On Eggshells

~ The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald ~

Grandparents and grandchildren share a special bond: they have a common enemy. I read that in a Joseph Epstein essay once. It’s a joke, of course, but perhaps there’s something to it. For all our parents’ good points (and my own parents had – and have – many), as children we inevitably live in the shadow of their failings; part of becoming adults in our own right is growing in grace enough to see beyond their faults. With our grandparents, however, we stand outside the shadow from the start, and grace comes cheaply. Family relationships can get complicated, I know, but this happy dynamic still seems to obtain more often than not.

I’m thankful to have known my grandparents well and to have been the grandchild of men and women of their era. Born in the 1920s, they were raised in the Great Depression and came of age just in time for the Second World War. They and their contemporaries faced down unequivocal threats to civilization in the form of economic collapse and the bloodiest conflict the world has ever known. The horrors that passed before the eyes of their generation might easily have taught them to despair, but it taught them gratitude instead – at least in the case of my own grandparents.

Betty MacDonald published The Egg and I in 1945, near the end of the war. It’s a smartly written and very funny memoir of life as a young wife on a rustic chicken farm on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Her book topped the best seller list for ages and made her famous. Two years later a film version starring Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert was released. This was the book – and the film – that introduced the world to Ma and Pa Kettle, the sometimes appalling but comically loveable denizens of the American backwoods.

I don’t know if my grandparents ever read The Egg and I (or MacDonald’s equally hilarious follow-up The Plague and I, about her year in a tuberculosis sanatorium), but I can imagine them enjoying it. MacDonald’s prose is crisp and intelligent. Her humor is biting when turned on others (though not without an undertone of affection); it’s also self-deprecatory. Some of today’s readers find her snobbish and bigoted, and perhaps she was those things, a bit. So what? Each generation has its blind spots (our own no less than hers) and MacDonald’s readers in 1945 had earned a little grace. We still owe it to them. Laughter covers a multitude of sins.

The Double Life

Sometimes I wonder how the two halves of myself fit together, or if they do. While my hobbies aren’t entirely incompatible, they’re not a natural pair. But calling them “hobbies” isn’t enough. Interests? Pursuits? Obsessions? Each aspires to become something like a way of life but I’m forced to hold them at arm’s length from one another, in awkward tension. I refer to my two great loves: books and mountains.

Nothing thrills me more than getting up before dawn to spend a day hiking in the mountains – unless it’s cracking open Moby Dick. And nothing beats the elation of finishing a Tolstoy novel – unless it’s summiting breathlessly above timber line with a view of glaciers. But the mountain climber in me doesn’t entirely approve of the bookworm, while the bookworm stares uncomprehendingly at the mountaineer.

I’ve been double like this since I was a teenager, and I’ve known others who were split in the same way. One of my college professors – sinewy and compact, with a bushy moustache and thick glasses – would lecture Friday on Boethius or Chrétien de Troyes and on Saturday (rain or snow or sun) lead us up some nameless crag in the Alpine Lakes or Teanaway regions of Washington State. I don’t recall that we ever discussed the complementarity – or otherwise – of our activities.

Neither precludes, but neither really encourages or supports, the other. And there is no bridging the gap in the form of wilderness or mountaineering literature. On the mountain there is only the here and now of the mountain. Reading a book, there is only the then and there of the story. One might enjoy Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (it would be hard not to enjoy it), but reading it will be nothing at all like climbing Mir Samir for yourself.

Reading is an inward pursuit. When we read we silence our senses and turn away from the world around us, even from our own bodies. Climbing a mountain, we are – as much as it is possible for us to be – all body, all senses. Perhaps an intense or sustained indulgence of the inward self evokes an acute need to express the outward self (and vice versa), just to keep balance. Each ends, for me at least, as a form of joy.

None of us is really of a piece, of course. We’re double, triple, many; formed from apparent incompatibilities that somehow cohere together under the banner of our birth certificate. If there’s a deeper synthesis (and I think there must be) it’s more than most of us can discover for ourselves, though sometimes, I think, we catch little hints.

