Ivanhoe by Walter Scott ~

Every society has its Normans and its Saxons. The former are the sophisticates, the elites, the conquerors. The latter are the more earthy – and generally more numerous – subjected peoples. But even among the Normans, you will find Norman-Normans and Norman-Saxons, and comparable divisions among the Saxons themselves.

I suppose one might say that each of us contains our Norman and Saxon elements. The governing passions and higher principles may constitute our Norman parts. Our humble pleasures, as well as our animal urges, make up our Saxon selves. The hope, of course, is to unite them, to obtain the cooperation of the best of both, our Saxon Ivanhoe with our Norman Richard, say.

Of course, the preceding paragraphs have nothing much to do with Ivanhoe, which is a terrific adventure story. Or, perhaps they do.


The Lodestone

All the Strange Hours by Loren Eiseley ~

Sometimes I think Loren Eiseley must have been the saddest American that ever lived, but he found consolation in places most others would fail to uncover it.

His mother was deaf and mentally ill, his father a failed stage actor who earned a scant living as a salesman. They were a family of outsiders with few friends and connections, always moving from the edge of one town to the edge of another. Eiseley fled as soon as he was able, riding the rails as a young man through the Great Depression, living hand-to-mouth and at the mercy of strangers. He nearly died of tuberculosis in his early twenties.

Somehow he managed to get an education and become an anthropologist. He found his peace working alone in the empty places of the High Plains or at the foot of the Rockies, scraping at the exposed strata of ancient streambeds to unbury the lingering remains of the great Ice Ages: the bones of forgotten nomads and species long extinct. He found his peace, too, in books. Few men of science have ever been so well read.

Eiseley seems to have harbored doubts about his calling. He might have been a poet, or a philosopher. He was distracted by wonder, overwhelmed with a feeling “as though the universe were too frighteningly queer to be understood by minds like ours.”

As a scientist he knew that “one is supposed to flourish Occam’s razor and reduce hypotheses about a complex world to human proportions. Certainly I try,” he said. “Mostly I come out feeling that whatever else the universe may be, it’s so-called simplicity is a trick… We have learned a lot, but the scope is too vast for us. Every now and then if we look behind us, everything has changed. It isn’t precisely that nature tricks us. We trick ourselves with our own ingenuity.”

For sentiments like these, which appear in all his books, Eiseley was sometimes called a bad scientist by his more self-assured colleagues. He lacked the necessary professional hubris and was too willing to grant that the truly big questions were still wide open. He could never be satisfied with inflexible materialism:

“In the world there is nothing to explain the world,” he said. “Nothing to explain the necessity of life, nothing to explain the hunger of the elements to become life, nothing to explain why the stolid world of rock and soil and mineral should diversify itself into beauty, terror, and uncertainty… In the world there is nothing below a certain depth that is truly explanatory. It is as if matter dreamed and muttered in its sleep. But why, and for what reason it dreams, there is no evidence.”

Faithless, Eiseley had the soul of a believer. Imprisoned since childhood by an unbreachable spiritual isolation, he nonetheless kept company with a something (a Someone, perhaps) that hid always beyond the range of his sight but was present, indefinably, in the thousand shifting shapes of the life principle. “Those who love its endless manifestations may be accused of a submerged form of worship,” he granted.

This, at least, is my own key to Eiseley: He was utterly devout in adoration of a presence he could not see and that promised a communion he could never quite believe was offered to him.

There’s an illustrative passage from Thomas Traherne, the seventeenth-century Christian mystic whom Eiseley himself occasionally quoted:

“As iron at a distance is drawn by the lodestone, there being some invisible communications between then, so there is in us a world of Love to somewhat, though we know not what in the world that should be. There are invisible ways of conveyance by which some great thing doth touch our souls, and by which we tend to it.”

Gore and Bone Saws

The Butchering Art by Lindsay Fitzharris ~

I’m afraid that my wife and I are the only people that ever watched The Knick, which is a  shame. It was an excellent show, a Steven Soderbergh project in which Clive Owen played a drug-addicted genius surgeon at New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital circa 1900. The Knick only ran for two seasons (2014-2015). Thankfully, however, the storyline resolved itself nicely at the end of the second, so that you need not feel let down too much by the fact that season three never happened.

There’s a great deal of nasty, pre-antibiotics medicine in The Knick, which is why I couldn’t help thinking of it while reading Lindsay Fitzharris’s The Butchering Art. You might describe her book as a phantasmagorical survey of Victorian medicine masquerading as a biography of Dr. Joseph Lister (for whom both Listerine and listeria are named).

Poor Lister! I’m not sure she knows it, but Fitzharris has done him a disservice. Here in his own biography he is powerfully upstaged by gore and bone saws. Surgery in the mid-1800s is horrifying, Halloween-grade stuff. The first hundred pages of the book are better (or worse), in this respect, than reading Poe or Lovecraft. The remainder of it, in which Lister manages through scientific application and will power to make a name for himself as a medical reformer, is a letdown by comparison.

Good Lord, Jim

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad ~

Somewhere in the latter half of Lord Jim, the narrator Marlow asks his audience: “Are not our lives too short for that full utterance which through all our stammerings is of course our only and abiding intention?”

