The Latter-Day Voyageur

~ The Survival of the Bark Canoe by John McPhee ~

Thoreau wrote in The Maine Woods that the making of birch bark canoes “will ere long, perhaps, be ranked among the lost arts.” And yet we have in John McPhee’s 1975 book, as promised, the tale of its unlikely survival in the gifted hands of young Henri Vaillancourt of Greenville, New Hampshire.

McPhee’s own gift, apart from a command of sinewy American English prose, is his ability to find the interest in anything. Here McPhee discovers it in the science of selecting trees for canoes, the carving of thwarts and ribs and gunwales, the stitching of bark with split roots — and in the history of the North American fur trade and the lives of French-Canadian voyageurs and Penobscot loggers.

The foremost point of interest, however, is Vaillancourt himself and the 150-mile trip through northern Maine which McPhee and three others make in his company aboard two of his canoes. It is a rough traverse, in more ways than one, retracing the path of Thoreau. But our narrator’s eyes are keen and there’s plenty of McPhee-brand humor to charm the way. The men toil against headwinds and over portages (“Henri is using the word ‘bummer’ at about double the rate he was using it an hour or two ago”). They squint hungrily for sign of that elusive north woods ruminant which they expect to surprise around every corner, in the buzzing “stillness of a moose intending to appear.”

I wonder how Henri Vaillancourt judged The Survival of the Bark Canoe. It would be in character if he resented it. It’s true that McPhee’s Vaillancourt can be arrogant, antisocial, a bit of an oddball. But he’s also an artist, a sort of genius. Forty years on (my research confirms) Vaillancourt still lives in Greenville and still makes bark canoes, but his website contains no reference that I could find to McPhee’s book, though he must owe it some portion of his fame and success.

Like Vaillancourt’s canoes, McPhee’s books offer the satisfaction of something handmade. For the lithe little vessel of this volume, McPhee has selected his materials skillfully, and he knits them together with care. He reminds us, without actually saying so, that the writing of a book, no less than the making of a bark canoe, may be “an act performed not because it is necessary but because there is value in the act itself.”


Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells ~

Wells wrote this one as if it were a piece of investigative journalism rather than a novel. It helps, therefore, to approach the story as if it had been prefaced to the effect that “You’ve likely heard something of the so-called ‘Invisible Man’ haunting Sussex several years ago. Well, here are the facts.”

The manner of presentation makes The Invisible Man difficult to enjoy in the way one wants to enjoy a novel. Specifically, a reader wants to feel something better than contempt for the protagonist, but Griffon is unsympathetic from beginning to end. Had Wells written the book in the first person this might not have been a problem; we can’t help but sympathize with a first-person narrator.

Perhaps Wells miscalculated, then. Or perhaps he wanted a clinical distance between Griffon and the reader, the better to offer a moral case study. I don’t know.

Invisibility (or the desire for it) has deep associations with immorality. Adam and Eve after the Fall hid themselves in the Garden beyond (they hoped) the eyes of God. Night is man’s natural share of invisibility, a cloak for the concealment of crime and sin. We do and think things in the dark that we might never do or think in the day – and what others do not see in us we are happy not to see in ourselves.

On finishing The Invisible Man, one can’t help wonder: Was Griffon a sociopath before he discovered the secret of invisibility? Perhaps he was no more reprehensible than most of us; his monomaniacal scientific pursuits and the achievement of invisibility may have coaxed latent vices into terrible flower. But how much, or how little, would it take to turn us all into moral monsters?

West Wind Revisited

American Philosophy: A Love Story by John Kaag ~

Who wouldn’t like to discover a lost library of moldering antique books hidden away on a dilapidated New England estate? John Kaag did just that at William Earnest Hocking’s old home, West Wind, which presented him with the excuse to write this book. But much as I wanted to discover something marvelous in it, I’m afraid I was disappointed.

American Philosophy is first of all a memoir of the author’s failed marriage and his falling in love with the woman (married at the time) who would become his second wife. It is also a survey of American philosophy from Thoreau and Emerson to William James, Josiah Royce and Hocking himself. The memoir, unfortunately, is a bit adolescent and self-indulgent, while the survey is scattershot and teasing.

I despise academic philosophy, though I studied philosophy in college. When it moved into the university lecture hall and graduate degrees were awarded in it, Socrates must have vomited in his grave. Kaag may sympathize, as witnessed by his interest in what you might call practical philosophers, but anyone who glibly refers to himself as a “philosopher” (which Kaag does frequently) is a part of the problem. It’s like referring to oneself as an artist or a humanitarian. Some titles are more properly bestowed than claimed and cannot be earned by a PhD.

I don’t want to be too hard on Kaag (despite the fact that the man can never sit on a “chair” but must always be sitting on a “Stickley” or an “Adirondack” or a “Chesterfield”). It is better to read Thoreau and Emerson and James for yourself than to read about them. And Kaag does manage to grow up a bit by the end of the book, regretting the horrible way that he had treated his first wife. He discovers, too, what he might have known all along without so much trouble: that wonder is the proper response to life, and that love is the most wonderful thing of all.

