Pledging Allegiance

When he wrote that “You side with life only when you utter – with all your heart – a banality,” E.M Cioran was not recommending the uttering of banalities. He didn’t want to side with life. He was a bitter nihilist who worshiped suicide as an ideal.

I wonder how much of Cioran’s venom was sincere. “Like every iconoclast,” he also wrote, “I have broken my idols in order to offer sacrifices to their debris.” But where he derides, I applaud. In my bourgeois conventionality, I like the idea that a banal sentiment is a sort of pledge of allegiance to life.

Banality is closely allied to commonness, familiarity, ubiquitous repetition, – and after all life is that which repeats itself. Nature is the most banal thing in the world. The days and seasons turn and return. The chemical composition of most objects suggests cliché. Plants and animals are repeated in their offspring. Novelties, when they occur, end most of the time in extinction.

Therefore, standing upright and with my hand on my heart, I will gladly tell you that the view really is beautiful; that the weather is lovely today; that kids grow up too fast. Again and again I will tell my wife, “I love you.” May I never cease to utter, with all my heart, such banalities.

The Devil’s Due

~ All Gall is Divided by E.M. Cioran ~

You can thank or blame the translator for the title. The French original didn’t work in English, so he borrowed the first line of Caesar’s Gallic War (“Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres”) and made a pun. Cioran had plenty of gall. He was a world-class nihilist and misanthropist. He was also an honorary Gaul, an ethnic Romanian born in Austria-Hungary who lived most of his life in France.

I much prefer Cioran’s later volume, The Trouble with Being Born (published the year of my own troubling birth), but there are at least a couple dozen memorable aphorisms here. If that seems few, well, it’s difficult to take very seriously someone who says, “I believe in the salvation of humanity, in the future of cyanide” but delays suicide until he finally dies of Alzheimer’s in his eighties.

While reading All Gall is Divided, I found several passages that seem to offer a commentary-from-a-distance on current affairs. I quote them below in italics, followed by my own reflections. It’s not that I want to talk politics. I believe I’m allergic to politics, but I sometimes indulge when I shouldn’t, like a lactose intolerant kid at an ice cream parlor.

“A philosophical vogue is as irresistible as a gastronomic one: an idea is no better refuted than a sauce.”

Fashions come and, thankfully, fashions go. Then, like mom jeans, the worst of them sometimes come back into style again. Watching old episodes of Seinfeld recently, I was impressed by how quaint and harmless the political correctness of the ‘90s was compared with today’s more virulent kind. Like spoiled meat hidden in a rich béchamel, this too will pass, but not until it’s made us all sick.

“The lamb’s aspiration to become a wolf brings about the majority of events. Those who have none dream of fangs…”

Some would sublimate revenge by calling it justice, but one way or another we will always have sheep and we will always have wolves. I’d rather file down the old wolf’s teeth a bit than trade him for a new one.

“In periods of peace, hating for the pleasure of hating, we must find the enemies which suit us; – a delicious task which exciting times spare us.”

We can’t do without war and must have Nazis at all costs. Better, in some respects, the enemy forced upon us from outside. By threatening us all at once, he shows us that we are still one people. In his absence, the narcissism of small differences begins to work and we suddenly discover that half the families on our block are sieg-heiling an idol of the Fuhrer round the dinner table.

“A statesman who shows no signs of senility is the one I am afraid of.”

The best political leader would nap half the day and putz around in a wheelchair, straining to raise his hand to sign the least piece of legislation. God save us from the young and vigorous champions of tomorrow and their fervent dreams of a better world.

“Whether out of inadvertence or incompetence, he who however briefly halts humanity on its march is humanity’s benefactor.”

Because hell is where we’re going when we all “progress” together. It’s the only place with a big enough ball room to accommodate so large a party.

Hell’s Tourist

Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn ~

Martha Gellhorn was a journalist and the third (and penultimate) wife of Ernest Hemingway. He makes an appearance as U.C. (Unwilling Companion) in the first chapter of this book, but nowhere else. If you ask me, I think Gellhorn is a better writer than her once-husband, but then I’ve never been a great admirer of “Papa” or his books.

The most memorable chapters of Gellhorn’s memoir describe “horror journeys” to China in the early years of WWII, through the Caribbean and upriver in dengue-plagued Suriname, across equatorial Africa for the hell of it, and to Soviet Moscow to visit the widow of poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in exile under Stalin.

Don’t read this book for a peek into the Hemingway/Gellhorn relationship. You won’t get much of one. Read it for Gellhorn’s great prose, her gift for narrating travelers’ miseries (reminiscent of Waugh), and her general spitfire outrageousness. They don’t make ‘em like Gellhorn anymore. She’s what they used to call a real dame: movie star looks, smart as a whip, scared of nothing.

Filthy Hoare

Thursday is the bi-centenary of Melville’s birth. But please, contra Philip Hoare (whose books I now have no interest in reading), do not pick up a copy of Moby-Dick because it “has never been more relevant,” because it is “queer” (in the LBGTQ sense of the term) or “genuinely subversive.”