Ah, Conrad, the last Romantic! Consider the notions implied in that evocative sentence: 1) that the true task of life is the perfect expression of the inmost self; 2) that the would-be utterance of that inmost self in its unexpressed form is pure, unalloyed; 3) that the profundity of the self-to-be-expressed is fathomless, such that one is inevitably doomed to sip the bitter cup of mortality before perfect self-revelation could ever be accomplished.

To the mental adolescent all of this may echo amongst the stars; I know there was a time in my own life when I would have thought so. But indulgent self-absorption of this sort only poisons the heart and hobbles the mind.

That Conrad endorses (and not merely through his narrator) such overbearing Romanticism does not prevent him from writing a worthy novel, of course. His artistry is undeniable and his prose very justly admired. But this was a difficult book for me to enjoy, and I offer that as a serious criticism. All sadist modern authors and critics to the contrary, I consider my incapacity to enjoy a novel at least as much a judgment on the book as a judgment on myself.

The Book of Sleep

Some people begin asking questions the moment they learn to speak. These, I suppose, are the naturally curious. Others never seem to ask questions at all but take the world as it is. These are the least philosophical among us, or perhaps the most, but who can say? It’s hard to know what to make of a man that asks no questions.

If there is a time of day best suited for questions, I think it must be after dark, just before you put the light out and go to sleep. Questions posed then must not be of the pressing or practical sort or else they will keep you up, but questions leading to amusement or aimless pondering will usher you nicely to dreamland.

With this in mind, I keep a Loeb edition of Aristotle’s Problems on my nightstand. It’s debated how much of this is the work of Aristotle himself. It seems to have been a community effort of the Peripatetic school, a notebook to jot down puzzlers for future consideration. The book contains about 900 questions, arranged by category.

The questions asked, and the tentative answers offered, make an interesting snapshot of the mental furniture of the Greeks who scribbled these down two-and-a-half-ish millennia ago. Consider, for example:

“Why are those in contact infected by some diseases, whereas no one becomes healthy by contact with health? Is it because disease implies motion, while health is a state of rest? The former, then, moves, but the latter does not.”

From some questions we learn things we might not have known about antique diseases (e.g. leprosy) and the Greek habit of wanting similar explanations from similar appearances:

“Why is it that in leprosy the hair turns grey, but that there is not always leprosy where there is grey hair? Is it because hair grows from the skin, but grey hair is a kind of decay of the hair?”

In other examples we find hints to improve our mornings after boisterous symposia:

“Why does cabbage prevent headache after drinking? Is it because it has a sweet and purgative sap (and so physicians wash out the abdomen with it) and it is naturally cold?”

Then there are bizarre questions that make us wonder at the observations that must have inspired them in the first place:

“Why are those lustful whose eyelashes fall out? Is it for the same reason as that for which the bald are also lustful?”

This is not a book to read cover to cover, of course. What would be the point? It is a book for small bites, a question or two in aid of mental digestion before bed. In fact, I find it so successfully tranquilizing that I wonder if the Problems wasn’t intended as a soporific in the first place. Some problems are never solved by working on them directly, but only from an oblique angle. Insomnia, for example.

Wishing Wells

Tales of Wonder by H.G. Wells ~

I found myself not long ago in a bookshop the likes of which you rarely see anymore. Dusty, ill-lit, full of old polished bookcases that extend from the wooden floor to the twelve-foot ceiling; it even had a wall with a sliding ladder you might climb to reach the upper shelves. While browsing I overheard a young woman complimenting the odor of the place to the crusty old fellow at the desk. It was, she said, just what an old bookshop ought to smell like.

This girl (she must have been about twenty) wanted a book recommendation and the old man asked her what she generally liked to read. “Science fiction, mostly,” she said, and rattled off the names of a few contemporary authors. This shop didn’t stock much science fiction of the popular sort, but the old man asked if she had ever read Borges. She had not, but he found a volume for her and explained that while Borges was not exactly a writer of science fiction himself, he was the sort of author a good science fiction writer might like to read.

If I’d thought of it at the time, I might have piped in to recommended something by H.G. Wells. (One had the feeling somehow that this girl never read anything older than herself.) I had just started reading some of Wells stories collected in an old Collins Classics edition titled Tales of Wonder, which I’d received in my Christmas stocking. Borges was a great fan of Wells. I am too, but I’d never tried any of his shorter-form stuff.

I finished Tales of Wonder several days later. It’s possible, of course, that younger readers of today will find him troubling or unreadable for political reasons. His characters – like the characters of many Victorian authors – don’t always have a very high opinion of women and they occasionally use the N-word. If young people pass over Wells on account of these things, it’s their loss.

Some of the stories collected in my volume provide the sort of escapist science adventure you’d expect from the author of War of the Worlds: ‘Into the Abyss,’ for example, or ‘The Sea Raiders.’ Others are surprisingly comical; in this category I’d include stories like ‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ and ‘The Truth About Pyecraft.’ Still others, however – stories like ‘The Beautiful Suit’ and especially ‘The Country of the Blind’ –, are sublime and perfect and strangely moving: the kind of stories that make you sit back and say to yourself, “Wow…” Tales of Wonder indeed.