In an abrupt change of pace, I set aside the works of Walter Burkert just as he was about to show once and for all how human behavior really works, and read a mystery novel until all hours of the night. I had given up on the entire ‘reading in bed’ thing—there never seemed to be any time, I was tired, and the who really wants to read a technical excursus on Greek sacrifice in bed anyway? (Though I have heard that some scholars, when sick and confined to bed, pass the tedious hours by reading the works of the famous French epigraphist Louis Robert, and this instills in them such a profound desire to get up and work and travel that their recovery is rapid.)
Anyway, though, I’ve suffered a relapse and was reading P. D. James as a bedtime story. I was astonished at how straightforward it was—no narrative or stylistic tricks to obscure the meaning or the plot, no hidden depth of character, no unexpected descriptions. It was quite refreshing. It did, however, set me to wondering about genre. A comparison, I think, of these womanish mysteries might be helpful; and the ‘academic’ mysteries in particular might prove fruitful. There is an interesting similarity of tone between Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, the Sarah Caudwell mysteries, and even Donna Tartt’s lamentable Secret History. Is this similarity due to genre, the gender of the author, the academic setting, or the vaguely feminist-ish slant of the text? The answer is probably just ‘yes’ to all counts, and I leave it to you to sort out the particulars yourself.
So I’ve been trying to sort it out; the social life of my house-mates, I mean. Not that I’m interested. Because I’m not. But as a means of distraction. Diversion, that’s it. So there are three other girls. Well. Two girls, I would say, and one young woman, which may be too fine a distinction, I’m not quite sure. Where was I? Right. Social life. So I’m going to just leave out the personalities of these three females. That’s what people do, isn’t it, elide the means to achieve the ends. I’ve been trying to figure out which of them have boys and, if so, to which variety of the human male they belong. So far as I can see, the human male is of two types, the visible and the invisible. The visible male is territorial and will seize the possessions, the living quarters, the life and very soul of any female they chance to meet, assuming, of course, that the aforementioned female has not alienated them with petulant complaints or refusals of physical comforts. I hope we understand each other. So, for instance, the girl at the landing is possessed of a visible male. Or she was a week ago on Saturday, I’m not so sure now. He might have been on loan. He nosed about the kitchen at midday, chased her up and down the stairs a few times, and made his presence generally known. I don’t think he peed on the walls, but his territory was pretty well marked. What, then, of the invisible male? I saw one once, accidentally. The young woman (who lives near the girl at the landing, but down a little hall) had caught him, in the Netherlands or in London, I don’t know because I didn’t ask and, being invisible, the young man made no offers. He didn’t say much of anything, in fact, in the short time I followed the pair up the stairs, except to apologize for not holding the door; in this he was profuse, if quiet. I mentioned three females, though, didn’t I? Hmm. The girl at the top of the stairs is not, to my knowledge, possessed of a boy, visible or no. Or girl, for that matter. Though the seemingly non-existant boy/girl may, in fact, just live a short drive away. Again, I don’t ask. But I’m trying to figure out what sort of conclusions to draw from this non-inquiry into the character of my house-mates’ boys. And I can’t think of one, so there it is.
72. — Things which seem in poor taste: too many personal effects cluttering up the place where one is sitting; too many brushes in an ink-box; too many Buddhas in a family temple; too many children in a house; too many words in meeting someone; too many meritorious deeds recorded in a petition. Things which are not offensive, no matter how numerous: books in a book cart, rubbish in a rubbish heap.
127. — It is best not to change something if changing it will not do any good.
– from the Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō (trans. D. Keene)1
- NB — Of all the books I own, this is the one which I have happened to take with me most often on my (admittedly limited) travels. To carry around these short, opinionated essays is like carrying a container of clean, clear water, which provides refreshment at the end of a long day and serves as ballast when the going becomes difficult. [↩]
Twists & Turns
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
– Tennyson, from ‘Ulysses’
I was thinking this morning of pasting some old photographs of the sea into a little book, and annotating them with lines from Homer. As though the wine-dark sea (oinopa ponton) were not already a desperate cliché. As I said, this set me to thinking, mainly about place, but also about time. For what does the salt Pacific have to do with Aegean; and what has Hecuba to do with me, or I with Hecuba? Very little, I believe.
