The truth was, the maid (extremely concerned for the reputation of her own cleanliness and her young master's honour) had scoured the shield as clean as her andirons.
Down stairs in an instant hurried all the gossips, where they found the doctor in a trance. Hungary water, hartshorn and the confused noise of shrill voices, at length awakened him; when opening his eyes, he saw the shield in the hands of the housemaid. "O Woman! Woman! (he cry'd, and snatched it violently from her) was it to thy ignorance that this Relick owes its ruin? Where, where is the beautiful crust that cover'd thee so long? Where those Traces of Time, and Fingers as it were of Antiquity? Where all those beautiful obscurities, the cause of much delightful disputation, where doubt and curiosity went hand in hand, and eternally exercised the speculations of the learned? All this the rude touch of an ignorant woman hath done away! The curious prominence at the belly of the figure, which some taking for the cuspis of a sword, denominated a Roman Soldier; others accounting the insignia Virilia pronounced to be one of the Deii Termini, behold she has cleaned it in like shameful sort and shown to be the head of a nail, O my Shield! My Shield! Well may I say with Horace, non bene relicta Parmula!"
The Scribler's Club (Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Richard Arbuthnot, John Gay, Thomas Parnell and one of the Earls of Oxford) predated Dr. Johnson's circle of friends by a few decades, and the Algonquin Round Table by a few centuries. Whenever I read about those old literary clubs, I miss the days when I used to hang out on a Usenet group with a few dozen very smart people who discoursed on every subject of the day. As far as I know, we never published a joint work, although some members went on to be published authors in their own right, while the rest of us became professors, lawyers, lexicographers, scientists, performers and other brainy professionals.
That was less than 20 years ago, and a lot of what we said is already dated. So is much more of the Algonquins, Johnson's club, and most of all the Scriblers. Few people other than historical and literary academics have any idea what a Scribler is, and the "biting, innovative satire" of the 90 pages of Memoirs needs 200 pages of notes and commentary to explain the point of the work. And when it takes longer to explain the joke than to tell it, you have an uphill battle.
Imagine that you and I and some of our clever blogger friends worked together on a wickedly funny set of mini biographies, in the style of Plutarch, of fictional characters who were thinly disguised caricatures of the 2012 Republican candidates for President, complete with references to pizza, corn dogs, frothy mixtures, and failing to remember the third thing in a series. Then fast forward to five or ten years from now, when all of them except maybe the one who got the nomination and lost the election is pretty much reduced to trivia question status (who here remembers who competed with Bob Dole to get the GOP nomination in 1996, or with Kerry for the 2004 Dem nomination? Exactly. Me neither). Then fast-forward three hundred years to an era when the chapter titled "Ron Paul's Drag Race" will need a footnote to explain who Ron Paul was, who Ru Paul was, and that there was once a TV show about a drag race, and so it was a good funny pun at the time. Ditto for "The Nuts Who Say NEWT!"
And that's the problem with reading the Scriblers Club today. Unless you really really dig 18th century Britain, you don't know anything about the various writers, ministers, educational methods, medical standards, battles between partisans of ancient and modern music, etc., that get "brilliantly skewered" here. The first half of "Martinus Scriblerus"'s memoirs consists of chapters on the various "silly" ways in which Martinus is educated or miseducated by his father, using the silly ideas championed by some dude long since forgotten. The second half shows Martinus using what he's learned, with scholarly, dusty hijinks ensuing. Like Swift's Tale of a Tub (Bookpost, December 2010), it has literary and historical value, but as a satire, it's not what I would call fun.
The Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durrell
But what stamps the carnival with its spirit of pure mischief is the velvet domino—conferring upon its wearers the disguise which each man in his secret heart desires above all. To become anonymous in an anonymous crowd, revealing neither sex nor relationship nor even facial expression—for the mask of this demented friar’s habit leaves only two eyes, glowing like the eyes of a Moslem woman or a bear. Nothing else to distinguish one by; the thick folds of the blackness conceal even the contours of the body. Everyone becomes hipless, breastless, faceless. And concealed beneath the carnival habit (like a criminal desire in the heart, a temptation impossible to resist, an impulse which seems preordained) lie the germs of something: of a freedom which man has seldom dared to imagine for himself. One feels free in this disguise to do whatever one likes without prohibition. All the best murders in the city, all the most tragic cases of mistaken identity, are the fruit of the yearly carnival; while most love affairs begin or end during these three days and nights during which we are delivered from the thrall of personalit, from the bondage of ourselves. Once inside that velvet cape and hood, and wife loses husband, husband wife, lover the beloved. The air becomes crisp with the saltpetre of feuds and follies, the fury of battles, of agonizing, night-long searches, of despairs. You cannot tell whether you are dancing with a man or a woman. The dark tides of Eros, which demand full secrecy if they are to overflow the human soul, burst out during carnival like something long damned up and raise the forms of strange primeval creatures—the perversions which are, I suppose, the psyche’s ailment—in forms which you would think belonged to the Brocken or to Eblis. Now hidden satyr and maenad can rediscover each other and unite. Yes, who can help but love carnival when in it all debts are paid, all crimes expiated or committed, all illicit desires sated—without guilt or premeditation, without the penalties which conscience or society exact?
