The Man in the Mirror

michel-de-montaigne1More often than not lately, I end my days by enjoying a little conversation with Montaigne.  Every night, there he is – just himself, open, honest, affable, charming.  What is on your mind tonight? he seems to ask.  Well, never mind, he answers, it happens to us all.  Just let me tell you how it turned out for me.  And I smile.  Yes, tell me.

It is said that every person who reads Montaigne looks into a mirror and sees himself (and by himself, I mean anyone of any gender).  “Every man has within him the entire human condition,” he said.  One 16th century admirer said that anyone reading Montaigne’s Essays might feel as if he himself had written it.  Over two centuries later Emerson would say that it seemed to him that he himself had written the book in some former life.  Stefan Zweig, World War II exile: “Here is a ‘you’ in which my ‘I’ is reflected; here is where all distance is abolished.  Four hundred years disappear like smoke.”  Of Montaigne’s timeless appeal, William Hazlitt says in his preface to The Complete Essays of Montaigne, “this is true fame.  A man of genius belongs to no period and no country.  He speaks the language of nature, which is always everywhere the same.”

Montaigne sought answers to the same questions that we all ask.  They were not so different in the sixteenth century – what to make of our experiences, how to endure grief and misfortune, whether it’s more enjoyable to have sex standing up or lying down (he preferred the latter), how to reassure a friend who thinks a witch has cast a spell on him (how many of us have tried to help a friend through that!), and what was going through his cat’s mind when he played with her.

Montaigne was intensely curious about human nature.  He believed that a man’s life is not the sum of his deeds, but of his thoughts.  He questioned and wondered ceaselessly about what people thought, how they felt, and why they did what they did.  And because he himself was the specimen closest to hand, he focused the microscope on himself, a subject on which, as he put it, he was “the most learned man alive.”  He deconstructed his mind, his feelings, his experiences in the most minute and astonishingly frank detail and delivered every bit of it to us in his Essays.

In his thirties, Montaigne became obsessed with death.  He lost his father in 1568.  The following year, his 27-year old brother Arnaud was struck in the head by a ball while playing jeu de paume,(an early version of tennis) and died a few hours later.   Montaigne’s first child died at the age of two months – he would bear the deaths of five of his six children.  The most painful loss of Montaigne’s life was the death of his closest friend, Etienne de La Boetie, at the age of 32.

With such frequent and ordinary examples passing before our eyes, how can we possibly rid ourselves of the thought of death and of the idea that at every moment it is gripping us by the throat.   At every moment let us picture it in our imagination in all its aspects.  At the stumbling of a horse, the fall of a tile, the slightest pin prick, let us promptly chew on this:  Well what if it were death itself?

By his forties and fifties, however, Montaigne’s essays reveal a more sanguine state of mind.   Montaigne himself had come very close to death in a riding accident.  Carefully recorded by Montaigne, based on what he remembered and the observations of those around him at the time, it may be the most famous near-death experience in literature.  As recounted in Sarah Bakewell’s lively biography of Montaigne, “How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (a title which Montaigne would surely have approved), he remembered clearly what he felt when he regained consciousness.  His servants were carrying him back toward his chateau, his wife struggling over the rough ground to get to them.  His vision was blurry, but he could see that his clothes were bloody from the clots of blood he had vomited.  Inwardly, he felt very calm and langorous, vaguely aware of his body, but as though from a distance.

It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go.  It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who let themselves slide into sleep.

He felt no pain.  He was aware of but unconcerned by the efforts and anxiety of those around him.  As his servants settled him into bed, he recalled “ ‘I felt infinite sweetness in this repose, for I had been villainously yanked about by those poor fellows, who had taken the pains to carry me in their arms over a long and very bad road.’  He refused all medicines, sure that he was destined just to slip away.  It was going to be a ‘very happy death.’”  Later, however, when he had recovered, the servants and family members who had been present during and after the accident told a completely different story.  Witnesses said that he had “thrashed about, ripping at his doublet with his nails, as if to rid himself of a weight.  ‘My stomach was oppressed with the clotted blood; my hands flew to it of their own accord, as they often do where we itch, against the intention of our will.’  It looked as if he were trying to rip his own body apart, or perhaps to pull it away from him so his spirit could depart.”