Any book worth its ink will always be relevant because it addresses permanent and universal elements of our nature and experience – and it’s hard to believe that Hoare imagines there’s anything left to subvert in Western culture.

Rather, read Moby-Dick because it is one of the greatest pleasures of literature in English, full of humor, philosophical adventure, and leaping, joyful, muscular prose. Really, there’s no good reason other than pleasure to read any novel. Even the Stoic when he reads is an Epicurean.


[Last year my family and I flew to Atlanta and spent two weeks driving a rented car up the coast to Boston. The following describes a brief stop in Stonington, Connecticut.]

A couple miles from the Rhode Island line we left the highway and drove into Stonington to look for lunch and a cemetery. Lunch we found in the form of chowder and some batter-fried cod. The cemetery we put off for an hour to stroll through the old part of town. It was charming: narrow streets, wooden buildings from prior centuries, a view now and then of the sea.

We stepped into an antique shop. A bell rang as we entered and we heard a faint, disembodied “hello.” It was a hoarder’s lair inside, man-high piles of junk and rolls of fabric obscuring the view in every direction. A small woman with a half-eaten sandwich in hand appeared from nowhere to scold us. “If you don’t say hello back, I don’t know if you’re still in the shop or if you went out again,” she said.

We asked if she had any musical instruments. My son was looking for a clarinet. She led us by a winding path to a back room where we were shown a deceased fiddle. We mentioned that we were visiting from Oregon. This served as a segue, somehow, for her to begin talking about ticks and Lyme disease. What had we done to protect ourselves while in New England?

In addition to antiques, the woman peddled a variety of lotions and sprays which she promised would save us from Lyme. It wasn’t enough merely to keep out of long grass, as we had supposed. “The ticks drop down from above,” she said, pointing at the ceiling. “They leap at you from trees and passing birds. A bird a mile high could drop a tick on you and you might never know until it was too  late.” She was a talker; it was no easy thing to escape from that shop.

Tiny Wequetaquock burial ground had no parking lot so we left the car in the road. After a wary glance skyward for tick-laden birds, we found the wolf stones of Thomas Minor, his wife Grace, and her father Walter Palmer. A wolf stone is an old New England grave marker, a rough length of granite laid over the body to discourage wolves from making an easy meal of a beloved relative.

Thomas Minor was my tenth great-grandfather, Walter Palmer my eleventh. Palmer was born in Yetminster, Dorset in 1585. He was middle aged in 1629 when he and his family came to Salem aboard the Four Sisters. The circumstances are murky but in 1630 it seems that he was appointed to whip a man named Austen Bratcher (or Augustine Bradshaw) who had been convicted of some misdemeanor. Palmer was too zealous in the administration of justice and the man died of his lashes. Palmer in turn was acquitted of manslaughter, though one of Bratcher’s friends said the court had been bribed.

This scandal did not prevent Palmer from becoming a respected member of colonial society. After decamping from pestilential Salem, he was among the founders of Charlestown and Rehoboth and held various civic offices. He was a big man, at least six and a half feet tall. When the Wequetaquock burial ground was improved in the 1890s, curious descendants shifted his wolf stone and uncovered a coffin seven feet long.

Thomas Minor was born at Chew Magna, Somerset in 1608. He came to Salem aboard the Lyon’s Whelp in 1629 (or perhaps the Arabella in 1630). He married Walter Palmer’s daughter Grace in Charlestown in 1634. It seems that Minor was a friend of John Winthrop the Younger, who enticed Minor and Palmer to settle what is now the Mystic/Stonington area of eastern Connecticut.

From the 1650s to the 1680s, Minor kept one of the few surviving diaries of early New England. It’s a farmer’s diary, mostly. Written in a clipped style with irregular spelling, he records the clearing of land, planting and harvesting, the birth of calves, the breeding of horses. He describes killing wolves and bears. He notes occasional trips to Boston, and visits from Winthrop Jr and local Indians of his acquaintance. He also mentions his service as a lieutenant in King Philip’s War, when he was in his late sixties.

I think of Stonington as the beginning of my family’s history in the New World (though we trace to the Wyatts of early Jamestown too). Of course, all human beginnings are arbitrary. It was probably easier for Thomas to imagine he lived at the end of a world (geographically and chronologically) than at the beginning. His mind faced east rather than west. He corresponded with England via the Bristol ships and wanted to know more about his Minor forebears. From a huckster in the old country he unwitting bought a fabricated genealogy reaching back to the middle ages, complete with a false but attractive coat of arms and the motto Spero ut fidelis.

We posed for photographs by Minor’s wolf stone. Someone had planted irises beside it. Palmer lay nearby. It’s true that more notable descendants had sprung from their loins. Ulysses S. Grant and William Chester Minor (troubled contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary) were also descended from Thomas and Grace Minor, which makes them my distant cousins – a fact I’m stupidly proud of. Down the Palmer line was a Nathaniel (1799-1877) credited with discovering Palmer’s Land in Antarctica. But fourteen generations on, having crossed a continent, my little family and I had the cemetery to ourselves.