Salad Days

The Edgewater Beach Hotel Salad Book (1926)

When out walking my dog I sometimes stop at the “little library” kiosks that dot the neighborhood, where passersby are encouraged to take a book home with them, or leave one they imagine others might like to read. There must be a dozen of these within five blocks of my house. It all sounds very literate but most of these boxes are unfortunately stuffed with nothing more promising than political screeds, fashionable children’s books, and self-help literature.

Occasionally, however, you do find something interesting. Once, for example, I picked up a Loeb Library edition of Galen’s medical treatises; another time I found a hardcover Selected Works of Sacheverell Sitwell. Last week the dog and I came home through a cold rain with smiles on our faces and I said to my wife, “Guess what we found at the little library today?” “Oh no,” she said (thinking, probably, of the other still-unread orphans I’ve adopted this way). She brightened up considerably when I pulled from under my coat an oversized, attractively bound 1926 volume titled The Edgewater Beach Hotel Salad Book.

A few minutes of online research informs me that from 1916 to 1967 the Edgewater Beach Hotel stood on the Lake Michigan shoreline in Chicago and served clientele like Charlie Chaplin, Bette Davis, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and two U.S. presidents (FDR and Eisenhower). It also hosted the bands of Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw. Some of these celebrities, surely, must have eaten salads like those described by Arnold Shircliffe, the Edgewater’s official caterer, who wrote the book in question.

By my count Shircliffe provides recipes for more than six hundred salads (with names like “Ali Baba,” “Chiaroscuro,” “Frou-Frou,” “Half Chinese Mango,” and “Tomato Robespierre”) and more than a hundred varieties of dressing. There are a dozen or so colorized plates, like the one shown above, to sex things up. But the best thing about the book is Shircliffe himself, who was a sort of autodidact Salad Scholar and Philosopher of Greens. His introduction, annotations, and appendices are great fun.

“In the early times physicians were operative cooks,” he writes, “and epicures went to the same professor for physic and food; a culinary recipe was often a remedial prescription.” Shircliffe is deep in the history and literature of the salad (who knew?) but leans most heavily on John Evelyn’s Acetaria, or A Discourse on Salats (1699), from which he quotes approvingly on the lettuce plant:

“It is indeed of nature more cold and moist than the rest; yet less astringent and so harmless that it may be safely eaten raw in fever, for it allays heat, brindles choler, extinguishes thirst, excites appetite, kindly nourishes and above all represses vapours, conciliates sleep, mitigates pain, besides the effect that it has on the morals.”

For all its ancient pedigree, however, it is only in America, according to Shircliffe, that the salad has been perfected, mostly through the influence of The American Woman. Reading the passage that follows, I get the feeling I used to experience when eating lemon drop candies at the movies or after smiling too hard for too long:

“American women have made the salad an American institution. Their luncheons, especially, have been built around the salad. The salad is feminine, and the daintiness, the artistic arrangement of the salad truly calls for the feminine touch to make it what it should be. The salad has been the thinking woman’s luncheon, the university girl’s dessert, the boarding school girl’s love, and there is nothing that I know of that will cheer the fagging spirits and put joy into a girl’s heart quicker than for her to take one look at an epicurean delicacy in the form of a beautiful salad… Some one said ‘Vanity, thy name is woman.’ I shall add, ‘Lady, thy name is Salad.’”

Of course, Shircliffe would be the first to admit – to insist – that salads are proper fare not only for women. Caterer to the great and glamorous, he is a man’s man and no dandy. Here, in closing and to illustrate his masculine yet bookish credentials, is Shircliffe’s recipe for a salad he created in honor of Samuel Johnson. Send me your review if you test it; personally, I’ll pass.