When I was a kid, I went on a trip to England not too long after the huge celebration of America’s Bicentennial and discovered that England was celebrating the 800th anniversary of (I forget what. The building of the Tower of London or something. What happened in 1178?), and felt a bit humble. Now imagine a 20th century Brit, proud of a millenium or so of heritage, visiting the city that once held the Library of Alexandria, and you begin to get a feel for the four short novels that make up The Alexandria Quartet. The perspective shifts between ten or so major characters, several of them Europeans suffering culture shock, but the city itself is the main protagonist.
Various things happen, but because of dreamy metaphorical writing style and unreliable narrators, it’s a bit hard to tell what. The main purpose of the book is rich language, character and atmosphere, and the capturing of a key moment in history (right before and during WWII) in the context of lots and lots of earlier history. The Europeans are obsessed with Mussolini and Hitler, while the Egyptians, even though they have no greater lifespan than the rest, act with stoical acceptance, as though they are privy to the secrets of history by virtue of their ancient heritage. Except that the Coptic Egyptians are very much interested in helping Zionist Jews in Palestine. These footnotes to history never fail to astonish me.
And the people have a lot of sex. Early on, their activity is described in flowery prose; later on, it becomes more coarse.
In the first book of the quartet, Justine, a professorial sort of narrator has an affair with the title character, who is married to another man. In the second book, Balthazar, the same narrator, having already written the first book, discovers that he’s been bullshitting himself the whole time and that most of what he wrote is wrong. The third book is told from the perspective of Mountolive, a British diplomat, and becomes political while revealing bullshit in the narratives of both previous books, and the final chapter, Clea, takes place after the war and tries but fails to wrap the whole thing up in an enigma. It’s sensual, sonorous and gives the impression of a dream, if that makes any sense. I enjoyed it, but was very confused.
Underworld, by Don DeLillo
”I heard a story not long ago,” he said. “They did a bomb test in the nineteen-fifties in which a hundred pigs were dressed in custom made GI field jackets and positioned at well-spaced intervals from the blast site. One hundred and eleven, to be exact, pigs, as the story was told to me. Then they exploded the device. Then they examined the uniforms on the barbecued pigs to evaluate the thermal qualities of the material. Because this was the point of the test.”
Janet didn’t respond because whatever the point of the test, and whatever the point of the story, it was only making her mad.
“Picture it. Chester whites. A breed of large fat hog with drooping ears. Wearing khaki uniforms with zippers, seams, everything, and with drawstrings drawn because that’s how the regulation reads. And a voice on the loudspeaker’s going, Ten, nine, eight, seven.”
She told him to get his arm inside the jeep.
“Is this when history turned to fiction?” he said.
They lost me with the very first line on the inside of the book flap: Our lives, our half century, followed by a history of ourselves. I knew what that meant. It meant yet another celebration of how every American who has ever been born was a preteen playing stickball in Brooklyn and going to malt shops in the 1950s; a hippie or a Vietnam veteran in the 1960s; a twentysomething hedonist in the 1970s; got serious about their jobs in the 1980s; and made a fortune in the dot-com boom of the 1990s, every last one of us.
Of course, for my particular generation, it isn’t a book about “us”; it’s a book about “them”, the plague of locusts that preceded “us” every step of our lives, destroying everything just when we were getting ready to use it. The people who made movies in which children were Satan right when I was born; who gave America AIDS right when I was getting interested in the opposite sex; who elected Ronald Reagan President during my youth and will never admit having voted for him; who gave America a big fat recession right when I got out of college; and who peaked the economy the day I had some spare income to invest. Right now, they’re enjoying America’s going-out-of-business sale, looking for bargains to play with and waste among the things i’ll need 20 years from now. I can time to the day the moment when Social Security will be abolished. It will be the day Don DeLillo’s “us” stops using it and the rest of us need what we’ve already paid into it.
