fondren Library, and I’m surprised they keep it in the circulating collection. The leather cover is attached to what remains of the spine by two leather straps, and the entire book is kept in a folding box of stiff paper and Velcro. Bits of leather and paper flake off as I turn the pages. The front endpaper is inscribed in pencil by Alex Lamm or Samm, and the sub-title is A Collection of Eloquent and Interesting Extracts from the Writings of American Authors. The book last circulated in 1952. Cheever continues in his preface:

“It is pleasant to have at one’s side a well-selected volume, to which he may turn for mental recreation, when the fatigue of preceding exertion has rendered him unequal to intellectual effort. It is pleasant, also, to have before us the eloquent passages of our favourite authors, so that we may occasionally awaken and prolong the delightful sensations with which we at first perused them.”

Keep in mind the publication date, 1828, before Twain, Melville and Dickinson. Irving and Cooper were in print and are included by Cheever. Hawthorne published Fanshawe anonymously that year. Abraham Lincoln was guiding a flatboat down the Mississippi. The American publishing event of the year was Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language. Except for the Founding Fathers, few of the writers included by Cheever are familiar to me. Most of the selections, though written by Americans, could have been composed by their English contemporaries. Except for an emphasis on liberty and self-government, a distinctly American voice is rarely heard. Cheever prints an anonymous piece published in the American Quarterly Review which he titles “Neglect of Foreign Literature in America.” Our literary taste, the author says, is parochial, “not sufficiently expansive.” What follows is a prose poem in celebration of “rejoic[ing] in every exhibition of genius.” Near the end he takes an Emersonian detour:

“We cannot as yet be said to have a national literature; but we already have the promise of one, and the first fruits. As the literary character of the country is developed, it should resemble our political institutions in liberality, and welcome excellence from every quarter of the world.”

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

'He Would Set His Hands to His Sides and Laugh Most Profusely'

For three years I wrote a weekly column for a newspaper in upstate New York, in addition to working as a features writer and occasional jazz and book critic. I borrowed the column’s title from Joyce: “Here Comes Everybody.” The point was to write only about people who were not and would never be newsworthy. In the condescending phrases heard in editorial meetings, “the little people,” “human interest.” I wrote about a guy who played musical saw, collectors of sand and leper-colony money, and a busking, out-of-work jazz drummer who performed on the sidewalk in front of city hall. My motive was reverse-snobbery. I didn’t want to write about the mayor or captains of industry, politics or business. That stuff always bored me, so I resolved to balance our coverage.

When hard up for a story, I would visit one of the locks along the Mohawk River, now part of the Barge Canal, a remnant of the original Erie Canal opened in 1825. I would watch pleasure craft raised and lowered in the locks, some from as far away as Florida. The process took long enough that I could carry on conversations with the captain and passengers. The locks were also favored by fishermen, who proved reliably thoughtful, contemplative and rowdy, confirming Ishmael’s observation in “Loomings,” the first chapter in Moby-Dick: “Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.” (The first American edition of Melville’s book was published on this date, Nov. 14, in 1851.)

These memories returned when I came across a passage from A Register and Chronicle Ecclesiastical and Civil by White Kennet (1660-1728), who is writing of Robert Burton and his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621):

“The author is said to have labored long in the Writing of this Book to suppress his own Melancholy, and yet did but improve it . . . . In an interval of vapours he could be extremely pleasant, and raise laughter in any Company. Yet I have heard that nothing at last could make him laugh, but going down to the Bridge-foot in Oxford, and hearing the bargemen scold and storm and swear at one another, at which he would set his Hands to his sides and laugh most profusely. Yet in his college and chamber so mute and mopish that he was suspected to be felo de se.”

Literally, the Latin translates as “felon of himself” and refers to a suicide. In early English common law, a person who kills himself is a criminal. John Aubrey in his Brief Lives wrote of Burton: “Memorandum. Mr. Robert Hooke of Gresham College told me that he lay in the chamber in Christ Church that was Mr. Burton's, of whom 'tis whispered that, non obstante all his astrologie and his booke of Melanchollie, he ended his dayes in that chamber by hanging him selfe.” Though charming, as Aubrey often is, he’s wrong. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

“There was a rumour that he hanged himself in order to conform with his own astrological calculations about his date of death, but this was a story told about other astrologers, and had it been true he would not have been buried in the cathedral at all.”

Knowing that he laughed at the salty talk of Elizabethan bargemen confirms my love of Burton and The Anatomy of Melancholy. Paraphrasing Pliny, Burton observed: “Our whole course of life is but matter of laughter.”

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

'You May Extract Honey from Everything'

On Monday I looked at x-rays of myself from the lumbar region north and saw for the first time the effects of scoliosis, stenosis and osteoarthritis. My spine bends to the east like a snake (I thought of Pope’s "a wounded snake [that] drags its slow length along" in Essay on Criticism), and the discs and vertebrae are alternately black and white and resemble three octaves on the keyboard, with a few keys missing. No surgery, for the moment. Steroid shots, anti-inflammatory medication and swimming therapy. I’m fortunate, but any encounter with health-care professionals leaves me discouraged. I go numb.

Afterward, I needed a pep talk and Charles Lamb came to the rescue. On this date, Nov. 13, in 1798, he writes to his friend Robert Lloyd: “You said that ‘this World to you seemed drain’d of all its sweets!’ At first I had hoped you only meant to insinuate the high price of Sugar! but I am afraid you meant more.” Lamb, a morale officer of genius, is just getting warmed up:

“O Robert, I don’t know what you call sweet. Honey and the honeycomb, roses and violets, are yet in the earth. The sun and the moon yet reign in Heaven, and the lesser lights keep up their pretty twinklings. Meats and drinks, sweet sights and sweet smells, a country walk, spring and autumn, follies and repentance, quarrels and reconcilements, have all a sweetness by turns. Good humour and good nature, friends at home that love you, and friends abroad that miss you, you possess all these things, and more innumerable, and these are all sweet things.”

I’ll append the prose of Ford Madox Ford, a good job, seeing my sons again at Thanksgiving and Christmas, Lester Young’s Kansas City sessions, a wife who is starting to understand me, coffee first thing in the morning and the verse of John Dryden. Lamb adds: “You may extract honey from everything; do not go a gathering after gall.”