A Wonder of Reading

In Borges illuminating, “premeditated” study of Kafka, we are deposited–in a fashion Borges’ owns–onto the conclusion that we discover Kafka’s qualities but only because he had written and Max had saved. Kafka’s influence on these earlier works “In other words… would not exist” if Max had obeyed the will or Kafka had not obeyed his will.

When Pontius Pilate was asked to take down the sign above Christ’s head—which read ‘King of the Jews’—he replied quod scripsi scripsi.There was no regret or elusion. But earlier Pilate had looked into the crowd and had washed his hands. Christ was neither his problem nor responsibility. It is a study of contrasts, who is the real Pilate? If he did not allow a single addition or elision then he is a man of towering certainty. If he abdicated his responsibility and washed his hands of the crowds’ decision then, dear, reader, come to the opposite conclusion.

Deciding who he is a question without an answer, but he is a door we have to pass through. He is still alive, having exhausted all infamy, and is a gift that we must accept gratefully. Because he is a gift I cannot refuse I am afraid that my suffering and joys and sufferings, not to mention my other sufferings, will be left for other pages. Other nights will carry the burden of my scribbling life. Tonight is Pontius.

It is a needless observation that Pilate should be damned for his actions but because of his actions he, indirectly, saved the world. Are the world’s sins cleansed forever and for all if Jesus is let go in favor of Barabas? I am not a theologian but Jurgen Moltmann would be a radically different thinker. Perhaps that is a modern point—efficiency and end results always provide retroactive forgiveness to inexcusable means. But I would consider it a small irony if Pilate was damned because he allowed the savior to save the world. Given the omniscience of God he is also a moral point and, thus, we are led back to my first paragraph—what moral point?

I refuse to believe that Pilate is unvarnished evil. He is not Milton’s Satan or Shakespeare’s “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature and deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up.”

What Pilate represents to us, today, is not the same moral point he has always represented. Theology always contains an autobiographical element, and an autobiography is always changing. What I see in Pilate is Kafka, but if Kafka had not written then I would have never seen him. What I see in Pilate is also an Eichmann, but if Arendt had not written then I would have never seen him.

For that I thank you, authors, and for you dear reader think of what and how figures change when you look at them through different lenses. For Borges could have, and I am sure he did, gone farther. It is not Kafka that we see in those earlier writers, though he is certainly there. It is ourselves that we see. If Zeno’s paradox against movement is reflected in Kafka’s work and Kafka’s work is reflected in Zeno’s then it is because you choose to insert Kafka’s work into Zeno’s and Zeno’s into Kafka’s. And now, as I write, I am busily inserting Borges and, for that matter, whomever you decided wrote the Gospels.

Functionally, I have become Kafka’s precursor. It is a wonder of reading. In considering Pilate I leave myself behind, for Kafka to pick up after I read him–or perhaps before.

They Have One Book

Some days I think it would be terribly romantic if I became someone of one book. Assuming I don’t succumb to my romantic dreams about being an alcoholic I’d be a grouch, but a well-loved one. I would always carry that one well-loved book with it’s tired pages. In this daydream I imagine myself like some sort of latter day Jonathan Edwards. But instead of the Bible it is Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Perhaps the Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance and you all are unbalanced chakrahs in the hands of an angry God world. Perhaps it could be some Third Wave Feminist pink handbook or Mao’s red one. The book is not as important as the habits and the accomplishments. I’d be the Robert Graves of Aztec literature. Or the Robert Graves of Robert Graves–his works can sustain and even flourish with multiple readings.

Aquinas created the aphorism ‘a man of one book,’ or so I believe. Wikipedia confirms which is almost a reassurance. What I would like, and perhaps I should store this seed away for future efforts, is a book like Robert Merton’s. But instead of tracing the phrase ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’ I trace ‘a man of one book’ used in the appropriate context. That would be scholarship of the most frivolous and fun kind.

Isaiah Berlin, in his frothy essay about Russian literature, had this to say about the phrase: “[Aquinas’s] words are generally quoted today in disparagement of the man whose mental horizons are limited to one book. Aquinas, however, meant that a man who has thoroughly mastered one good book can be dangerous as an opponent. The Greek poet Archilochus meant something like this when he said that the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The metaphor glitters. I love it. I would be the best hedgehog the world had ever known! Or so I reassure myself.

