Saturday, December 21, 2019

From William James' Address to the Graduates of the Boston [Women's] Normal School of Gymnastics, Class of 189X

They tell us that in Norway the life of the women has lately been entirely revolutionized by the new order of muscular feelings with which the use of the ski, or long snow-shoes, as a sport for both sexes, has made the women acquainted.  Fifteen years ago the Norwegian women were even more than the women of other lands votaries of the old-fashioned ideal of femininity, the "domestic angel," the "gentle and refining influence" sort of thing.  Now these sedentary fireside tabby-cats of Norway have been trained, they say, by the snow-shoes into lithe and audacious creatures for whom no night is too dark or height too giddy; and who are not only saying good-bye to the traditional feminine pallor and delicacy of constitution, but actually taking the lead in every educational and social reform.  I cannot but think that the tennis and tramping and skating habits and the bicycle-craze which are so rapidly extending among our dear sisters and daughters in this country are going also to lead to a sounder and heartier moral tone, which will send its tonic breath through all our American life.

Meaningless Pulses in 3/4 Time^

No goddess ex machina came to my rescue
From Hollywood, Hartford or Speyer-on-Rhine.^
A black hippopotama tortured my dreams
But her visits were random,
Not set by design.^

My comrades, you shouldn't reflect on my passing;
I've come and I've gone like degradable swine.^
My signatures fade into life everlasting,
But life in the abstract --
Not yours and not mine.

Where ^ = a quarter rest

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

From the Introduction to Fernando Pessoa's Book of Disquiet

Pessoa's sexual abstinence (it is probable, though not provable, that he died a virgin) was by his own account a conscious choice, which he apparently sought to justify in The Book of Disquiet, with passages insisting on the impossibility of possessing another body [and] on the superiority of love in two dimensions (enjoyed by couples that inhabit paintings, stained-glass windows and Chinese teacups).

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Lake Ypacarai

Paraguay has an other-worldliness to it.   Have you read Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude?  On my three trips there, I felt as if I had been booted out of the back of a C-130 Hercules into Macondo, the town ruled over by the Buendias of Marquez, where periodic epidemics of communal absent-mindedness require that the word "cow" be painted on the side of every cow, so that people don't forget what they are.

On my last trip, in April of 1999, for Habitat for Humanity, my team of gringos had two days to kill before pitching in to mix the mortar and set the rudimentary bricks of the new houses that we were to make down by the big river that separates the capital of Asuncion from the Argentinian outback.

We decided to spend one day visiting a local resort about 30 km east of Asuncion -- Aregua.   It lies on the shore of Lake Ypacarai, one of the largest in Paraguay.   We expected to find there a sort of Sebago South (way south that is; Asuncion is on about the same latitude as Johannesburg).  

April in Paraguay would be the equivalent of Sept/Oct north of the equator.   So one might think that that would be near peak time for a resort.  But in the event, we saw only a single boat during our excursion, or perhaps I should say the skeletal remains of a boat, hard aground.  It appeared to be a Chris Craft, but it might have been a knock off, like the "Rolexes" sold on the streets of the capital on Saturdays -- market day.

As I recall, we saw only one little restaurant that was open, and we may have purchased a few empanadas and Cokes there for lunch.  We walked down the main avenue.   There were tourist shops there but no tourists.   Nor were there many proprietors; they all seemed to be hiding in the tropical overgrowth.  But the wares of the shops were out on the street; they were plaster busts of cartoon figures, each about a foot tall.  Most popular among them were busts of Porky the Pig.   There seemed to be scores of them.

We made the excursion in part because, at that time, one could make the journey via the last steam train running in South America, pulled by an ancient British engine.   The schedule was such that we had to take a bus to Aregua from Asuncion, but we did catch the train on the way back.   It approached us, roughly 40 minutes late, with a mighty "I Think I Can! I Think I Can!," but it never exceeded 15 mph.   The single passenger car did not fit into the nostalgia for steam; it looked like an old suburban Budliner with all of its electrical stuff ripped out for scrap.  Indeed, the highlight for us on the way back was lurching through the local suburbs, where we could see into the windows of real, mainstream Paraguayos in their defiance of poverty.   At the Central Station in Asuncion, there was a little grade that the engine had to mount before being put to bed under the canopy of the station.   We passengers were asked to get out and help push it up the incline.

As Wikipedia will confirm, Lake Ypacarai does have its place in history.  In the late 19th century, Elizabeth, the sister of Friedrich Nietzsche, married the rabid anti-Semite Bernhard Forster.   The two got the hare-brained idea that they could save the pure Aryan blood of the Germans from contamination by setting up a colony of settlers near the Chaco -- the god-forsaken part of Paraguay, north of Asuncion and running up towards Bolivia, where it regularly reaches 120 degs in summer and the evening's entertainment might consist of listening to a jaguar tear out the entrails of an unlucky tapir.  ("Jaguar" is the only English word that is a borrowing from the language of the indigenous people of Paraguay -- Guarani.)   Thus Nueva Germania was born.  And thus it died when Elizabeth and her husband were not able to sustain sufficient numbers to keep the plots of land that they had provisionally purchased from the Paraguayan government, which was eager to promote settlement after 80% of the male population of Paraguay perished in the "War of the Triple Alliance," which took place around the time of our Civil War.   