Meticulously recreating his sensations, in dying, he now realized, you do not encounter death at all, for you are gone before it gets there.  You die in the same way that you fall asleep: by drifting away.  If other people try to pull you back, you hear their voices on ‘the edges of the soul.’  Your existence is attached by a thread; it rests only on the tip of your lips, as he put it. Dying is not an action that can be prepared for.   It is an aimless reverie.”   From then on, Montaigne refused to worry about death.   “In one of his last added notes, he wrote that death is only a few bad moments at the end of life, and not worth wasting any anxiety over.

It is impossible to read Montaigne’s account of his brush with death and not feel consoled.  It is equally impossible to read his essais and not be entertained and warmed by his friendly understanding, or, as journalist Bernard Levin said “not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity, ‘How did he know all that about me?'”   Hazlitt captured this reader experience perfectly:  “Montaigne took the world into his confidence on all subjects.  Few men have left so much of their life behind them in their writing.”

“Cut these words,” Emerson said, “and they would bleed.”

A Hole in the World

When I was thirteen months old, my mother killed herself.  I didn’t know my mother, except as infants know. At the beginning of my life, the world acquired a hole. That’s what I knew, that there was a hole in the world. For me, there still is. It’s a singularity. In and out of a hole like that, anything goes.

A Hole in the World

So begins A Hole in the World,  An American Boyhood, the remarkable memoir of Richard Rhodes, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and National Critic’s Circle Award for The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

On C-Span recently, I came upon a replay of a book discussion in which Rhodes talked about his 2010 book The Twilight of the Bombs.

http://www.c-span.org/video/?297087-1/book-discussion-twilight-bombs

Having read A Hole in the World some years before, I watched and listened to Rhodes intently. He was confident, at ease with the audience, knowledgeable, speaking fluently to his subject. Knowing what I did about the darkness of his childhood, I wondered at the man he had become.

My mother [Georgia Saphronia Collier Rhodes] shot herself in the bathroom of the little white bungalow house where we lived, on Alden Street in Kansas City, Kansas, on Monday morning, July 25, 1938. She slipped the stick that weighted the linen bathroom window shade from its slot, sat on the toilet, put her mouth around the muzzle of a 12-gauge shotgun and used the stick to push the trigger.

 Arthur Rhodes, the boys’ father, was a boilermaker’s assistant with a third-grade education. Speaking of the couple’s relationship, Georgia’s older sister Espy recalled that Arthur was “hard on her, didn’t give her enough money for groceries” and suspected that Georgia had been pregnant when she killed herself. They had quarreled the weekend before and Arthur had threatened to leave her. Rhodes writes in the book, “I’m sorry for her pain, but what pain she inflicted on us all with her suicide.”

After the death of their mother, the oldest of the three sons, Mack, went to live with relatives in Washington state. Arthur kept two-year old Stanley and the baby, Richard, with him. For the next nine years, Arthur and his two sons lived in boardinghouses. Life was not easy. The boys were always hungry, as “barring the kitchen is the first principle of boardinghouse cost control.” And Arthur was a firm disciplinarian who did not hesitate to employ corporal punishment when he thought it necessary. But father and sons were together, the boys had him to themselves, they had a protector, the hole receded.

Richard learned to read at the age of four, taught by a boardinghouse owner’s wife who had an enormous supply of love and a devout belief in education.

Once I learned to read, I was launched, adrift in dreamtime half the rest of my life. Now I saw – because Mrs. Gernhardt started me, and my vernacular brother guided me to fluency – that words could boil up worlds that towered overhead like a spring storm, splashed light and shadow the length and width of a city, drove crowds under cover, crashed lightning, uprooted trees, flooded streets, stopped traffic, rumbled away in a passage of cold wind and abruptly dissipated, pure energy, nothing left but clean air and the bright sun shining. That real, that profligate, that leviathan, and all of it open to me without restraint in the pages of books, pouring out into my child’s life like Niagara. Books embellished the hole to a window, worlds beyond the world where the mysteries of the world had explanations.