A few people have attempted to become a man of one book (how interesting is it that I have not found a woman or two to soften this list? Not very, as my ‘research’ skills are not without their blindspots but worth mentioning). Michael Dirda owned, at last count, nearly twenty books by or about E. F. Benson as well as a few by the brother Robert Benson. E. B. White carried Walden around everywhere he went. The grandmother in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time had the letters of Madame de Sevigne. Even Alexander the Great never left Asia without Homer’s tome, bejeweled with the conquests of nations.  Samuel Johnson admonished novice writers to devote themselves to Addison’s essays. There’s that well-worn anecdote that Francis Bacon always chatted about Aeschylus, almost obsessively, and his writings make him a first ballot ‘man of one book’ shoe-in. John Wesley also claimed to be a man of one book.

An interesting note: the scholarship that surrounds Wesley is, in brief, a rough mimic of the popular and academic esteem one gathered (or missed) by being a ‘man of one book.’ He was loved when he was a man of one book, the Bible, during the early scholarship but as that idea became more archaic to those who care about his reputation (or, to be honest, those who know about him at all) scholarship has changed accordingly. It’s a prime instance where there was one set of agreed on facts that were “papered over and a new set of agreed-upon facts were hurried into place.”  If I ever write a book about the phrase, I think he would be a nice pinnacle.

Perhaps I’m already someone of one book, or at least one author. I manage to throw Vidal’s name out therefrequently. But it would be another animal entirely if I peppered my posts, not to mention daily chats, with Augustine’s Confessions, or Georg Misch’s impossibly well researched History of Autobiography in Antiquity and–wait for the gasp–its two volumes. If I’m honest, and I had to commit myself to one book, I would attempt it with Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.

“That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truth and they were all beautiful.

The old man had listed hundreds of the truth in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.

And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truth that made the people grotesques.”

The most enjoyable aspect would be the great irony of becoming a character in Anderson’s book. My one truth would be the bookwarning me away from letting a single group of truths monopolize my attention.

Even still I wouldn’t mind reading one book to death. I just never have. As it is I don’t know if I’m much better than those that have. Christopher Howe, over at the Guardian, has a long list of reasons for why it’s never a problem to have too many books. Who is he trying to convince himself except for himself? When I scan my books there are not any convincing, or even defensible, reasons for why I should not read every one of the forlorn friends. This book is for a more patient me, I assure myself, than the one that woke up today. I pick up and read the back cover of another. This one I quickly put down. Poetry! I am too patient for poetry. I want the meaning to bite me in the ass. Another book is about the English—bah! Too frumpy. Another is about peasants. I have no time for the working class.

Perhaps this worrying forgets why I read in the first place. To Professor Borges his message was always that the study of literature is about appreciation, not context or theory much less romantic ideas about how my universe would revolve around some mulch and ink. “Reading should be a form of happiness.”

Eusapia, from Invisible Cities

This excerpt appears on pages 109-110 in Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, specifically Harvest/HBJ’s 1974 edition.

No city is more inclined than Eusapia to enjoy life and flee care. And to make the leap from life to death less abrupt, the inhabitants have constructed an identical copy of their city, underground. All corpses, dried in such a way that the skeleton remains sheathed in yellow skin, are carried down there, to continue their former activities. And, of these activities, it is their carefree moments that take first place: most of the corpses are seated around laden tables, or placed in dancing position, or made to play little trumpets. But all the trades and professions of the living Eusapia are also at work below ground, or at least those that the living perform with more contentment than irritation: the clockmaker, amid all the stopped clocks of his shap, places his parchment ear again an out-of-tune grandfather’s clock; a barber, with dry brush, lathers the cheekbones of an actor learning his role, studying the script with hollow sockets; a girl with a laughing skull milks the carcass of a heifer.

To be sure, many of the living want a fate after death different from their lot in life: the necropolis is crowded with big-game hunters, mezzo-sopranos, bankers, violinists, duchesses, courtesans, general–more than the living city ever contained.

The job of accompanying the dead down below and arranging them in the desired place is assigned to a confraternity of hooded brothers. No one else has access to the Eusapia of the dead and everything know about it has been learned from them.

….

They say that every time they go below they find something changed in the lower Eusapia; the dead make innovations in their city; not many, but surely the fruit of sober reflection, not passing whims. From one year to the next, they say, the Eusapia of the dead becomes unrecognizable. And the living, to keep up with them, also want to do everything that the hooded brothers tell them about the novelties of the dead. So the Eusapia of the living has taken to copying its underground copy.

They say that this has not just now begun to happen: actually it was the dead who built the upper Eusapia, in the image of their city. They say that in the twin cities there is no longer any way of knowing who is alive and who is dead.