In the year were children born, were wars waged, and markets opened. In the year were ships sunk, were markets falling, were deserts crossed, was oil spilt more freely than wine. In the year were plagues driven through towns and cities, were roads built, were bridges burnt; in that year, too, were pestilences common and the crops were eaten by locusts. In the year were roads torn up, laid low again, were monarchs deposed and democracies installed. In the year were democracies torn up, monarchs imposed, and roadsigns installed. In the year were maps made of the territory, were trees felled, were houses built. In the year were fields mown, burned, were towns razed, were nations ravaged. In the year were feasts held, were festivities celebrated, were plays open; then, too, were symphonies performed, the lyre and kithara sounding, and the flute, too. In the year were allegiances pledged, was treachery prevalent, were deals forced. In the year were aged slaughtered, were temples burnt. In the year were people left in peace, just briefly, to scratch a little living from the uneven land. Then came the year in which children were born, wars were waged, and markets again were opened.
And that, they say, was history.
… or, Limericks in Honor of Diodorus Siculus
That clever old gent Diodorus
Has written a history for us:
At forty-odd books,
It’s given strange looks
By all who dare wade in the morass.
A Sicilian once wrote a story
Omitting all details if gory,
‘O dear Diodorus
Please, this time, don’t bore us!’
Cry readers at every foray.
In telling of Great Alexander,
Diodorus takes care not to slander—
For he’s always uncritical,
If not apolitical,
And guilty of trying to pander.
Note to Self (3)
9 December 2002
My dear M—
Just a quick note. Why is it that you only talk to people on days when you are feeling so muddle-headed that you cannot be witty and amusing even on topics you find of interest? You sound now like one of those desperate females eager to say something, anything, just to fill the silence. Also, your gestures have grown constrained: unconvincing and simply wrong. Stop it. Even so—as always—I remain
I am trying to find a way to explain this place, and failing completely. It’s not because the place is inconstant, or over-large, or complicated, or anything like that, but just that it is, in fact, so very simple that there is no way to explain it without making it seem more complicated than it actually is. As we all know, descriptions should try to present things as they actually are, so it would be pointless of me to tease out some rough and tangled observations as though they managed to get at the thing itself. Since I am thus unable to fulfill even this bare minimum of a writer’s qualifications, I shall desist and offer up a few irrelevant quotations instead.
The pursuit of poetry has helped many a man live to a ripe old age, whereas countless others have died young by seeking more to eat than they really needed. (2002.105, p. 289)
They were all wreathed in fronds of oak, and their hands were full of fragrant herbs or flowers, so that if anyone had encountered them, he would only have been able to say: ‘Either these people will not be vanquished by death, or they will welcome it with joy.’ (ibid, p. 648)
With the greatest of ease
The British are a humorous people; on the coach to Heathrow the driver urged us to ‘notice, please, ladies and gentlemen, that your seats are equipped with seatbelts. As you no doubt are keenly aware, there have been a spate of road accidents involving buses. In one of the latest, five people died, fifty-five were seriously injured, and five walked away. Guess who among them was wearing a seatbelt. Thank you for choosing this coach service, and please enjoy your flight.’
Just as the bus pulled into the central coach station at Heathrow, I realized Tariq was sitting just behind me—on his way home to Berlin for the holidays. We chatted as acquaintances do, mainly of papyrology, and bid each other a safe journey.
I was at the airport three hours early. This was stupid, but I am not a good traveler and prefer to be far, far too early for everything than be too late for anything. There were exquisitely dressed women in the line, whose scarves were knotted to show the label, whose clothes were pressed and pleasing to behold—it seemed almost a shame to hear the London bray in their voices (though it was not, admittedly, unexpected). There was also a beautiful young couple; they were so perfect it would be too simple to despise them. Men in tweed were everywhere and everyone seemed swaddled in wool. Even myself.