In February 1947, Arthur Rhodes and his two young sons moved into the home of Anne Ralena Martin. Anne and Arthur would soon marry. They had been seeing each other and it was obvious that Arthur wanted his boys to like her. “I don’t think we did,” says Rhodes, “after nine years of boardinghouses we had sensitive bullshit detectors – her voice was Southern and honeyed, cunning, edged with menace.”

Anne had been married four or five times prior to her marriage to Arthur Rhodes. She was “small, heavily made-up and perfumed, with white skin, a full head of dark hair, large breasts, very curvy, very feminine, and evidently a man-trap, someone who bushwhacked husbands and cleaned them out.”  Their father became her plow horse, said Rhodes, and she worked him for more than fifteen years until he died of cancer of the stomach in 1964.

“Your Dad’s let you run wild,” she said to the boys, “we’ll get along just fine as soon as you two learn that we have a few rules around here.” Thus began the 28-month concentration camp of Stanley and Richard’s new stepmother. The coercion and control began almost immediately. The “rules” were myriad, some simple, some complex and incomprehensible, and the consequences of any infraction were unpredictable and capricious – “the capriciousness was part of the terror, so we scrambled to learn all the rules at once.” Physical abuse progressed to systematic starvation. But it was not enough for her. “More effective control required undermining our boundaries from within. As diseases do, our stepmother sought to harness our physiology to her own ends.”

The boys were forbidden to bathe in the bathtub. Worse, they were denied access to the bathroom at night. As Rhodes wrote, telling someone not to do something is a powerful form of suggestion to induce him to do it.

Every night, I dutifully went to the bathroom before climbing into my bunk, but as soon as Stanley turned out the light and we settled down to sleep, I felt my bladder fill. I then lay awake for hours. I tried to redirect my thoughts, tell myself stories, recite numbers, count sheep. I clamped my sphincters until they cramped and burned. Lying on my back, hurting and urgent, I cried silently to the ceiling low overhead, tears running down my face without consolation, only reminding me of the other flow of body fluid that my commandant had blocked. When clamping my sphincters no longer worked I pinched my penis to red pain. Once or twice, early in the chronology of this torture, I wet the bed. That villainy erupted in such monstrous humiliation that I learned not to repeat it. Thereafter I added struggling to stay awake to struggling to retain my urine.

To this day, forty years later, once a month or so, pain wakes me.  Falling asleep with urine in my bladder or unmoved rectal stool.  I still reflexively tighten my pelvic muscles until my sphincters cramp.  My stepmother, my commandant, still intermittently controls my body even at this distant and safe remove.  I sit on the toilet those nights in the silence of my house forcing my sphincters to relax, waiting out the pain in the darkness, remembering her.

Rhodes writes “but for all her sadistic deprivations, even starving us, I despise her most for forcing us to live in filth. The dirt on my body disrupted not only my bodily integrity but also my fragile connection with other human beings, my classmates, my teachers. My ears were black. My neck was black. My armpits and my groin were black. My socks rotted off my feet. I stank.”

Incomprehensibly, in unforgivable cowardice, the boys’ father did nothing to stop the abuse. He was as terrified of her as they.

Once, for example, she and Dad had an argument that ranted on into the night, so that I fell asleep to it, and was still raging in the morning when I waked. I could see into the kitchen from my upper bunk bed on the sleeping porch. I opened my eyes to Dad standing bareass naked at the stove frying eggs. My stepmother then swung through the kitchen door in her bathrobe. ‘Aren’t you ashamed to be walking around naked in front of your children?’ she challenged Dad contemptuously.

‘Why should I be ashamed?’  he threw back. ‘You tell me I’m not a man. Let them see for themselves.’