The Johnson or Philosopher’s Salad
Lettuce, celery, pear, sauerkraut, bran

“On a bed of lettuce place a mixture of equal quantities of diced celery, canned pear, chopped sauerkraut and Kellogg’s bran. Mix one part sour cream to three parts Thousand Island dressing and add to ingredients just enough dressing to bind. Pass Thousand Island dressing at table. All ingredients must be thoroughly chilled.

“I name this salad Johnson, because the great philosopher said: ‘If he were to write a cook book it would be on philosophic lines.’ This salad has a reason for its existence, i.e.: the kraut is very beneficial in stomach troubles; the bran is noted for its action on the lower intestines, helping peristaltic action; the celery for roughage, as well as mineral content; the pear for flavor; the oil for lubricant, and sour cream for the bacilli it contains.

“This salad can be served in a whole scooped out, ripe, chilled tomato, adding certain mineral compounds as well as adding attractiveness to the dish. This salad has a nutty, pleasing flavor.”

Ship of Fools

A couple weeks ago I stopped reading the news. I shut down most of my social media accounts and removed distracting apps from my cell phone. If the phone itself weren’t a job requirement, I might find some fun way of smashing it. I assume the “world” (by which I mean everyone’s collective outrage about everything at any given moment) is getting on fine without me. Not that it was ever getting along so well with me, of course.

I’m sorry to say that my change of habits has not made me a better person. In fact, the symptoms of withdrawal I’m experiencing only prove what a silly, stupid creature I am. Like an aging lab rat evicted from the maze, I pathetically nose around in search of familiar walls. With nothing else to click, I find myself checking the weather radar on my phone every half hour, but there’s nothing gratifyingly scandalous about rain in the Pacific Northwest.

I remember a bumper sticker I once saw that read: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” There are some convoluted mental gymnastics in that sentence but on its face it seems to recommend we pay more attention in order to be more outraged, which is a strange ambition. I say, if the things you’re paying attention to leave you in a constant state of outrage, perhaps you ought to pay attention to something else.

Toward that end I recently picked up a used copy of The Complete Sister Wendy on DVD. If you don’t remember her, Sister Wendy Beckett was a British nun who did a series of art history television programs for the BBC in the 1990s. She speaks with a lisp, has a weak chin and buck teeth, and wears a huge pair of glasses, but she’s wonderful.

Sister Wendy’s enthusiasm for the cave paintings of Lascaux and the masters of the Italian Renaissance is catching, but I’m particularly fond of the Dutch and Flemish tradition. In the second episode of The Story of Painting she discusses Hieronymus Bosch’s Ship of Fools. In the book that accompanies the series, she writes:

“Eccentric and secret genius that he was, Bosch not only moved the heart, but scandalized it into full awareness. The sinister and monstrous things that he brought forth are the hidden creatures of our inward self-love: he externalizes the ugliness within, and so his misshapen demons have an effect beyond curiosity. We feel a hateful kinship with them. The Ship of Fools is not about other people. It is about us.”

In other words, good luck escaping outrage; we bring it along with us. The scandals of others often serve only to distract us from the scandals of self. Or put it another way: As I’ve learned over the past two weeks, you can pluck the rat from the maze and the fool from the ship, but he’s still a rat, still a fool.

The Well-Boiled Icicle

I flatter myself that I do have a sense of humor, but it seems my sense of it is not widely shared. I can get a laugh now and then in company but more often I find myself laughing when others don’t, or not laughing when they do. Perhaps it clears things up to say that, to my mind, the three-legged stool of perfect comedy is supported by puns, non-sequiturs, and spoonerisms. In other words, my sense of humor is what a more discerning humorist might see as a moral failure.

Spoonerisms especially delight me. Some of the classic examples are hard to beat. For instance, there’s “blushing crow” (for “crushing blow”), “well-boiled icicle” (for “well-oiled bicycle”), and the Psalmic mis-assurance that “The Lord is a shoving leopard” (rather than a “loving shepherd.”) I was flipping through a Paul Auster novel at a bookshop when I came across the observation that, in the hands of Dr Spooner, a “grilled cheeseburger” becomes a “chilled greaseburger,” which made me laugh out loud, and still does.

