Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Book of Contemplation by Usama ibn Munqidh


The Book of Contemplation was published in 2008, around the same time as Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travelers in the Far North (the original of which was the source of Michael Crichton’s fictionalized Eaters of the Dead) and a few years before The Ultimate Ambition in the Art of Erudition (2016) and Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange (2017).  Like those texts, it is a terrific addition to the Penguin Classics collection of Islamic/Arabic works in translation, and I can only hope that others will follow. 


Usama Ibn Munqidh was a 12th century Syrian nobleman and man-of-letters who was turned away from his family estate, by his uncle after his father’s death, leading him into a life of intrigue and adventure.  Rather than a straightforward memoir, his text is a series of incidences, mostly from the time of the Crusades, which by Usama’s reckoning exemplify the mysteriousness of – and merit the contemplation of - the ways of God. For us, their obvious value is the light these tales shed on the Muslim experience of the Crusades and their attitudes towards the “Franks” (i.e., western Europeans) who initiated them.  The descriptions of military encounters, often mere skirmishes, are vivid and come alive in Paul M. Cobb’s translation, which conveys an intimate, conversational tone to the memoirs.  This translation supersedes that of Philip K. Hitti, an eminent Arabist who published his version in 1929, and which is incidentally available on Internet Archive here.  Cobb respectfully updates and corrects some of his predecessor’s errors.


In addition to acts of valor, there are descriptions of the inscrutable ways of the Franks, glimpses of the lives of the nobility in medieval Syria, humorous vignettes, and enough accounts of gruesome injuries to keep the text interesting. It is the immediacy and vividness of these tales that fascinates, bringing to life the thoughts and reflections of a person who died almost a millennium ago.  Usama was apparently in his nineties when much of this was written, and he laments in the closing pages (perhaps coyly) that God has given him a long life descending into irrelevancy rather than an earlier, glorious death on the field of battle.  


Supplementing the main text is a long digression on hunting, usually with reminiscences of Usama’s father for whom hunting was a pastime that he pursued with apparently fanatical enthusiasm, and a selection of anecdotes on holy men and healers as well as selections of other works of Usama.


Cobb’s introduction fills in the biographical blanks in Usama’s life, and fleshes out some of the intrigues that Usama perhaps chose to downplay.  A valuable edition.

Monday, July 22, 2019

With the Tibetans in Tent and Temple by Dr. Susie J. Rijnhart



Dr. Susie J. Rijnhart, a spunky Victorian-era Canadian missionary, spends a few years (1895-1899) in Tibet, being spectacularly unsuccessful in converting the heathen and complaining about Tibetan hygiene.  Still, her notes on Central Asian lifeways and record of political unrest make interesting reading.  Her recollections of her baby boy, who is born and dies in Tibet and is buried in an unmarked grave, are tender, as are her memories of her husband, a displaced Dutch ne’er-do-well who was, apparently unknown to her, on the run from a rape charge.

Rijnhart’s frank notes on Tibetan culture are in decided contrast to Blavatsky’s fanciful Theosophical view of the plateau as the abode of floating lamas bathed in eternal celestial light.  You can almost smell the rancid butter that is generously offered to her by poor villagers at every turn and which she, to her credit, graciously accepts. On an ill-fated attempt to reach Lhasa, her small expedition is turned back and, abandoned by her guides, she and her husband are beset by bandits.  He goes off to reconnoiter and is never seen again.  Whether he is killed by the bandits or simply decided that this was a good opportunity to skedaddle is never established, but he was never heard from again.  Desperate, she puts her fate in the hand of some decidedly unsavory characters and, in veiled Victorian language, describes her stressful efforts to evade sexual assault (the pistol comes in handy) as she attempts to reach some outpost of civilization.


