Hock and Soda-Water

I tried and failed to read Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End. I made it through Some Do Not…, which is the first of its four installments and an awfully awkward title. It’s hard to divorce Benedict Cumberbatch’s doughy face from the character of Christopher Tietjens, thanks to the BBC adaptation, but what really did me in was Ford’s dislike of straightforward chronology. I want a story that moves from A to B to C to D; Ford prefers to begin with D and then bounce around between A, B and C (not necessarily in that order) on his way back to D again.

I hate to admit defeat, since Parade’s End comes recommended by someone who has led me to so many other wonderful books, but the truth is that I may not be a sophisticated enough reader for these early twentieth-century moderns.

It wasn’t a wholly unfruitful experience, however. Tietjens claims that the only poetry he ever reads is Lord Byron. It’s not true, really, since Tietjens corrects others when they misquote lines from any number of poets. But the reference led me to pull down the old hardcover of Don Juan that I got cheap at a used bookshop a few years ago with the idea that someday – someday – I might actually read it. That’s what I’m doing now.

What an outrageous performance! With every comic, bawdy, snarky, adventuresome stanza I feel my 2020 anxieties washing away. Don Juan is like – what? Not quite like anything I can think of, but you might shelve it near Tristram Shandy, The Three Musketeers, Tom Jones, Gargantua and Pantagruel, and The Golden Ass.

Byron came to my aid just the other day. On our neighborhood’s NextDoor message board someone outed the young veteran owner of a local liquor store as a Trump supporter, with a screenshot from the man’s Facebook profile to prove it. Since the man was a Trump supporter he was therefore racist and sexist and anti-science and just a terrible and dangerous person in general – so the poster wrote – and we should all boycott his business and destroy his livelihood. The woke hordes of Portland jumped into action, pledging one after another to never again spend a dollar at the shop of such a monster.

I made the mistake of coming to the small business owner’s defense. You’re all free to shop where you like, I wrote, but the political dog-pile and general tone of the thread was ugly and created a toxic atmosphere in the neighborhood. We need not shun people for their politics (else, I added inwardly, I’d have to shun all of you) and I didn’t think the man had done or said anything to place himself beyond the bounds of tolerance. To judge by the responses I got, you’d think I had put in a kind word for Adolf Hitler. I was clearly a moral monster too, an apologist for people who would starve brown children in steel cages and inject them with bleach. Or so they said.

What was I to do? In an impulse of bibliomancy, I opened Don Juan and read the following:

Man, being reasonable, must get drunk;
  The best of life is but intoxication:
Glory, the grape, love, gold, in these are sunk
  The hopes of all men, and of every nation;
Without their sap how branchless were the trunk
  Of life’s strange tree, so fruitful on occasion!
But to return, – Get very drunk; and when
You wake with headache, you shall see what then.

Obedient to the oracle’s voice, I went out of my way that afternoon to visit the liquor store in question and buy some whiskey (rye and Irish) that I didn’t need, just to spite those bastards on NextDoor and put some money in the pocket of the neighborhood “Nazi.” If I did not, in fact, get drunk, well, it’s only my native spirit of moderation that held me back.

But the next stanza helped me understand the service Lord Byron had done me in that moment:

Ring for your valet – bid him quickly bring
  Some hock and soda-water, then you’ll know
A pleasure worthy Xerxes the great king;
  For not the blest sherbet, sublimed with snow,
Nor the first sparkle of the desert spring,
  Nor Burgundy in all its sunset glow,
After long travel, ennui, love, or slaughter,
Vie with that draught of hock and soda-water.

Ah, yes, that’s it. Byron, you see, is himself the valet. And that’s just what Don Juan is like: hock and soda-water delivered to you on a silver platter in bed the morning of a bad hangover.

What Ails Us

~ The Dragons of Expectation by Robert Conquest ~

There’s something wrong with us humans, individually and collectively. We all know it. Religion acknowledges it, and philosophy too. History demonstrates it and personal experience proves it. No one is untouched by the contagion, regardless of race, creed, or nationality.

How did we get so badly wrong? Were we cursed by the gods? Did the grand abstraction “society” ruin us? Can we blame our parents? Or is it a matter of irrevocable nature that we come into the world self-serving, given to passions, often to violence? (And yet, if that’s the case – if the behaviors and thoughts we blame in ourselves and others are merely natural to us – then how is it we’ve come to find them objectionable in the first place?)