According to my own taxonomy, spoonerisms come in several varieties. Most of the examples above fall into the Double Spoonerism category: that is, they’re two-word phrases with an English sense to them both prior to and after the patented spoonerizing process, which adds an extra tang to the comic result. I’m especially fond of double spoonerisms. Over the course of many long car rides thick with boredom, my wife and kids have graciously helped me to compile a list of them. A few of our better finds include:

Junk mail / monk jail
Coffee table / toffee cable
Bob sled / slob bed
Wizard gore / gizzard war
Poor sport / spore port
Delayed reaction / relayed deaction 
Green leaf / lean grief
Green mouse / mean grouse
Beer mug / mere bug
Relish habit / hellish rabbit
Back yard / yak bard
Creepy sleeper / sleepy creeper

You’ll note that several of these rely upon pronunciation rather than spelling, which suggests a distinction between Spoonerisms of the Ear and Spoonerisms of the Eye – but let’s not “harse pears” (parse hairs) over it.

“Harsing pears” is an example of what I call a Nonsense Spoonerism, which occurs when the originally sensical phrase converts to a nonsense phrase which is nevertheless (at least in better cases) productive of hilarity. You might find another example when you spew milk and cereal over the breakfast table on discovering that you’re eating a bowl of “Pooty Frebbles” rather than Fruity Pebbles.

Internal Spoonerisms are tricky but seldom amusing. They occur when you reverse syllables within a single word and so end up with a word or phrase quite alien to the original sense. A “factory,” for example, becomes an “actor fee,” while a “caterpillar” becomes a murderous “pater killer.”

Loose Spoonerisms are those that rely on a slight rudging of the fools (“fudging of the rules,” sorry) or a change of pronunciation (usually a vowel) to come off successfully. In an example of the former, the Capitol Steps comedy troupe once made a “Resident Pagan” of President Reagan; while in the latter case, a “serious fire,” if started by one of his clumsy progeny, might result in a “furious sire.”

Finally we come to what I call Spooner Action at a Distance: that is, spoonerisms with supplementary words or phrases stuck between the two main words. These also fall into Nonsense or Double varieties. So, to borrow a couple examples from everyone’s dear friends at Wikipedia, you may find someone at church “occupewing your pie” (occupying your pew); or, while attending a wedding in Mongolia, you may drunkenly ask whether it is “kisstumary to cuss” (customary to kiss) the bride.

My kids and I have discovered a number of winning Doubles in the At a Distance category. Nooks and crannies, for example may hide “crooks and nannies,” while something carried in a basket may end up “buried in a casket,” and that nursery song about suspicious baked goods may start with a pocket full of rye but change to something altogether more inspiring when it becomes a “rocket full of pie.”

None of this may float your boat, of course, and that’s fine. De gustibus non est disputandum and all that. I may find in Dr Spooner’s namesake phenomenon a fathomless mine of comedy gold but you needn’t “wake my turd” for it. As every pale Dickensian waif haunting the London riverside will tell you, one man’s bright and shiny is another’s “shite and briny.”

A Single Bookshelf

All my life I’ve loved books, but often I wish I had fewer of them. They overflow the shelves at home and march in stacks of “read” and “unread” across the floor in the little room I use as an office. Twice each year – before “the COVID” anyway – I used to pack a box of them to sell downtown, but this year I’m reading more than ever and selling none at all.

I imagine a sequestered life – in a mountain cabin or a bolthole near the sea – where I’m planted for the rest of my days with nothing to do but tend to my own comfort, walk in the afternoons, and read by the fire. It’s a small, snug place, with only a mantelshelf for books – a minimal library. But which books to stock it with? This is my version of the old desert island game.