‘You dirty bastard,’ she told him. ‘You ought to get some clothes on.’

‘I’ll get my clothes on when I’m damned good and ready,’ Dad blustered.

She grabbed the boiling teakettle off the stove and brandished it. ‘You son of a bitch,’ she shouted at him, ‘You think you can push me around? You go get some clothes on or I’ll scald your ugly prick!’

Dad stared at her. He believed her. He hung his head and walked out. She took over at the stove.

0014ce46_medium

 Rhodes notes that in her book The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry speaks of the prisoner’s steadily shrinking ground that wins for the torturer his swelling sense of territory.

“For two years,” he says, “our stepmother funneled us into smaller and smaller spaces of physical and mental confinement – less food, less room, less nurture, less hope – in order to swell her own. In time, under her vicious regimen, we might have come to occupy no space at all.”

 

Ultimately, it was Stanley who saved them. After a particularly brutal beating with a brass-studded belt, he ran. He hid for a day in the sewer tunnels, but realized there was nowhere to go, no one who wanted him. He also knew that he could not leave Richard behind unprotected. “Somehow, a 13-year old boy – starved to 97 pounds, bearing the marks of beatings, knowing that if he were returned to that house it could be fatal – found the courage to take responsibility for a frightened younger brother and two criminally irresponsible adults.” He walked into a police station and told their story.

The boys were removed from Anne and Arthur’s custody and admitted to the Andrew Drumm Institute. Drumm Farm, as it is known by locals, was at that time a working farm and home for orphaned and impoverished boys. Today, it is a community for all children in foster care. Drumm Farm is less than ten miles from my home. I drove there during the time I was writing this, on a beautiful summer day in August, about the time of year that Stanley and Richard were taken there. The main buildings sit high on a hill, quiet, narrow tree-lined lanes curving around the neat, red brick buildings, a pastoral island in the midst of the suburban communities grown up around it.

Drumm Farm

http://drummforkids.org/who-we-are/our-campus/

I tried to imagine what Richard and Stanley must have felt when they first saw it. Rhodes writes:

Food, work, terrain, weather and people surrounded me and passed through me. I absorbed the beneficence operationally, in and through my body, and the learning took years. There was a child went forth every day, Walt Whitman declares, and all that he looked upon became part of him. I was that child. At Drumm I was that child. I opened into the world and incorporated it. I deflated and solidified and filled.

A Hole in the World is a moving and eloquent attempt by Rhodes to “pack away” the poisonous memory of his stepmother years. It is also an exorcism of repressed anger against a father who failed his sons so miserably. Finally, it is a detailed, heart-wrenching account of how child abuse can progress unnoticed and unimpeded in a community, step by incremental step, not only damaging the child victims physically and psychologically, but polluting the essential human decency of every person touched by it in any way.

In a new epilogue to the tenth anniversary edition of the book, Rhodes says that he has stopped trying to answer the inevitable questions ‘Why didn’t your father do anything? Have you forgiven your stepmother?’

If family, church, school and community fail to protect a child from violence, why should a child credit their authority? Why should I? I rejected religion long ago and I have my doubts about family. Both institutions claim far more sanctity than they have earned. The brutalization of children is the initiating trauma that leads some children to choose violent careers – to assault, rape, and murder. I was lucky. Stanley’s courage rescued me. Surviving childhood should not depend on luck.

For Rhodes, there are no answers and no forgiveness.

Why Bother?

Some ten years or so ago, a book of essays caught my eye on a Barnes & Noble sale table –  How to be Alone by Jonathan Franzen.  This was after publication of The Corrections.  I had not read any of Franzen’s novels, but the title of the essay collection caught my attention.  I generally avoid like the plague books with “How To” in the title, but being where I was in life at the time (a subject for another post), I bought it.  One of my better decisions.

How to be Alone-Franzen

The essays are very personal – Franzen reveals much about himself.  They are also elegant, poignant, funny, despairing of our noisome modern culture, and mournful of “the obsolescence of serious art in general.”  Franzen notes in the introduction:

The particulars of content matter less to me than the underlying investigation in all these essays – the problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture:  the question of how to be alone.