You might phrase the question for political philosophy this way: Can the beast be cured or merely caged? Liberal democratic societies have generally opted for the cage, seeking to prevent the beast from doing more harm than is unavoidable in a free society. Twentieth century totalitarianisms (socialist/communist and to some degree fascist) proposed cures of one sort or another, and tried to impose those cures at the cost of tens of millions of lives. You could say they blamed the cage for the nature of the beast; in freeing it they only allowed it to grow as beastly as it could possibly become.

It’s this kind of quasi-utopian folly in its various permutations that Robert Conquest surveys in The Dragons of Expectation. While some aspects of the book have aged out of relevance since it was published (Conquest was still basking in the West’s triumph in the Cold War), it would still make a good primer for today’s would-be social reformers and rioter-revolutionaries. Championing the old pluralistic liberal values that have so quickly become unfashionable, Conquest mercilessly pummels “the delusion that [all] problems are susceptible, in principle, to being solved by political decision.”

“Each time a solution imposed by force has, after all, failed to improve matters, it is thought that the fault is merely that insufficient power has been put behind it,” Conquest writes. “If one more refractory social group is liquidated, if party discipline is tightened and all shirkers and compromisers adequately dealt with, then next time all will be well. We should have learned by now from these unfortunate ‘social experiments’ that there are problems that cannot be dealt with even by the maximum application of political power.”

But apparently we haven’t learned that lesson yet. And we probably won’t. Or if we do, we’ll be standing ankle-deep in blood when we’ve got it down, and then the next generation will forget it again – because forgetfulness, too, is a part of what ails us.

We’re All Smokers Now

My wife and I are smokers now. My kids are smokers. The dog is a smoker. Our three chickens, who live outdoors, are heavy smokers, and so are the squirrels and crows. Even the trees and grass and garden plants are smokers now, I guess.

We’d hoped for a shift in the weather to push the wildfire smoke out of the area, but no such luck. So much carbon was released from the conflagration of our exceptionally dense woodlands in such a short space of time that now the smoke is creating its own weather pattern, a smothering atmospheric inversion where cold air sits near the ground, holding smoke in place and generating fog, while a fresher layer of sun-warmed clouds glides by above that. It’s like a localized nuclear winter.

On the plus side, we’re alive and safely housed and the air indoors is tolerable with constant filtering through the furnace fan. At least the toxic air outdoors has put an end to Portland’s never-ending Summer of Stupidity. Our righteous rioters and ally arsonists are content, apparently, with half the state in flames, and so have temporarily set aside their ambitions to torch the federal courthouse and the police union building. Even smoke has a silver lining.

The Burning

I used to fly for business sometimes, before the plague. There was always a book in my hand. I noticed that once we were in the air the pages would stiffen, the covers would warp outward just a bit along the ends. The canned air inside a plane is dry; that must have been the reason. By the time I’d landed and checked into my hotel the pages were supple again, the covers straight. It happened every time.

This past weekend we had an awful east wind, a rare thing. It came barreling out of the Columbia River Gorge and over the mountains into the Portland metro area, drawing wildfire smoke from the interior of Washington State. All the trees in the neighborhood bent over in the heavy blow and half our dahlias were ruined. The next day there were broken branches and leaves – still green – all over the street and the school field.

The dry wind kept up for two days and sparked wildfires here on the west side of the mountains. Terrible fires. The kind of fires that kill people (not to mention animals) and wipe whole towns off the map. So far, they say, nine-hundred square miles of the state have burned. Last night a huge wall of smoke came up from the south like a rampart of hell and blotted out the sun and cast everything in an unsettling orange light.

The air outside as I write is barely breathable. No children play in the field. There are no bicyclists, no dog walkers. The few cars on the road drive around at midday with their headlights on. I go out to check the sprinkler and come back in stinking like a campfire. You could probably smoke a turkey just by leaving it out on a platter for a few hours. I pick up a book to get my mind off the apocalypse but find the pages stiff, the covers warped.


Grendel by John Gardner ~

My cat plays Grendel to the Danes of the neighborhood rats. Smith is long, black, and hungry-looking, with a clipped ear and a tail he holds at a crook. We took him in as a half-feral stray but most days he won’t stay indoors more than five minutes before he starts knocking over lamps and potted plants. We scoop him up, pat him on the head, and shove him outside again to murder the  rodents and songbirds whose chewed-on corpses he’ll leave in the grass to surprise us.