Reading Notes – Anna Karenina

Writing a review of a book like Anna Karenina might be compared in its presumption and absurdity to writing a review of life itself. Some things are too large and complex to allow for comprehensive judgment. But reflection is possible even when judgment is difficult, so what I offer here are merely a few reading notes.


“When his conclusion corresponded, it seemed to him, with the requirements of religion, this religious sanction to his decision gave him complete satisfaction.”

How convenient when God blesses our prior conclusions. But this is a habit of mind indulged in by the non-religious too. Who has never imagined he had absolute sanction for his desires or judgments? If it’s not God that we apply to for endorsement, then it’s to a syllogistic chain of reasoning, a psychological compulsion or an imperative of biology beyond our control, or a complex unfolding of material cause and effect. How rarely we desire or judge from ourselves alone.


“In the discussions that arose between the brothers on their views of the peasantry, Sergey Ivanovich always got the better of his brother, precisely because Sergey Ivanovich had definite ideas about the peasant – his character, his qualities, and his tastes. Konstantin Levin had no definite and unalterable ideas on the subject, and so in their arguments Konstantin was readily convicted of contradicting himself.”

Deep familiarity with a subject may be a hindrance in argument. Complexities unveil themselves with repeated exposure and reflection, but a casual familiarity allows us more easily to generalize. Sergey Ivanovich, who lived in the city, “knew the peasantry as something distinct from and opposed to men generally” but Levin, who lived and worked among the peasants, knew them as individuals who, no less than other men, defied generalization.

In order to generalize at all we must step away from the particulars of lived experience. The trouble comes when we forget the step that we have taken, become infatuated with our ideas, and imagine that our generalizations (imposed, as it were, from above) say something definitive about the world.


On odium theologicum and odium politicum:

“No difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions.”


“In former days the freethinker was a man who had been brought up in ideas of religion, law, and morality, and only through conflict and struggle became a freethinker; but now there has sprung up a type of born freethinker who grows up without even having heard of principles of morality or of religion, of the existence of authorities, who grows up in ideas of negation in everything, that is to say, a savage.”

At a wedding reception a few years ago I spoke with a man who had raised a daughter in the liberal political opinions that he’d adopted in college after rejecting the conservatism of his childhood home. His daughter had taken his politics and bettered them by becoming a fire-breathing “progressive” of the far left. This gratified him but also left him somehow dissatisfied. She was everything he had raised her to be, he admitted, but he felt that she had not “earned the right to her opinions” in the same way he had.


Levin at the birth of his son:

“What he felt toward this little creature was utterly unlike what he had expected. There was nothing cheerful and joyous in the feeling; on the contrary, it was a new torture of apprehension. It was the consciousness of a new sphere of liability to pain. And this sense was so painful at first, the apprehension lest this helpless creature should suffer was so intense, that it prevented him from noticing the strange thrill of senseless joy and even pride he had felt when the baby sneezed.”

I’ve never read a better description of new fatherhood. When my son was born, nearly sixteen years ago, I blamed myself for not feeling the way I had been told by popular culture that I should feel. All my love and worry had been concentrated on my wife as she endured a long and difficult labor. Then, suddenly, there was another person in the room, someone who was at that moment a stranger to me. I was supposed to feel a rush of love for this little wailing thing. That love came soon enough, but in those first hours it was knotted up with other new feelings that took me some days to untangle.


Tolstoy’s summary of all merely scientific/materialist knowledge:

“In infinite time, in infinite matter, in infinite space, is formed a bubble-organism, and that bubble lasts a while and bursts, and that bubble is I.”

We’re sometimes tempted to accept the miserable and unsatisfying as Ultimate Truth simply because it is miserable and unsatisfying. We have an inclination toward despair, a sense that the truth of things must be horrible. The unaccountable sublimities and joys of life are easier to accept (that is, to brush off) as aberrations or figments. Otherwise, we might have to reconsider things.

Of Wolves and Children

How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend by the Monks of New Skete ~

My family and I are raising a puppy this summer. It’s great fun but no easy job. My parents had a copy of this book on the shelf when I was a kid, so I picked one up too. We’re using some of the techniques recommended here and some from other guides. What I appreciate most about the book is that it offers sane answers to two important questions that all dog owners should consider: “Are dogs wolves?” and “Are dogs children?”

Are dogs wolves? The answer you receive to this question will depend on the person you ask. Dogs are alternately classified as Canis lupus familiaris or Canis familiaris. The former would essentially make dogs a variety of wolf, the latter would make them their own species. No one argues, however, with the fact that dogs were domesticated from gray wolves between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago, though the final break in the bloodlines was likely more recent than that, since wild wolves may have continued to interbreed with domesticated wolves for some time. Darwin famously discusses dog breeding to illustrate the power of sexual selection in the early chapters of On the Origin of Species, but is 15,000 years enough time to create an entirely new kind of animal? Various human populations bred separately from one another for much longer periods and yet we all agree in calling both Swedes and Australian Aborigines members of the same species. For all intents and purposes, therefore, the monks of New Skete are right: Dogs are wolves. Or else dogs are so very closely related to today’s wolves that it would be foolish to suppose wolf behavior and social relations have little to tell us about our dogs.