Some More Aphorisms

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal. —T. S. Eliot

The isms go; the ist dies; art remains. —Vladimir Nabokov

Man’s world is infested by Sphinxes, demonic beings of mixed and monstrous nature which ask him riddles and eat him if he cannot answer them, compelling him to play a game of wits where the stake is his life and his only weapon is his tongue. — R. G. Collingwood

History speak truth to every age, in every time, every time. —Hannah Arendt

I tremble when I think God is just. —Thomas Jefferson

 

Remembering Books

I am surprised at how little I remember the books I read. There is only a few scraps of each that remains after I’ve devoured them, and sometimes I do not know what scrap goes with what book. For example I have iridule seared across my brain–inexplicable. Perhaps, even, inexcusable. I have no idea what it means or how it got there. It is, however, in my brain. Is there a more curious incident?

I wonder if it is because I read too much or if it is because I read too little. Perhaps my mind is not equipped for remembering all the small, minute and titillating peculiarities that I collect through my endless travels. If that is the case then I cannot help but notice that I share something similar with the Family Sciuridae. I have a romp through a book, and then at its conclusion I declare–like Milton’s Satan–that even if I do not remember, exactly, every carefully tended paragraph I still enjoyed myself. “What though the field be lost?”

The conversations I have with people, alive and in person, spare me this sort of introspection. I can neither remember what I had for breakfast–though a nearby plate confirms that it was several blueberry muffins–or what the conversation was like. I have a vague feeling of either well-contemplated execution or the lack thereof. But beyond a general feeling I cannot think of a tangible thing to say. I do not care. I console myself, ‘such is life!’ If I had a photographic memory then, of course, life would be different but I do not so it is not. But then I look over to the books I have read, boughten and–I hazily recall–enjoyed. If I had to stop and think I cannot seem to gather more than a dozen facts about them. How peculiar!

Take my last post, for instance. That definition of literature, I am now sure, was not my own. It must have come from somewhere. But from where? My mind immediately drifts through my library. It drifted towards some of the pieces of literary criticism, especially the frothier specimens, I’ve consumed over the last few years. Was it in Gore Vidal? T. S. Eliot? Michael Dirda? I quietly and quickly scanned through a few books. I have a habit of underlining the best lines. I am a squirrel, always collecting, with little or no reason. It’s actually quite bizarre.

What is more bizarre is that as I flipped through the pages more and more came back to me. Here, underlined, is one of my favorite quotes from Jonathan Swift: “But not to digress farther in the midst of a digression, as I have known some authors to enclose digressions in one another, like a nest of boxes.” A digression digressing on the unpropitious use of digressions! Now located within a digression of my own making! I am sure I am not the first to think of this bemusing and amusing bit of smug diversion. But, please, bear with me dear reader.

I think my problem comes from a disease, one that is closely related to the one identified by Merton and labeled ‘insanabile scribendi cacoethes. In plain English, the itch to publish. My ailment, since I hardly publish and if then only on this blog, is the itch to read. I must read. It’s almost an obsession and must be, I believe, labeled appropriately. It is a disease. Suspend your disbelief! If only for a moment. Se non e vero, e molto ben trovato — if it is not true, it is very well invented. You must allow me that much.

My choice of reading material is not always defensible. I am sure there are people out there who find my bookshelves pretentious, a waste of time or an unpleasant mix of both. My comments follow a similar trajectory. Swift quipped that “Good God, what a genius I had when I wrote that book.” I feel something similar, but when I read these little nuts that I have burrowed away inside the pages of these books. Some of my notes are informative. They have grown into trees of knowledge–yes, I am straining this metaphor to the breaking point. Some are entertaining. Some are great. Quite a few are trivial, useless and ultimately dismissible. Yet if there were only gems how I would ever distinguish the good from the bad? Contrast is key.

To get back to my original point I have found where that little, nugget of inspiration was for my attempt to elicit a chuckle–or, at least, a grimace–from you, dear reader. It is found within, of all things, the (new) introduction by Mary Russell to A Canticle For Leibowitz (Eos Paperback Ed. 2006). The first page no less! What are the chances that of the books that I picked up, randomly, from my bookshelf the one that I turn to has it? If there is any need for proof of a disturbingly sentient subconscious, I think I have it. I can only wonder how many other, small tidbits and large ideas–or, at least, a few of the former–have I been accidentally borrowing from other authors? How many authors out there have committed preemptive plagiarism on me–to pull from Merton’s OTSOG?

I doubt I will ever know and for that I can only thank whatever higher power exists in the world. Ignorance, sometimes, is bliss. But, if nothing else, then at least trying and failing mightily in the world of reading is better than a life of bare economic necessity. G. K. Chesterton once wrote that since cows may be purely economic it is “why a history of cows in twelve volumes would not be very lively reading.” If there is a ever going to be a book about myself, or at least about people like myself–precious, precocious and smugly self-satisfied residents of the United States–at least it will make for some lively reading.