Loping round the corner of the garage or leaping from a fence-top, Smith is a vision of horror to his victims, but we who love him (and are too large to be his prey) know he has a gentle side. He likes a scratch under the chin, a purr by the fireside. He likes for an hour on a rainy afternoon to sleep in a curl on my daughter’s lap. John Gardner’s Grendel has a soft side too; his violence and hatred grow from an oddly tender, mysteriously wounded heart.

As a rule I don’t like novels that are so self-consciously philosophical, so winkingly post-modern and metafictional. Gardner’s kennings and alliterative wordplay (nods to Anglo-Saxon poetic conventions) are fun, but when the tale departs too far from the Beowulf frame and becomes a vehicle for screeds on literary criticism, politics, and theology – well, I am not delighted. None the less, I read the thing. Almost grudgingly, I enjoyed it.

What is Gardner’s Grendel in the end? Human nature, I suppose: susceptible to the good, the true, the beautiful, but distrustful of their reality beyond his own imagining; in a rage at the world – at God – because “things fade” and “alternatives exclude” here below in Midgard. Smith will kill happily and come home to be dandled and adored, content in the knowledge he’s fulfilling the potential of his existence. Grendel is denied such comfort and becomes a nightmare to himself. Why?

Ripples in the Pool

Images and Shadows by Iris Origo ~

The most memorable figure in Iris Origo’s book is her maternal grandfather, the Anglo-Irish Earl of Desart. In the early 1900s, while his daughter Olivia and younger brother Otway were swooning to the Irish mythic revivalism of Yeats and Lady Gregory, he told them, “I know you think me a Philistine… Of course there is a charm in all these fancies, but sooner or later they lead to cruelty and trouble. There is danger in every denial of reason.” The family house of Desart Court was burnt to the ground in the Troubles and he left Ireland forever, reflecting that “a half-educated population is worse in its results than an ignorant one,” a lesson we may be forced to relearn in our own day.

More amusingly, Lord Desart was once summoned by the king for the purpose – so he assumed – of discussing the Irish question. But in fact the monarch wanted to talk about their shared preference for night shirts over pajamas.

Iris Origo and her grandfather were devoted to one another and kept up a decades-long correspondence that matured with the years. “I believe that love in marriage is better than anything in life,” he wrote to her shortly after the death of her grandmother. “Ambition and success are not in the running with it. My real life has always been my home… It is a happy record.”

There are other memorable portraits in Origo’s book: the wealthy American grandparents on her father’s side and their wonderful Long Island estate; eccentric aunts and uncles; her father who, with all his youthful ambitions in ashes, finally died of tuberculosis on a boat trip up the Nile when Iris was eight years old; and her mother Olivia, who settled Iris and herself in the 15th century Villa Medici at Fiesole near Florence and filled their home with art and artists.

Iris was an awkward, lonely girl, wealthy and privileged but rootless, as her father had intended her to be. In a letter to Olivia written shortly before his death, he asked her to raise their only child “free from all this national feeling that makes people so unhappy. Bring her up somewhere where she does not belong, so that she may be able to decide her own life.” She was bookish, educated at home by a string of private tutors, and frequently dragged off by her mother on far-flung travels.

Sometimes the chances of travel were illuminating. Origo recalls an afternoon in Algeria, near the beginning of Ramadan, when she had wandered off from her hotel to the edge of the village and stumbled on a scene to remind her that books are never quite enough:

“The desert tribesmen were already gathering for the great annual festival and, squatting round a fire, soon after sunset, some of them were listening to a story-teller. I could not, of course, understand what he was saying, but this was hardly necessary. Every phrase of the story, every dramatic movement, was reflected in the bearded faces of the listeners – taut with apprehension as some crisis approached, quivering with sensual delight over a love scene or with cruelty and blood-lust at the climax of a fight, rising to their feet to shake their fists and interrupt the narrator with hoarse comments and cries, shaking with Gargantuan laughter over some Rabelaisian episode. This, I thought – as more and more listeners came from their tents or camels to join the circle, the firelight accentuating the lights and shadows on every face, the story-teller’s voice quickened by his audience’s response – this is how Homer must have told the story of Polyphemus or of the stealing of Helen; this is how men must have listened to the tales of the quarrels of the gods before the camp-fires of Troy, and, in a later day, to the story of Tristan and Iseult, and of Childe Roland’s horn. Every written word is only a thin substitute for this, and perhaps it is man’s desire to return to it that has brought about the success of the radio and of television: the need to have beauty and terror and laughter brought to us, not by books, but by the human voice.”