My selections have changed over the years, which is only natural, but I want books that make good company, reward re-reading, and give pleasure. Limiting myself to twenty (but allowing for single works in multiple volumes), many of my books are standard fare for such lists, some are idiosyncratic choices, a few are aspirational: longer works I’ve read in part but put off finishing until a time of life when I can properly savor them. To begin, then:

  • The King James Bible (with Apocrypha)
  • Complete Shakespeare
  • Milton’s Paradise Lost

Nothing surprising there, I think, though not everyone has a taste for Milton. It’s important your Bible includes the Apocrypha (which King James’s scholars also translated); otherwise you’ll miss out on The Book of Wisdom, the tale of Susanna and the Elders, and the only biblical mention of a pet dog in The Book of Tobit. Next:

  • Selected Dialogues of Plato (to include at a minimum the Apology, Phaedo, Republic, Symposium, and Timaeus)
  • Virgil’s Aeneid (probably in the Dryden translation)

No Homer? No Aristotle? It might have been fun to include Diogenes Laertius at least, but no, I don’t have the shelf space.

  • Montaigne’s Essays (probably the Donald Frame translation)
  • Boswell’s Life of Johnson
  • Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy
  • Collected works of Sir Thomas Browne

I suspect I’ll spend a lot of time with these volumes. Finally I’ll finish the Burton and read Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica. Up next, the novels:

  • War and Peace (in the Constance Garnett translation)
  • Don Quixote
  • Moby Dick
  • Bleak House
  • Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (the Moncrief/Kilmartin translation)

I’ve boiled all of Russian literature down to War and Peace here, but it was no easy call. I had to include Bleak House because I can’t do without some Dickens and it’s my favorite of his novels. I could almost swap out the Cervantes for a Complete Sherlock Holmes (my mind’s not entirely made up). The Proust falls into the aspirational category, since I’ve never made it past The Guermantes Way.

  • Arabian Nights (the complete Richard Burton translation)
  • Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend

An odd pairing, maybe. My edition of Burton’s The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night includes all his notes and the terminal essay, which are, to me, a big part of the pleasure of reading it. The Golden Legend is a medieval collection of saints’ lives, absolutely sincere and full of wonderful stories.

  • Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
  • Francis Parkman’s History of France and England in North America
  • Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

That’s all the history I’ve allowed myself. Is Parkman’s multi-volume magnum opus an odd choice? I find there’s nearly as much pleasure in his prose as in Gibbon’s, and the story he tells (though radically different in setting) is just as full of astonishment, variety, and fascination. The Rebecca West is part travelogue, part history; it’s also an aspirational selection, since I’ve never read beyond the first half of it. That brings us to nineteen books. My final selection:

  • The Oxford Book of Aphorisms (edited by John Gross)

Really, it’s an overlooked masterpiece. John Gross’s careful selection of aphorisms focuses on the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. It’s a deep well of wisdom, irony, and moral observation. Call it a “bedside book” to my face; I dare you.

Der Alte Fritz

~ Frederick the Great by Nancy Mitford ~

It wasn’t at all clear that Frederick would turn out so great. As a boy and a young man he was not what most would consider alpha male material. He was artsy and effeminate and a bit of a disappointment. He famously attempted to run away from home where, along with the rest of his family, he was practically imprisoned by his troll of a father, Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg and King of Prussia.

What a father! Frederick William had a policy of kidnapping seven-foot-tall men from all over Europe and forcibly enrolling them in his Regiment of Giants. Not that they were great fighters – they weren’t; he just liked to collect giants. Frederick William also liked beating people with his cane, once nearly killing his son and heir. His chief joy in life seems to have been tormenting his bosom friend Grundling during their nightly drinking bouts, once toppling him out a tower window onto a frozen moat and once setting him on fire for laughs.