Don DeLillo spends over 800 pages inviting me to wank with him about a supposedly shared heritage that began years before I was born and continued when I was too young to experience it the way “we” did. It begins by reminiscing about a historic baseball game played in New York in 1951, a game I had never heard of before I picked up Underworld, but which was apparently attended by every Baby Boomer in New York, seventeen years before every one of them went to Woodstock.. We then fast forward to the 1990s, and then work backwards in time, because playing tricks with time is what Big Important Authors do. We reminisce about J. Edgar Hoover’s kinky paranoia, about Mick Jagger and Lenny Bruce, and about episodes of The Honeymooners, first as reruns, and later in the book, as original episodes. People have extramarital affairs, because that’s what “we” do, and they obsess about nostalgic moments from the past, because boy oh boy is that EVER what “we” do. In fact, “we” do this so often that everyone born too early or too late to have actually experienced these moments at the same age as “we” did, is forced to go along for the ride. The central plot device is the baseball that may or may not be the very ball that hit the winning home run back in 1951 during the game I never heard of but which has shaped the character of all of “us”.
Underworld is a pun. It does with the word “underworld” what Pynchon did with rockets in Gravity’s Rainbow (Bookpost, October 2010), only more ham handedly. My best guess is that DeLillo once read something about toxic waste being buried underground, and had a mental connection between that and the old fallout shelters in which people once went “underground” (get it?) to hide from toxic waste above ground. And because “underworld” can also mean Hades, or mobsters, he stuck in references to mythology, and to 50s-era mobsters, and wanked about it for 800 pages. In the same vein, one could write a book called Circle Jerk, emphasizing the circular glasses in which 50s-era soda shop employees served sodas; disc shaped weights loaded onto barbells by Olympic weightlifters; the more offensive characters who squabbled over the One Ring; and sliced round vegetables cooked Jamaican style. Oh, and a sex orgy in the 60s. Because “we” all did that. Presto. Great American novel.
If you were born not long after World War II and feel nostalgic about it, Underworld may be for you. For the rest of “them”, not so much.
The History of Rome, by Livy
Verginius replied, "This man--Appius Claudius--is not as other men; he alone can claim no share in the beneficence of law; he alone has no part in the mutual compact of civilized men. Turn your eyes to the tribunal where he sat, like a murderous brigand in his stronghold. Remember him there--a self-appointed tyrant in perpetuity, robbing, beating, killing, threatening us all with his bloody rods and axes, attended, in his contempt for God and man, by the twelve executioners he calls his lictors, and turning at last from rapine and murder to the lust which drove him, before the eyes of the Roman people, to tear a freeborn girl from her father's arms and give her to his pimp, like a helpless prisoner of war! From that tribunal, he pronounced the savage decree--the judgment of unspeakable baseness--which armed a father's hand against his daughter, and ordered to gaol her lover and her uncle even as they were lifting her body from which life had scarcely flown--and why? In anger for her death? No indeed, but in rage for the loss of his own pleasure! Appius, the prison which you called in savage jest the working man's home, was built for you as well as for him; appeal as often as you will, and I, as often, challenge you to prove before a referee that you did not give custody of a free citizen to a person who claimed her as his slave. If you refuse to do this, I shall take it as a verdict against you and order you to prison."
You may have noticed, last year I read and re-read a whole lot of Ancient Greek classics, from Homer to Hippocrates to Plato and Aristotle. This year it’s Ancient Rome’s turn, and what better place to begin than Livy’s account of Rome, which doesn’t even get to the Punic Wars, but begins with Aeneas and Romulus, into the days when Rome was one city ruled by kings, the first part of the Roman Republic, and ending with Camillus and the occupation of Rome by Gauls.
It’s well written history, but not spectacular. When I think of Roman history, I’m thinking of Caesar, Antony and Augustus, Tiberius through Nero, the five “good” emperors, maybe farther back than that to the Gracchi, to Hannibal. None of that is in here. Instead, we get a look at how shockingly vulnerable Rome was at its founding. Instead of having wars way out on the frontiers, on the Rhine, in Britain and Persia, we’re pretty much limited to the Italian Peninsula and Syracuse. With the city of Rome perpetually besieged by neighboring Italian city-states: the Etruscans, the Sabines, the Latins, the Volscians, the Veii. By the time the Republic is beginning to get onto its unsteady feet as a major power, a horde of barbarians descends on the city from up north and sacks it. Doesn’t that wait until a few centuries later, after Rome has conquered the western world and declined into decadence? We’ll find out later in the year, I trust.
Livy isn’t much compared to the Greek master historians Herodotus and Thucydides, but he is essential to the understanding of how it all began, and is moderately recommended as an introduction to the study of one of a great era in history.