In a passage about the ilex woods and old Etruscan well behind their home at Fiesole, Origo captures the occult thrills of childhood and the melancholy of growing up:

“To dare oneself to venture into its shadows at twilight, to smell the dank rotting leaves and feel one’s foot slipping in the wet earth beside the well, was, for a solitary child, adventure enough. It was not a dread of ‘robbers’ or even of any ghosts of the past that overcame one then, but an older, more primitive fear – half pleasurable, wholly absorbing. It is one of the penalties of growing up that these apprehensions and intuitions gradually become blunted. The wall between us and the other world thickens. What was a constant, if unformulated, awareness, becomes just a memory. It is only very rarely, as the years go on, that a trap-door opens in the memory and a whiff of half-forgotten scents, a glimpse of the mysteries, reaches us once again.”

The first half of Images and Shadows, from which all these things are drawn, is magical. The second half – ostensibly dedicated to Origo’s own life and family after she and her Italian husband bought the estate of La Foce in a remote Tuscan valley – is a series of asides, and oddly dull by comparison. Her brief reflections on Italian Fascism under Mussolini are interesting. Her experience of WWII as the Allies pushed up the peninsula through La Foce is better described in her journal War in Val d’Orcia, which I read earlier this year.

It may seem odd that a woman who made her name as a biographer (beginning with Leopardi: A Study in Solitude, a life of the Italian poet) should balk at autobiography, but Origo clearly disliked talking about herself and was jealous of her privacy. A biographer’s passion may not extend to the biographer’s self. Origo writes that “the biographer’s real business – if it is not too arrogant to say so – is simply this: to bring the dead to life. If he succeeds it does not matter a rap whether his subject was great or humble, good or bad; and any other information that may come to light in the process is only relevant in so far as it makes the dead man a little more alive.” But there is no miracle in the resurrection of those still living.

Some say that as we age our memories of childhood and youth grow brighter and more significant. Images and Shadows (the title is a reference to Plato’s allegory of the cave) was written when Origo was in her later sixties, and so perhaps it’s natural that her earlier memories make the better part of the book. Distance clarifies things, shows us what counts. “All that is left to me of my past life that has not faded into mist has passed through the filter, not of my mind, but of my affections,” she writes. “What was not warmed by them is now for me as if it had never been.”

Thinking perhaps of her grandfather Lord Desart, whose uncomplicated love for her was such a strong anchor in her life, she concludes:

“In the long run – the very long run – of any deep relationship, who is the giver and who the receiver? In what scales can affection be weighed, and its transmuting power? How far may the ripples in the pool extend, even after the people directly concerned have ceased to exist?”

It Was Different

Today at Anecdotal Evidence Patrick Kurp shares some thoughts on the value of understatement. I’m reminded of my great-grandfather Charlie who lived to be 102 years old. Born in Iowa in 1891, he farmed into his 90s before my grandmother, his only child, brought him home to care for him. Let’s just say that Great-Grandpa was not a man given to overstatement. He was barely given to statement at all.

One day – it must have been a Thanksgiving or Christmas get-together – we were in Grandma’s plush-carpeted living room with the mustard-colored sofas and the hanging tapestry of bighorn sheep clambering up a mountainside. Great-Grandpa Charlie was seated on a couch and we were all gathered around him. My father had set up a clunky VHS camera on a tripod. The idea was to interview Great-Grandpa and preserve some of his memories for posterity.

“How?” was Great-Grandpa’s way of asking us to repeat our questions, but he offered little in reply when he understood them. Prodded for anecdotes about his childhood and life on the farm, he’d say in his raspy voice, “Oh, I don’t know…” “But Grandpa,” Dad pressed, “we’d really love to know what it was like when you were a boy. The world has changed so much since then – before cars, before airplanes, before space flight, before you had electricity, radio, TV, or telephones.”

“Well,” Great-Grandpa said, “It sure was different.”