Somehow young Frederick survived to adulthood. When his father died and he was made king at age twenty-eight, Frederick went straight to work. The work of an eighteenth-century monarch in central Europe was first and foremost war – which it turns out Frederick had an unexpected gift for. He took advantage of political uncertainties in the Empire to wrest Silesia from Maria Theresa in a shockingly efficient manner. Then, after a brief lull during which he met old J.S. Bach and introduced various land and legal reforms, Frederick was swept up with much of the Western world into what became known as The Seven Years War.

That’s when Frederick really earned his “Great” but it’s also where Nancy Mitford’s biography gets a little dull. While she excels at drawing portraits of eccentric characters and does well with Frederick’s long, tempestuous friendship with Voltaire, she’s no good at describing battles. Still, reading through the long list of engagements and the terrible death counts from all sides, I bristle. Habsburgs, Bourbons, Hanoverians, and Hohenzollerns amounted to something like one big extended family of scheming nobles playing a game of chess over the continent. How preposterous that a million should die so Frederick can keep Silesia and Maria Theresa be humbled.

But they loved him, Old Fritz. His soldiers loved him (those who survived) and so, by Mitford’s account, did his people, though great numbers of them must have lost sons and husbands in his wars. We can hardly blame the monarchs then but must conclude there is some black corner in the heart of man where Death is worshipped under the name of Glory. All it would take for such wars to come stillborn into history is a simple refusal to take part by those who would do the fighting, but it never happens that way. Twenty years after Frederick’s death, Napoleon would doff his hat in homage at the tomb of the great soldier.

Be Lowly Wise

The biggest pyrotechnics of Paradise Lost come in Books I and II, while Books IV and IX have the most pathos. That’s why these are the parts of Milton’s epic assigned to students in English Lit survey courses, where the reading is prefaced by that throwaway line from Blake about Milton being secretly of the devil’s party (since Satan is the most interesting character in the poem). But on rereading Paradise Lost for the first time in twenty-five years, I most enjoyed the long conversations Adam has with the archangels Raphael and Gabriel. Here the best of Milton’s philosophy comes out, countering his supposed infernal sympathies.

Too bad Milton was a heretic. He ought to have been a Catholic (as, of course, I think all Christians should be, even bishops and popes), but he was pretty clearly an anti-Trinitarian. Bad theology aside, however, Milton knew bad philosophy when he saw it. You might say that in Paradise Lost it’s the seduction of bad philosophy – in the form of Pride – that leads to Satan’s rebellion, the transgression of Adam and Eve, and all the death and suffering in the world. The first hint of the theme comes in Book II when, not long after being cast into the flaming abyss, the demon philosophers debate their situation:

Others apart sat on a hill retired,
In thoughts more elevate, and reasoned high
Of providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate,
Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandering mazes lost.
Of good and evil much they argued then,
Of happiness and final misery,
Passion and apathy, and glory and shame,
Vain wisdom all, and false philosophy:
Yet with a pleasing sorcery could charm
Pain for a while or anguish, and excite
Fallacious hope…

Meanwhile Milton’s Satan, scoping out the freshly made Earth for means of spoiling it, discovers you can take the devil out of hell but cannot take hell out of the devil:

Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.

This brings to mind the Stoic notion that we set the conditions for our own misery or happiness. “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” says Hamlet. But Milton’s Satan cannot think himself into anything other than what he has become. A nearer match, perhaps, comes from one of Seneca’s letters: “What good does it do you to go overseas, to move from city to city? If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you need is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.” Satan’s totalizing pride – the philosophical proposition that makes the self the measure of all things – permanently imprints hell upon him.

Philosophy is, in the classical sense and rather counter to its academic use, the love of wisdom that bears fruit in a life well lived. But because we humans are a certain kind of thing, a creature of specific limited faculties and not of unbounded intellect, there is a particular kind of wisdom suited to us, and other “wisdoms,” perhaps, that are wildly unsuited to us. Be careful, therefore, which wisdoms you pursue, lest you graft yourself onto a philosophy at odds with your nature and so become – like Satan – a sort of flailing monster without place. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, in this respect, is pride in action. Beyond our proper scope it is wasted or distorting. As Raphael says to Adam in Book VII:

But knowledge is as food, and needs no less
Her temperance over appetite, to know
In measure what the mind may well contain,
Oppresses else with surfeit, and soon turns
Wisdom to folly, as nourishment to wind.