We were met at the airport by Peggy the drug sniffing puppy. ‘Please set your shoulder bags on the ground, so Peggy can sniff them,’ said the handler, who spoke to people with the same encouraging tones she used for the puppy (‘What do you smell, Peggy, huh? What do you smell?’). That said, it was the fastest I’ve ever been through immigrations—how empty the airport seemed.
Something about Kurt Weill. About Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and Fellini’s La Strada, about Der Blaue Engel or Byzantium.
Also something about wishing that Richard Burton played the part of Humbert Humbert in Kubrick’s Lolita, that more people resembled Peter Sellers, that someone, soon, would write a really good experimental novel that was, at the same time, a really good novel.
About Matteo Ricci. And Cicero. Simonides. That Plato was against books because they ruined the memory; later, in Florence, books were praised as an aid to memory, for holding all the things which would be otherwise forgotten—even Plato’s works (the sole intact corpus from antiquity) exists because of papyri rolls and vellum codices.
‘An eloquent man, child, and one who loved his country,’ puer ait, long after he was called Augustus (Logios anêr, ô pai, logios kai philopatris, Plut.Cic.49.3). He called him pater then had him proscribed — pater patriae, patria potestas.
That last doesn’t quite follow, does it? Well, it is one non sequitur among the many.
Treasons, Strategems, &c.
‘Most of the people I like,’ she said, ‘listen to the same sort of music I do—it’s how we find out what we have in common.’ Most of the people I like do not listen to the same sort of music as I do—mainly, I think, because the sort of music I really like is inimical to any kind of social message, to any message or meaning other than a common humanity, a hunger for life in all its miasma, a coming to grips with what is and what is not, which yet avoids complaint. Life is hard, this music says, it is complicated and dangerous and it hurts a very great deal—but it is also, inexplicably, the most beautiful, the most fantastic thing you will ever know, so make the most of it, dear fool, while you can.
Get a radio or phonograph capable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to listen to a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony or of Schubert’s C-Major Symphony. But I don’t mean you just sit down and listen. I mean this: Turn it on as loud as you can get it. Then get down on the floor and jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker as you can get it and stay there, breathing as lightly as possible, and not moving, and neither eating nor smoking nor drinking. Concentrate everything you can into your hearing and into your body. You won’t hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it. As near as you will ever get, you are inside the music; not only inside it, you are it; your body is no longer your shape and substance, it is the shape and substance of the music.
Is what you hear pretty? or beautiful? or legal? or acceptable in polite or any other society? It is beyond any calculation save and dangerous and murderous to all equilibrium in human life as human life is; and nothing can equal the rape it does on all that death; nothing except anything, anything in existence or dream, preceived anywhere remotely towards its true dimension.
(2002.108, p. 17f., [Let us now praise famous men])
For a minute the opening balanced from one side to the other. Like a walk or a march. Like God strutting in the night. The outside of her was suddenly froze and only that first part of the music was hot inside her heart. She could not even hear what sounded after, but she sat there waiting and froze, with her fists tight. After a while the music came again, harder and loud. It didn’t have anything to do with God. This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. This music was her—the real plain her.
She could not listen good enough to hear it all. The music boiled inside her. Which? To hang on to certain wonderful parts and think them over so that later she would not forget—or should she let go and listen to each part that came without thinking or trying to remember? Golly! The whole world was this music and she could not listen hard enough. Then at last the opening music came again, with all the different instruments bunched together for each note like a hard, tight fist that socked at her heart. And the first part was over.
This music did not take a long time or a short time. It did not have anything to do with time going by at all. She sat with her arms held tight around her legs, biting her salty knee very hard. It might have been five minutes she listened or half the night. The second part was black-colored—a slow march. Not sad, but like the whole world was dead and black and there was no use thinking back how it was before. One of those horn kind of instruments played a sad and silver tune. Then the music rose up angry and with excitement underneath. And finally the black march again.
But maybe the last part of the symphony was the music she loved best—glad and like the greatest people in the world running and springing up in a hard, free way. Wonderful music like this was the worst hurt there could be. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen. (2001.90, p. 101)