She eventually did reach safety and, after a period of recuperation, returned to China a few years later to continue her missionary work. She remarried (another missionary) and bore another son: she died soon after childbirth, in 1908.  In this adventurous memoir, she shows immense fortitude, bravery and compassion for the people she encounters, despite her biases against Lamaism, the Tibetan world-view, and disregard of basic hygiene.  My copy is the 1902 edition published by the Fleming H. Revel Company, via the Bible School Library of the Congregational Church in Binghamton, New York. My copy warns that “This book is on loan to you – it is not yours!” I suppose that, in the broad scheme of things, this is quite true.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The World in a Book: Al-Nuwayri and the Islamic Encyclopedic Tradition by Elias Muhanna


If you are a bookish-minded person with an interest in Middle Eastern history and culture, you might likely find The World in a Book: al-Nuwayri and the Islamic Encyclopedic Tradition (Princeton, 2018), to be a good introduction to the medieval concept of adab (i.e., wide ranging literary works reflective of the author/compiler’s cultural cred).  We are fortunate that  the Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri the enormous work that is the subject of this study, compiled in thirty-one volumes in the early 14th century, survived intact so that a modern edition, published over many years (alas, seemingly only in Arabic), could be prepared in the twentieth century.  Al-Nuwayri, an official of the Mamluk court, whose duties largely had to do with financial and real estate management for the sultan al-Nasir Muhammad, decided at the end of his career to embark on an enterprise not uncommon to cultured members of high Islamic society, the preparation of a vast compendium of universal knowledge encompassing natural history (zoology, astronomy and the like), history (secular and religious, although the distinction was not likely made), instructions for court officials (particularly scribes) and whatever else piqued his interest. 

In addition to preparing this study, Elias Muhanna is also the translator of the only English edition of the original text, translated as The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition, a volume in the Penguin Classics series published in 2016.  I won’t go into that edition too much except to say that, for most, the introduction to that work is quite adequate in introducing al-Nuwayri’s work, without the scholarly apparatus.  I’m delighted that this translation has been made, and the selection is interesting enough (the other night I read several selections relating to the Islamic version of the story of Adam and Eve), but when you consider that this is the winnowing down of a thirty-one volume work, it seems quite inadequate, and I believe that it would have benefitted from an enlargement with a taste of some of the more esoteric selections.  But then, this is my issue with other works of this sort, such as the Pliny’s Natural History, also published by Penguin (among other editions).  I have a personal animus towards abridgements (although there’s no way in hell I would have ever gotten through al-Nuwayri’s work anyway, it would be comforting to know that it’s there).

For The World in a Book, Muhanna has prepared a study that seems to be aimed more towards the scholar than the general reader.  Clearly well researched, Muhanna tends to write in an academic vernacular that can be grating (elide? [p.108], really?).  I’ve heard him on a podcast, and he seems to speak this way too.  Further, he seems more often than not inclined to pass off to future scholars questions that require a bit deeper consideration.  Still, for a committed biblio-enthusiast, this is an absorbing study that digs into the origins and context of a fascinating and forgotten work.  If you share my interest in Middle Eastern/Islamic history and thought, I’d say this is well worth reading.

Monday, May 06, 2019

Robert Graves Interview

I've been enjoying reading the last volume of Richard Perceval Graves's unnecessarily gentle biography of his uncle, the poet Robert Graves.  Graves was certainly an eccentric, and rather manipulative to boot, which the younger Graves seeks to downplay. It occurred to me that I don't believe I've ever heard Robert Graves speak, so I went looking for an interview and found  this piece from 1965 with notable British prick Malcolm Muggeridge, whom Graves admirably tolerates.

By the way, despite my near total lack of media savvy (I still blog, for God's sake) I now post to Twitter: just photos of my books and other curiosities, under the name Bibliophilia Obscura.



Friday, March 22, 2019

The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Penguin Classics)


My presumption is that when he published a portion of these key texts in 1927, W. Y. Evans-Wentz chose this title to mirror that of Wallis-Budge’s 1895 translation of the Papyrus of Ani, now and forever known as The Egyptian Book of the Dead.  It turns out that the document we know as The Tibetan Book of the Dead (a more accurate title of which is The Great Liberation by Hearing) is but a portion of a larger corpus of materials discussing Tibetan Buddhist concepts of death, and the passage from this plane of existence into that intermediate state.  Penguin’s extraordinary volume, published in 2006 and available not only as a trade paperback but also as a volume of their Penguin Classics series (2008, reprinted with corrections in 2017), rectifies the omission with a new and lucid translation.