It’s hard not to smile at that last line: unsuitable knowledge converted to intellectual farts. Though first in place of honor on Earth and within the concentric spheres of stars and planets to the very frontier of God’s heaven, Adam’s state is still humble. He is formed of earth (humus) and the wisdom proper to him lies in earthiness, humility. Warning Adam of the tempter lurking on the bounds of Paradise, Raphael recommends practical knowledge as that which most accords with his nature:

[H]eaven is for thee too high
To know what passes there; be lowly wise:
Think only what concerns thee and thy being…

Grateful for the natural curiosity given him by his creator, Adam nevertheless acknowledges the mazes into which intellectual intemperance might lead him:

But apt the mind or fancy is to rove
Unchecked, and of her roving is no end;
Till warned, or by experience taught, she learn,
That not to know at large of things remote
From use, obscure and subtle, but to know
That which before us lies in daily life,
Is the prime wisdom, what is more, is fume
Or emptiness, or fond impertinence,
And renders us in things that most concern
Unpracticed, unprepared, and still to seek.

Anticipation, however, is no preventative and of course Eve falls prey to the lure of Pride, the promise of more than merely human wisdom, and Adam follows her into their joint fall from grace. You know the story, but Milton’s telling really is sublime. After the intoxication and debauchery into which sin leads them, Adam and Eve wake in self-horror. Created nature revolts around them. They blame God, then blame each other, then blame themselves, and spend a miserable interlude debating the whys and wherefores of it all on their own version of that diabolical philosopher’s hill.

But where the Genesis account rushes through the expulsion from Eden, Milton lingers. Gabriel is sent to counsel our first parents before shutting them out of Paradise. The archangel describes all that is to come upon mankind – a long litany of hubris, error, violence, disease, suffering, and death. Adam despairs and laments until the grand theme of redemption begins to assert itself in Gabriel’s story. When the whole arc of Christian salvation is laid out before him, Adam takes hope, recovering the philosophy of humility and praising God for the divine inversion that will bring good from evil, best from worst, life from death:

Henceforth I learn, that to obey is best,
And love with fear the only God, to walk
As in his presence, ever to observe
His providence, and on him sole depend
Merciful over all his works, with good
Still overcoming evil, and by small
Accomplishing great things, by things deemed weak
Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise
By simply meek…

The path of lowly wisdom lies open still, and he is ready to walk it. Gabriel blesses his intention and, inverting the image of Satan’s portable hell, he says:

[T]hen wilt thou not be loth
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess
A paradise within thee, happier far.

The Real Size of Things

“I’m slow with a new idea and want to think it over alone, where I’m sure it’s the idea and not the man that’s getting me. And there’s another thing I’ve always noticed, that arguments sound a lot different indoors and outdoors. There’s a kind of insanity that comes from being between walls and under a roof. You’re too cooped up, and don’t get a chance to test ideas against the real size of things. That’s true about day and night too; night’s like a room; it makes the little things in your head too important. A man’s not clearheaded at night.”

That’s Walter Van Tilburg Clark in The Ox-bow Incident. I feel the same way. Though I’m hardly a stoic cow-puncher or what you might call the “strong, silent type,” I’m suspicious of people with too much to say and I take my time digesting new ideas and impressions. The best way to make up your mind, in my experience, is to get out in the fresh air, walk around a bit, let it simmer for a couple days. Sometimes it helps to write down my thoughts, but then I risk arguing myself into something my inner censor balks at; no reason given, it just doesn’t feel right. Best, I think, to set yourself the problem and then ignore it for a while. The answer just comes. And whatever you do, don’t engage with any serious questions after dark.