If it’s not overstating it (ha), I find positive pleasure in understatement. Sometimes, of course, it’s a pose; we may play down our trials or sufferings to appear more Stoic. Sometimes it’s genuine humility; we don’t want to make too much of ourselves or be the center of attention. Sometimes, however, holding back in conversation is a way to preserve a secret between ourselves and the silent universe, a little spark for the altar of the soul’s sacred privacy.

Me and Great Grandpa
Me and Great-Grandpa Charlie, circa 1975

Waldo vs. Walden

I’m tempted to spoof Thoreau and begin this note by saying that “I went to the woods because I wished to offer up my body as food for mosquitoes.” That’s what camping may amount to, especially at Waldo Lake in central Oregon. Waldo is famous for its mosquitoes and none of us were spared their attentions on our recent expedition.

In Walden Thoreau writes that he was “as much affected by the faint hum of a mosquito making its invisible and unimaginable tour through my apartment at earliest dawn, when I was sitting with door and windows open, as I could be by any trumpet that ever sang of fame. It was Homer’s requiem; itself an Iliad and Odyssey in the air, singing its own wrath and wanderings.”

Rather than imagine him a little Odysseus, I prefer to think of the mosquito as an eighteenth century surgeon rushing from one patient to another for some healthful bloodletting. And who knows but it may be due to his care that we ailing refugees of civilization find a week in the boggy woods such a sure way to rebalance the humors.

The Universal Marshalsea

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens ~

The most pitiful figure in Dickens’ Little Dorrit must be the title character’s parent, Mr Dorrit, the so-called “Father of the Marshalsea.” A fallen gentleman confined to the debtors’ prison long ago, he set himself up as the squire of the place, taking a patron’s interest in its inmates and collecting monetary tributes from any who will give them, especially from former “collegians” who return now and then to offer their respects. Throughout the chronicle of his changing fortunes, Mr Dorrit illustrates the truth that poverty no less than wealth can corrupt the heart.

In the second half of the book, adrift among the English expatriate community in Italy, Little Dorrit observes that you can give a man as much elbow room as he wants and still he may bring his Marshalsea with him. Few of Dickens’ characters escape imprisonment of one sort or another – and a figurative imprisonment may be no less devastating than a literal one. There are prisons of avarice (Mr Casby), prisons of revenge (Mrs Clennam), prisons of discontent (Mr Gowan), prisons of fear (Affery), prisons of self-hate (Miss Wade), prisons of ingratitude (Tattycoram), prisons of despondency (Arthur Clennam), and numberless others.

Once freed, we may even come to think fondly of the bonds that chafed when we wore them. “But Lord bless me!” says Mr Meagle, rubbing his hands together, “It was an uncommonly pleasant thing being in quarantine, wasn’t it? Do you know, I have often wished myself back again?” I had to laugh at this, of course, since we’re still enduring a form of quarantine here which has its frustrations but compensates with things I’ll also miss when it’s over, like less traffic and more birdsong. But this pairing of imprisonment and disease in the notion of “quarantine” is a natural one for Dickens.

Diseases come in literal and more figurative varieties too, those of the body and those of the mind, and the line dividing the two is often unclear. Who can map the true relationship, for example, between the COVID-19 coronavirus and the social madness of the crowds in our own pandemic era? Both infections pass from person to person; both thrive in a mob. In the chapter titled “Progress of an Epidemic” Dickens writes:

“That it is at least as difficult to stay a moral infection as a physical one; that such a disease will spread with the malignity and rapidity of the Plague; that the contagion, when it has once made head, will spare no pursuit or condition, but will lay hold on people in the soundest health, and become developed in the most unlikely constitutions; is a fact as firmly established by experience as that we human creatures breathe an atmosphere.”

Note the phrase “lay hold on people,” as if a moral infection were a sort of jailer ready to clap you by the arm and put you behind bars.

If this sounds dark, Little Dorrit is not. For all its gloomy atmospherics, Dickens’ novel is full of light and laughter. The world may be a sort of Universal Marshalsea, a debtors’ prison without walls, but we needn’t make ourselves its prisoners. That’s the message, I think. Some manage to escape their shackles unscathed (Mr Plornish). Some may serve the prison out of necessity and still remain unpolluted (Young Chivery). Though born to the prison (like Little Dorrit herself), some move in and out of its gates without hindrance or taint. We’re all debtors, to God and one another, but it’s the irony of our nature that poverty of spirit sets us at liberty, heals us, and makes us rich.

As someone once said: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.