Other Uses

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby ~

When I enter someone’s home for the first time, I look for the bookshelf. I don’t care how many books are there, only which ones. I am not a snob; some of my favorite people aren’t serious readers. But I struggle at conversation and am always looking for shared territory on which to plant a flag of camaraderie.

Similarly, I like to know which books people bring with them when they travel – when, that is, they can reasonably expect time enough to read on the airplane or at night in their hotel room. Or, as the case may be, while ill-preparedly climbing 20,000-foot peaks in the Hindu Kush mountains.

Eric Newby delivers in this regard by letting readers know which titles he and pal Hugh Carless brought on their comically disastrous 1956 expedition to Afghanistan. These were surprisingly few: a collection of John Buchan tales and a copy of Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles.

They also brought Notes on the Bashgali (Kafir) Language by a Colonel Davidson of the British Indian Staff Corps, published in 1901. It proved more help than they might have wished, supplying them Basghgali phrases for such eventualities as “I saw a corpse in a field this morning,” “How long have you had a goitre?” and “If you have had diarrhea many days you will surely die.”

Unfortunately for our mountaineers, intestinal complaints, blooming into outright dysentery, plagued the expedition from the start. One or the other of them was always dashing off behind a boulder, afflicted by a sudden necessity. “Put to other uses,” Newby admits, “our library was disappearing at an alarming rate.”

Eric Newby must have shared my interest in the books travelers carry. Late in the expedition, he and Carless cross paths with the great British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who frankly considered the younger men with their inflatable sleeping pads “a couple of pansies.”

But he too understood that a man’s man may also be a reader. Newby reports that crag-faced Thesiger carried with him a copy of Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma and Swann’s Way in French.

Schloss Runkelstein in the Spring

Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe by Simon Winder ~

While reading Simon Winder’s Danubia I was visited by the ghost of Rebecca West, author of that tremendous doorstop of a historical travelogue Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. The apparition never spoke to me but I looked up from my book now and then to see her nod affirmatively or shake her head. I assume Winder has read West, since his own historical travelogue covers some of the same territory and many of the same events and people, but he never mentions her.

It may be that he’s afraid of her. I really wouldn’t blame him. West is intimidating, even if she doesn’t visit you from beyond the grave. When reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (which, honestly, I’ve never quite finished), I’m reminded on almost every one of her 1,000 pages that I will never be such a good writer, never have her gift for observation or a mind so nimble and comprehensive.

But even if he lacks West’s genius and depth, Winder’s book is delightful to a high degree, and all the more so for being proudly unacademic and digressive. His tour of Habsburgiana double bills as a trivia-bingo history of the Holy Roman Empire and, subsequently, the Austro-Hungarian empire. He’s less interested in the grand sweep of history than in the personalities and eccentric minutiae of it – for example, the fact that Rudolf II kept a pet cassowary at his alchemist-plagued court in Prague.

Winder’s longish book is also improved by the fact that he’s very funny. The comic interludes typically involve anecdotes from his own visits to Habsburg historical sites. I had to read several of these aloud to my wife. There’s a good one about the “Guinea Pig Village” at the Budapest Zoo, and another about Winder’s frequent disappointment at Baroque depictions of the Labors of Hercules. More quotable here, however, and a fair introduction to Winder’s tone, is his reflection on the new German/Italian tourist signage at an old fortress in the Tyrol:

“This new bilingualism has had a bizarre effect on the castle. In Italian it is called Castel Roncolo, which implies a pretty, turfed courtyard with maidens in gauzy outfits skipping about to tambourines and lutes with weedy youths in colored tights looking on. In German it is called Schloss Runkelstein, which implies a brandy-deranged old soldier-baron with a purple face and leg-iron lurching around darkened dank corridors, beating a servant to death with his crutch.”

Rescue Dog Cultists

I was raised with boxers but lived dogless between the ages of eighteen and forty-four. Then we got Birdie. Birdie is a miniature schnauzer, black and silver, about eighteen pounds. She turned a year old this past May. Of course she’s a good girl.

When we moved here several years ago, our next-door neighbors asked if we had a dog. Get one, they said, it will help you meet people. And it’s true that I’ve met a lot of people while out walking Birdie. The trouble is that I don’t remember any of their names; I only remember their dogs’ names.

Damian at A Sunday of Liberty writes today about the cult of rescue dogs. “I fear,” he says, “that pets have become yet another staging ground for barely-disguised moral preening, along with farmer’s markets, hybrid vehicles, and screen-free living.” It’s all too true.

Several months ago I was walking Birdie when I met a woman and a young girl with a dog about Birdie’s size. We stopped for a sniff-and-greet (the dogs, I mean). The first thing this woman said to me was, “Where did you get your dog?”

It was an odd question but I told her we got Birdie from a family of schnauzer breeders in Molalla who also run an elk ranch. She was unimpressed. “Ours,” she said with an actual sneer, “is a rescue dog.” She clearly felt that by opting to buy from a breeder we had let some other needy mutt die in a kennel.

“That’s great,” I said, then pointed to her ten-year-old girl, “but where did you get your daughter?”