While every one of the essays is worth reading and regular re-reading, one in particular resonated with me – the famous (so I learned) “Harper’s Essay” published originally in the April 1996 issue of Harper’s Magazine, revised for the How to be Alone collection and re-titled “Why Bother?”

“Why Bother” did a lot of things for me. It diagnosed my depression and self-inflicted isolation as “depressive realism.”  I liked that – so much more intellectual and philosophical sounding. I now understand that it’s not me who is sick,  it is the world, and that my reclusiveness is actually a healthy resistance to functioning in such a sick world.  As Franzen says, “Instead of saying I am depressed, you want to say I am right!”  

But still, he says, “all the available evidence suggests that you have become a person who’s impossible to live with and no fun to talk to.”  Yes, well, so be it.

In “Why Bother” Franzen also discusses his interviews with Shirley Brice Heath, a linguistic anthropologist, a MacArthur Fellow, and a professor of English and linguistics at Stanford.  She was, he says, the “beacon in the murk” that helped him get back on track as a writer.  At the time of Heath’s interviews with Franzen, she was studying the audience for serious fiction in America, “which novelists like to imagine [as] a ‘general audience’ – a large, eclectic pool of decently educated people who can be induced, by strong enough reviews or aggressive enough marketing, to treat themselves to a good, serious book.”

Heath’s extensive research, however, pointed to something quite different. For a person to sustain an interest in literature, she said, two things have to be in place:

 1.  The habit of reading works of substance must have been ‘heavily modeled’ when he or she was young.  In other words, one or both of the parents must have been reading serious books and must have encouraged the child to do the same.

2. Simply having a parent who reads is not enough, however, to produce a lifelong dedicated reader.   Young readers also need to find a person with whom they can share their interest.  ‘A child who’s got the habit will start reading under the covers with a flashlight,’ she said.  ‘If the parents are smart, they will forbid the child to do this, and thereby encourage her.  Otherwise, she’ll find a peer who also has the habit, and the two of them will keep it a secret between them.  Finding a peer can take place as late as college.  In high school, especially, there’s a social penalty to be paid for being a reader.

Interestingly, Franzen remarked that he did not even meet the first criteria, that he did not remember either of his parents ever reading a book when he was a child, except aloud to him, and as to peer readers, he remembered only discovering two friends in junior high school with whom he could talk about J.R.R. Tolkien.

Without missing a beat, Heath replied:  “Yes, but there’s a second kind of reader.  There’s the social isolate – the child who from an early age felt very different from everyone around him.  This is very, very difficult to uncover in an interview.  People don’t like to admit that they were social isolates as children.  What happens is you take that sense of being different into an imaginary world.  But that world, then, is a world you can’t share with the people around you – because it’s imaginary.  And so the important dialogue in your life is with the authors of the books you read.  Though they aren’t present, they become your community.

Readers of the social-isolate variety (Heath also calls them ‘resistant’ readers) are much more likely to become writers than those of the modeled-habit variety.  If writing was the medium of communication within the community of childhood, it makes sense that when writers grow up they continue to find writing vital to their sense of connectedness.

Franzen says that he felt that Heath was looking straight into his soul:  “And the exhilaration that I felt at her accidental description of me, in unpoetic polysyllables, was my confirmation of that description’s truth.  Simply to be recognized for what I was, simply not to be misunderstood:  these had revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.”

In a letter to Franzen, discussing his (Franzen’s) conflict between feeling that he should “Address the Culture and Bring News to the Mainstream” and his desire to write about the things he felt closest to, the things he loved, Don Delillo wrote:

Writing is a form of personal freedom.  It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us.  In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture, but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.

Reading Franzen’s essay was like a lightning bolt of illumination.  I was that “social isolate” as a child.  My mother would take school library books away from me and tell me to “go play with the rest of the kids.”  Ours was not a reading household.  I remember finding a good hiding place to read under the high front porch of our rented house, cool and shaded in the hot summer.  But my mother found me out eventually – she always did.  Thus it was early on that I realized that I was different and – in my mother’s opinion – not in a good way.