Are dogs children? I like to think that in a sober moment any dog lover would admit that our pets are not children, but we often treat them as if they were. I’ve been guilty of this myself, cradling my three-month-old schnauzer pup in my arms and calling her my “fur child.” To a degree this is all very understandable, since puppies are adorable and elicit a defend-and-care-for response that’s similar to the feeling inspired by human infants. There are risks in taking this too far, however. Trends and fashions come and go in dog training just as they do in child rearing, and in fact the former tend to mirror the latter in any given generation. When tough-love reigns in the rearing of children, tough-love reigns in the training of dogs. When helicopter parenting is the rule of the day for our kids, we tend to hover over our dogs too. And likewise, when all discipline is thrown out with children and positive reinforcement is the universal rule, the same is applied to our dogs. You would think that we should know how to raise children by now. You would think that we should know how to raise dogs. In both cases, seeing and loving them for what they really are, exercising both a great deal of patience and a moderate amount of discipline, simply makes sense to me. If that sounds like I, too, am recommending that we treat our dogs like children, the key is in the “what they really are” phrase, because the goal of one activity is to raise a human being, the other is to tame a wolf. Again, our monkish friends at New Skete get the answer right: Dogs are not children, and we do a disservice to them when we go too far in treating them like they are.

Holbein in New York

The Dance of Death by Hans Holbein ~

Hans Holbein the Younger is perhaps my favorite portraitist. His painting of the merchant Georg Giese holds a special fascination, though I’ve never seen it in person (it’s in Berlin). On a recent east coast vacation, my family and I were able to see Holbein’s portraits of Sir Brian Tuke and the infant Edward VI in Washington DC, and of Margaret Roper (daughter of Thomas More) and the so-called Man in the Red Cap in New York City. I wish we’d seen the portrait of Margaret’s father at the Frick, but by that time we were so overgorged on museums we preferred sweating like pigs under an angry sun in Central Park.

It was in New York, too, at the Strand Booksore, that I bought a copy of Holbein’s Dance of Death. As a wordless woodcut novel (of sorts), you might compare it to Frans Masereel’s Passionate Journey or Lynd Ward’s God’s Man. But the differences are telling, I think. As moderns, Ward and Masereel (who was far the better of the two) each describe the story of an everyman hero struggling against various oppressive forces and lures of society toward a pinnacle of achievement or self-realization. In Masereel’s story, the tale ends with the protagonist’s enlightened spirit straddling the ball of Earth in the form of a cosmic skeletal flaneur.

The hero, or antihero, of Holbein’s story is Death. He makes his first appearance as an interloper, a jaunty skeleton playing the lute alongside Adam and Eve at their tearful expulsion from Paradise. He goes on to consort with bishops and feast with kings. He fraternizes with judges and merchants and soldiers. He drives the plow, bribes the official, takes the child away from her parents. He keeps house with all, is the bosom companion in every endeavor, the noseless horror lurking behind every joy. Man’s achievements are nothing to him, man’s self-realization a farce. But Death is conspicuously absent from two panels that bookend Holbein’s story, The Creation and The Last Judgment.

Disgusting home-grown veggies

Wittgenstein’s Nephew by Thomas Bernhard ~

I don’t want to make the mistake of taking Thomas Bernhard more seriously than he intends. This is a funny and sometimes poignant book, but it is also, from a certain angle, fairly intolerable.

Now and then, you see, one comes across a species of European who achieves an arid intellectualism and rarefied decadence of self-presentation that can be quite breathtaking, and Bernhard (at least Bernhard the first-person narrator of Wittgenstein’s Nephew) is one of those. No one enjoys the company of such people for very long. They don’t even enjoy their own company, which is why so many of them commit suicide.

That’s a joke.

Not that I didn’t enjoy the book. Wittgenstein’s Nephew reads well, despite the lack of paragraph breaks. Kudos, I suppose, to the translator. And, as mentioned, it’s funny. Take, for example, this passage on walking:

“I have always disliked walking, but I am prepared to go for walks with friends, and this makes them think I am a keen walker, for there is an amazing theatricality about the way I walk. I am certainly not a keen walker, nor am I a nature lover or a nature expert. But when I am with friends I walk in such a way as to convince them I am a keen walker, a nature lover, and a nature expert. I know nothing about nature. I hate nature, because it is killing me.”

There’s another passage in which the narrator and his friend Paul drive out to visit Irina, an erstwhile cosmopolite who had recently left the city to make a simpler life with her musicologist husband in the countryside:

“We drove out to see her and were given home-baked bread and home-made soup, home-grown radishes and home-grown tomatoes. We felt we had been let down… In a few months, Irina, until recently a sophisticated city-dweller with a passion for Vienna, had transformed herself into a stolid, provincial farmer’s wife who spent her time hanging smoked pork in her chimney and growing her own vegetables. To us this seemed a gross self-degradation, and we could not help being disgusted…”

It’s funny, yes, but people so unnatural and urbanified ought to be shot. Like I said, no one enjoys their company for very long. But perhaps Bernhard understood as much and that’s why he kept his novel to little more than a hundred pages.