Chinese Shadows, by Simon Leys
One should avoid leftism, neither should one fall into rightism (sometimes, as in the case of Lin Piao, leftism is a rightist error), but between those two pitfalls, the cadre will seek in vain for a "middle way"--this being a feudal/Confucian notion. Since the right, the left and the center are equally fraught with danger, the cadre may be tempted to shut his eyes and follow the successive and contradictory instructions of the Great Leader without a murmur. Another error! "To obey blindly" is a poisonous error invented by Liu Shao-ch'i in pursuit of his unmentionable project of capitalist restoration. In such a situation, the downcast and fearful cadre has his courage renewed by daring new watchwords: one must dare to "swim against the current"; "not be a fraid of being in the minority"; "not be afraid of disgrace, even of exclusion from the party." However, before jumping in the water to swim against the current, the cadre cannot but recall that "the current of history is irresistible" and the Communist party that embodies it is "grandiose and infallible." His resolve weakens; then he is reminded that "rebellion is legitimate." Ready to act now, he gets another cold shower: "In all circumstances, strict Party discipline should be maintained." Whom to believe? "Truth is quite often the position of the minority." This helps, but its value is reduced by another basic axiom: "the minority must always submit to the decisions of the majority." Should decisions be taken by a vote? Not at all, since "respect for majority voting is a bourgeois superstition.
In the “China” section of Our Oriental heritage (Bookpost, December 2011), written in 1939, Will Durant does a lot of waxing prophetic about how the centuries-dormant, insulated civilization of China is about to wake up and discover western-style aggression just as the western world discovers eastern-style mysticism and passivity (which, in fact, the western world discovered as long ago as Alexander, Helioglabolus, and Marco Polo), with dire consequences for the west. At the time, Chinese civilization was in a shambles, broke, colonized, invaded, the ancient traditions scrapped with not much to take its place. Today people argue over whether Durant was right and the Chinese will inevitably own the globe, or whether a repressive, information-hiding dictatorship could possibly be a match for free societies where information is shared and the populace is universally literate. As I write this, the western world is in the process of making the issue moot by sinking to China’s level.
This book is a snapshot of China in 1972, midway between WWII China and modern China. The Cultural Revolution is past and Teng Xiao Ping is yet to come. Leys travels through China, and like just about every fiction or nonfiction book written since Mao about westerners traveling through China, the most prominent topic of discussion is the obsequious, passive-aggressive tour guide who is eager to accommodate the tourist’s every wish and very much regrets being unable to deviate from the set potemkin tour in any way. If you wish to sit in on a class at a Chinese University, so sorry, the class just ended. And so forth. Neither Leys nor any other Occidental ever gets to see the “real” China, although at one’s request, hundreds of happy, attractive workers will be paraded before one to cheerfully say how wonderfully the people of their city are treated by the Great Leader. Hence the “shadows” of the title.
China as seen by Leys is a paradox wrapped up in an enigma and gilded by lies. The bureaucracy makes an American reader rejoice at the comparative efficiency and wonderful service provided by the American DMV and IRS The wise peasant copes with all by adopting a stoicism and completely hiding her inner self from all view, while the wise tourist does best to take an air of detached bemusement.
An understanding of China is vital to understanding the world today; however, Leys’ thesis is that China cannot be completely understood by outsiders, because we are not given the necessary information. If this was true in the 1970s, I cannot say whether it is still true; I haven’t been there. This book draws a picture of China as a very intriguing place I would never want to visit, much less live there.
Arctic Dreams, by Barry Lopez
Because you have seen something doesn’t mean you can explain it. Differing interpretations will always abound, even when good minds come to bear. The kernel of indisputable information is a dot in space; interpretations grow out of the desire to make this point a line, to give it direction. The directions in which it can be sent, the uses to which it can be put by a culturally, professionally, and geographically diverse society are almost without limit. The possibilities make good scientists chary. In a region like the Arctic, tense with a hunger for wealth, with fears of plunder, interpretation can quickly get beyond a scientist’s control. When asked to assess the meaning of a biological event—What were those animals doing out there? Where do they belong?—they hedge. They are sometimes reluctant to elaborate on what they saw, because they cannot say what it means, and they are suspicious of those who say they know. Some even distrust the motives behind the questions.
I learned about the Arctic tundra from television and so I grew up with an idea of it as consisting entirely of icebergs and glaciers, or perhaps the kind of frozen, utterly unpopulated snowy wasteland described by Huntsford in The Last Place On Earth (Bookpost, November 2011) about Antarctica.
Oregon’s own Barry Lopez is here to set us straight. His naturalist’s eye view of Alaska, Canada, and the waters to the north, is a thing of beauty. He has chapters about musk oxen, caribou, walruses, migratory birds, bears and especially these guys:
The first half of the book is biology; the second half is history. First of the general philosophical state of mind evoked by all that ice and light (I really want to see the Church painting of the icebergs now), then of the indigenous populations, then of the great exploratory voyages made in the area through history, with an epilogue on the coming of industry and the changes for better and for worse. One part history, one part science, one part travel guide. If it has a flaw, it is that I read it in January, and nearly hypothermiated myself. This is a book to be read in the summer, outdoors, with ice cubes in your drink that resemble icebergs. Highly recommended.