Like Franzen with Shirley Heath’s research, I felt exhilaration when I read his essay, and I was glad I had been that isolated child, slipping into my imaginary community every chance I could get.   Glad that I still am.

To be recognized for what we are, simply not to be misunderstood, to save ourselves, to survive as individuals.  Why bother?  How can we not?

 

 

Remembrance of Love Past

It wasn’t a madeleine that broke the dam of memory. It was reading this:

“I love being in love with you.  It makes even unhappiness seem no bigger than a pin, even at the times when I wished so violently that I could give my heart to science and be rid of it.”

In a flash of a moment, I was decades back in time, awash in memories and emotion.  The image of his face the last time I saw him – his hair had grown past the point of his usual tolerance and a small lock over his right ear stuck out awkwardly.  Why does that memory, that image in my mind’s eye of one small unruly lock of hair, have the power still to hurt my heart?

It is a mystery to me, as love itself is a mystery – a mystery, an abyss of uncertainty and danger, an irresistible impulse.  Yes, I loved being in love with him – never have I felt more alive.

I had been reading, enjoying, Michael Dirda’s Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life, thoroughly engaged with his essays on “Life Lines”, “The Pleasures of Learning”, and “Work and Leisure” until I found myself in “The Books of Love,”  reading the James Schuyler quote above.  I stepped away from myself and thought about the effect of a chance reading of a few words, how another human being, whose existence I know nothing about and who knows nothing about mine, could understand with an insight so precise, exactly how I had felt.

And I thought about love, its mystery,  joy, pain, its residual power to render us helpless, even if only for a moment.

I began pulling old friends and acquaintances from the shelves to join Mr. Dirda.  What better support group than this?

 

Evelyn WaughEvelyn Waugh answered my first question:

 

After discovering that his wife had left him for another man, he said, “I did not know it was possible to be so miserable and live, but I am told that this is a common experience.”

 

Common.  That is a comfort, isn’t it.  Not right away, no, but soon.  Soon, if we know to whom to turn.

 

 

Dianne Ackerman, in A Natural History of Love (a fascinating book on the historical, cultural, religious, and biological roots of love): 

Romantic love is a biological ballet, evolution’s way of making sure that sexual partners meet and mate, then give their child the care it needs to be healthy and make loving attachments of its own.  This is not a simple or fast process.  The human brain is so complex, the mind so ingenious, that biology and experience work hand in hand.  People undergo a series of crushes, infatuations and loves, and learn to make magnetic attachments, whose power they feel in their cells, in their bones.  It is as if they are two stars, tightly orbiting each other, each feeding on the other’s gravity.”

But why him? (or her?)

sir-frank-dicksee-british-painter1853-1928-e28093-leila-1892James Joyce, in Ulysses (quoted in Book by Book):  “. . . and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

The poetry of Sappho (quoted in Book by Book):

Eros make me shiver again,

Strengthless in the knees,

Eros gall and honey,

Snake-sly, invincible.

 Montaigne:  “If you pressed me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than it was because he was he and I was I.”

Anne Carson, in EROS, the Bittersweet, a book that explores literary and philosophical contradictions and paradoxes of romantic love:

“As Socrates tells it, your story begins the moment Eros enters you.  That incursion is the biggest risk of your life.  How you handle it is an index of the quality, wisdom and decorum of the things inside you.  As you handle it, you come in contact with what is inside you, in a sudden and startling way.  You perceive what you are, what you lack, and what you could be.  It is a mode of perception that is so different from ordinary perception that it is well-described as madness.  This mood is no delusion, in Socrates’ belief.  It is a glance down into time, at realities you once knew, as staggeringly beautiful as the glance of your beloved.  To address yourself to the moment when Eros glances into your life and to grasp what is happening in your soul at that moment is to begin to understand how to live.”