Elizabeth turned against her husband after this debacle.   He turned to drink, but his last drink, taken in San Bernardino, a little east of Aregua and also on the shores of the lake, was strychnine.   There he died and was buried in 1889.   His wife went on to promote herself by tying her brother with no foundation in fact to Nazi sentiment.   When she died in 1935, a photo documents that Chancellor Adolph Hitler sat before her coffin, front and center.   And a rare thing for the Man Without Pity -- he looked emotionally stricken.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Modern man has no external enemies or obstacles but rips himself apart, persecutes himself, gnaws at himself, gives himself no peace; he is like an animal who batters himself raw on the bars of his cage.

                                                          -- Friedrich Nietzsche

Resentment is like taking poison and hoping that the other man will die.

                                                                          -- St. Augustine

Friday, August 2, 2019

Women, or the most exquisite of them, know this:  a little fatter, a little thinner -- oh, how much destiny lies in so little!

                                                                       -- Friedrich Nietzsche

Saturday, March 2, 2019

James, With His Usual Economy

Flaubert liked tinsel better than silver because tinsel possessed all silver's attributes plus one in addition -- pathos.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Jordan Peterson, via Norman Doidge 

All the ancients, from Buddha to the biblical authors, knew what every slightly worn-out adult knows, that life is suffering.  If you are suffering, or someone close to you is, that's sad.  But alas, it's not particularly special.  We don't suffer only because "politicians are dimwitted," or "the system is corrupt," or because you and I, like almost everyone else, can legitimately describe ourselves, in some way, as a victim of something or someone.  It is because we are born human that we are guaranteed a good dose of suffering … Rearing kids is hard, work is hard, aging, sickness and death are hard, and [Peterson emphasizes] that doing all that totally on your own, without the benefit of a loving relationship, or wisdom, or the psychological insights of the greatest psychologists, only makes it harder.  [In saying this] He wasn't scaring [his] students; in fact, they found this frank talk reassuring, because in the depths of their psyches, most of them knew what he said was true, even if there was never a forum to discuss it -- perhaps because the adults in their lives had become so naively overprotective that they deluded themselves into thinking that not talking about suffering would in some way magically protect their children from it.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Love's Labour

Pushing spindles of steel wire up an incline on my hands and knees,
And barrels of ten pennies hoisted to a lorry bed,
The back egad in spasms of an older man.

The healing hands of Sheila.  Always healing.
Then a steaming checkered rag pressed hard against the small of it.
The tickling raven hair upon my neck as if on purpose.

Ministrations.   Eye contact thereafter in a grungy twilit room.
By what law can it not lead to kisses
In such happy seldom circumstances?

Saturday, February 2, 2019


Barbarism is not the prehistory of humanity but the faithful shadow that accompanies its every step.

                                                                                                                                                                                       -- Alain Finkielkraut

Monday, January 21, 2019

James on the Evolution of Writing Implements

For almost forty years I have been writing literary journalism in London, and London is probably where I will go on writing until the pen drops from my fingers.  Actually, of course, although I still write my first and second drafts in a notebook, the dropped pen no longer applies as a token of weary death.  More likely, when it comes to the last word, I will multi-punch the laptop's keyboard with my face, my fingers only halfway through the sequence that activates the most sadly beautiful of all modern rubrics, "Windows Is Shutting Down."  And English grammar are checking out.


Once, I thought that a culture could stave off the world's evil.  Now I think that a culture must take continual account of the irrationality that would like to destroy it.

                                                                       -- James

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Outside Sarajevo Mounted, In Between Two Wars

My horse Patrice he knows just where to step thank God,
Even as his nostrils flare against the heavy cordite.
The herd that reared him 30 months ago -
I wonder where the older stallions' sinews lie?
They made a deeper contribution in the runup
When the quartermaster's other rancid meat ran dry.

A metal dent pressed hard against this sorry fence -
Some day some decades hence there'll be a shrine here.
A battle flag encased in smoky glass;
It's not the same as flying from a gilded staff!
(I almost said "alas.")

I slept this morning.
Coffee even, boiled in river water pink with blood.
The grounds dispersed before the sun came up amid the stream.
What grounds?
The motive perished with our foolish lord,
The one we called the Piglet Prince
When Darko, sire to the piglet,
Wore his ruby signet ring.

A woman in a filthy bonnet drags a handcart up the crescent hill and down.
A sheepdog follows fretfully.
They'll shoot him first I fear, and then she'll recognize her fate to follow on.

I've lost my hearing now.
It may not be for good.
They say like worms that recapitulate a single severed limb
It bounces back sometimes.

It's odd - no clicking of Patrice's shoes on rocky ground.
The rocking of my saddle tells me more and more
In compensation.

Further on, two miles or so,
The sun now glints upon a broken caisson.
There I'll find a hero's remnants,
There I'll pick his pockets clean.
He won't resist
A "warrior in the aftermath."
It makes me smile somehow
To say it,
Having had no courage whatsoever
As I made my way 
Along this densely traveled path.