I loved him because he was he and I was I

But did I believe it would last forever?

François_de_La_Rochefoucauld

La Rochefoucauld, bottomless font of bitter wisdom:

“Love is found in the one who loves, rather than in the one who is loved.  The pleasure of love lies in loving, and our own sensations make us happier than those we inspire.”

 

“In the last stages of love and life, we live for the pain and not the pleasure.”

 

 

Penelope Fitzgerald in The Blue Flower (quoted in Book by Book):

“A successful surgeon realizes that the woman with whom he grew infatuated when young has forgotten his name: ‘What means something to us, that we can name.  Sink, he told his hopes, sink like a corpse dropped into the river.  I am rejected, not for being unwelcome, not even for being ridiculous, but for being nothing.'”

Diane Ackerman:

” . . . a broken relationship rips the lining from the heart, crushes the rib cage, shatters the lens of hope, and produces a drama both tragic and predictable.  Wailing out loud or silently, clawing at the world and at one’s self, the abandoned lover mourns. . . First we protest and refuse to accept the truth, we keep thinking the loved one will magically return.  Next we sob a torrent of tears.  Then we sink into despair; the world sags under the dead weight of our pain.  And at long last we mourn.  In time, we gather our strengths like so many lost buttons and begin searching for a likely attachment once again.”

The regrets 

Regrets for yielding to love.  Regrets for rejecting it.  Regrets for our choices.

Joseph Mitchell (quoted in Book by Book):

“I’m ninety-four years . . . and my mind is just a turmoil of regrets . . . In the summer of 1902 I came real close to getting in serious trouble with a married woman, but I had a fight with my conscience and my conscience won, and what’s the result?  I had two wives, good Christian women, and I can’t hardly remember what either of them looked like, but I can remember the face of that woman so clear it hurts, and there’s never a day passes I don’t think about her, and there’s never a day passes I don’t curse myself. ‘What kind of a timid, dried up, weevily fellow were you?’ I say to myself. ‘You should’ve said to hell with what’s right and what’s wrong, the devil take the hindmost.  You’d have something to remember, you’d be happier now.’  She’s out in Woodlawn, six feet under, and she’s been there twenty-two years, God rest her, and here I am, just an old, old man with nothing left but a belly and a brain and a dollar or two.” 

And a final grounding:

Dorothy Parker (quoted from memory, but I think I have it right):

“Oh I shall be ’til Gabriel’s trump,

Nostalgic for some distant dump;

And ever doomed to weep me dry

For some lost mediocre guy.”

 

 

Platero and I

 

PlateroPlatero is small, fluffy, soft; so soft on the outside that one would say he is all cotton, that he carries no bones.  Only the jet-dark mirrors of his eyes are hard as two scarabs of black crystal.

I let him loose and he runs to the meadow; warmly, hardly touching them, he brushes his nose against the tiny pink, sky-blue and golden yellow flowers . . . I call him sweetly:  “Platero?” and he comes to me at a gay little trot as though he were laughing, I do not know within what fancy world of jingles.

He eats whatever I give him.  He likes oranges, tangerines, muscatel grapes, all amber, purple figs with their crystalline tiny drops of honey.

He is tender and cuddly, as a little boy, as a little girl . . . but inside he is strong and dry as a stone.  When I ride him on Sunday through the last alleyways of the town, the men from the fields, dressed neatly and slow moving, stand still watching him.

“He’s got steel.”

Steel, yes.  Steel and moon silver at the same time.

Platero and I, written in the early 1900’s by Juan Ramón Jiménez, is a Spanish classic, a shimmering lyrical prose poem made up of short vignettes. Platero is the poet’s beloved burro.  Together Jiménez and Platero walk the fields and meadows of Andalusia and the alleyways of the author’s home village of Moguer.   The poet observes life, its joy and pain, in simple, ordinary occurrences, daily routines, the changes of seasons, and muses aloud to Platero, dumb and innocent witness.  Ordinary life takes on a poignant intensity.  As Louis Simpson remarks in the Introduction, “life is open to the earth and sky, whatever one sees.  Some things are terrible to see.”

I do not know how to leave here, Platero.  Who can leave him there, poor thing, without guide and protection?

He must have strayed from the boneyard.  I believe he does not see or hear us.  You saw him this morning by that same fence, his sad, dry misery lighted under the white clouds by the radiant sun and covered by moving islands of living flies, alien to the prodigious beauty of the winter day.  He would turn once around slowly, disoriented, lame on all four legs, and he would come around again to the same spot.  He has done nothing but shift his flank.  This morning he was facing west, now he faces east.

What a hurdle old age is, Platero!  There you see that poor friend, free and unable to move, even when spring is moving towards him.  Or is he already dead, like Bécquer, and remains still standing?  A child could draw his fixed outline against the evening sky.

There you see it . . . I have tried to push him but he does not move . . . Nor does he pay attention to my calls . . . It looks as if the agony of death has planted him to the ground . . .

Platero, he is going to die of cold against that high fence, tonight, as the north wind sweeps . . . I do not know how I can leave here; I do not know what to do, Platero.

But there is joy in living, all the same:

One day, the green canary, I do not know how or why, flew from his cage.  He was an old canary, a sad memento from a dead woman, and I never set him free for fear he might die of hunger or cold, or that the cats might eat him.  He flew about all morning among the pomegranates in the orchard, in the pine by the door, among the lilacs.  The children too remained all morning long sitting on the porch, fascinated by the brief flights of the yellowing bird.  Free, Platero idled among the rosebushes, playing with a butterfly.

In the evening, the canary came to the roof of the big house, and there he remained for a long while, shaking in the mild setting sun.  Suddenly, and without anyone knowing how or why, he appeared in his cage, joyful again.  What excitement in the garden.  The children jumped, clapping hands, laughing . . . Platero, touched by it all, in a surge of silvery flesh, like a tiny little goat, thrust his hoofs in the air, turned around on his legs in a crude waltz, and standing on his front legs, kicked the clear and warm air  . . .

Platero and I  is a wonderful and moving meditation on love, life, and the full acceptance of life, with all of its joy, its pain, and its finality.  Platero wishes only to live, enjoying everything gaily; the taste of a pomegranate, the yellow lilies and singing orioles in the orchard of La Piña where he is buried.   We are held close, lovingly, by Jiménez and Platero.  Simpson says it so perfectly – before such love the mental barrier we think of as death must fall.

In the Country of Books

It is only fitting, I think, that my first post should tell you a little about the book that inspired me to start this blog.

http://www.amazon.com/In-Country-Books-Commonplace-Readings/dp/1848760612/ref=sr_1_2_bnp_1_pap?ie=UTF8&qid=1401921833&sr=8-2&keywords=Katzev In the Country of Books, by Richard Katzev, Ph.D., is at once delightful and fascinating.  In reading the first few pages, you know you are in the company of a fellow reader who “gets it,” one who understands and appreciates the lure of language and the magic and majesty of literature.

Page from Jefferson's Commonplace BookIn reading, especially in history and biography, I had noticed references to commonplace books and, from the context, had a general idea of what they were.  But after reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson and learning about the commonplace books he kept from boyhood, I became really curious.

So I did what every other thinking person of an enquiring mind would do – I googled “commonplace books!”   Eventually, I found my way to In the Country of Books.   What a lucky find.  Dr. Katzev is a dedicated journalist of readings, and he shares many of his interesting entries in his book.  But he has also delved deeply into the tradition of commonplace books and reading journals, the compulsion that some of us have to record and annotate what we read, and ultimately,  in his words, “the experience of the readers, how literature enters their lives, and possibly changes them.”

In the Preface of his book, Dr. Katzev quotes Proust:

In reading, friendship is suddenly brought back to its original purity.  There is no false amiability with books.  If we spend the evening with these friends, it is because we genuinely want to. 

I’m looking forward to many more evenings with these friends.