Counting the Evans-Wentz translation and others by Robert Thurman (Quality Paperback Book Club, 1994) and Francesca Freemantle/Chogyam Trumpa (Shambala, 1975), this is the fourth version of this work I have acquired over the years, and, despite my fondness for Evans-Wentz’s weird and wonderful translation and commentary, published as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or the After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane by Oxford University Press (with The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, or the Method of Realizing Nirvana Through Knowing the Mind as a companion volume), this is now my favorite.*
An excellent feature of this volume is the introductory essay by the Dalai Lama, which places this material in context of the Tibetan Buddhist concept of the self and its relationship to existence.  This is a thoughtful piece of writing that merits close attention in preparing the reader for the different texts included in this publication.  As explained in the general introduction, this translation was vetted and deeply informed by consultation with masters of Highest Yoga Tantra, the preferred name of the tradition to which these documents belong.  This lends a value and credibility to this translation, which I’m sure will become the standard one.
Now, having said that, get yourself ready for some strange, sometimes difficult, sometimes enlightening reading (and be sure to read Book 5 out loud, for merely by saying the names of the deities listed within “one will avoid rebirth in the lower existences, and Buddhahood will eventually be attained”).  The perspective here is clearly not of the West, and that may require some getting used to – but no worries.  Maybe the best approach is to read each section through with an open mind, awake to the possibilities of the esoteric perspectives being expounded.  A return for a more close reading would then likely be in order.
The preliminary books consist of prayers, supplications, acknowledgement of the peaceful and wrathful deities, acknowledgement of the power of those deities, requests for forgiveness for having strayed from the path, prayers of gratitude, enumeration of some of the omens of impending death, guidance on how to know what form of existence one is likely to pass on to, the means of knowing when death is imminent, and rituals which might assist in averting one’s death.  The essence of the text, of course, is the chapters on consciousness transference and the great liberation by hearing.     By the guidance of one’s associates (which would typically be other monks, because, due to their complexity and degree of personal investment, these are essentially monastic rituals), one’s consciousness is guided and comforted as it passes through the intermediate or transitional states (usually translated as the bardo states, with the guidance text referred to as the Bardo Thodol, however that nomenclature is not used here).  From here, one may pass into one of the innumerable heavens (or hells), rebirth on one of the physical planes, or, much more rarely, some version of nirvana.  One seeks, through these rituals, to pass through to the highest state of which one is capable of in this existence.
The texts are repetitive and trancelike, meant to be spoken out loud and presumably, through their repetitiveness, inductive of a trancelike and opened state of consciousness.  Bear in mind that some of these texts are meant to be repeated literally tens of thousands of time.  Ultimately, the teachings, through contemplation and repetition become internalized and one acquires great merit through diligence and understanding. This is not a task for the dilettante, and in the cultural context of Tibetan monasticism there is significant preparation required before one is even exposed to these texts. 
Still, by reading the texts, and giving oneself over to them, a rewarding experience may be had – a change of awareness or a change of perspective that is expansive.  The experience can be an immersive one if approached with the correct frame of mind.  Maybe, like me, you’ll find yourself drawn back again and again for a taste of a different reality and a means to gain a transformed perspective of the world.
*You may be interested to know that Evans-Wentz also wrote a volume entitled The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, which was recently republished by The Lost Library, Glastonbury (n.d.)



Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Hex by Arthur H. Lewis


 Hex (published 1969) tells a tale from the old, weird America, circa 1928, in which three young men attack and kill a self-professed “witch” in the backwaters of York County, Pennsylvania.  The eldest of the men, John Blymire, a third-generation witch or “necromancer” had been under the belief for years that he had been hexed by another practitioner in the Pennsylvania Dutch country.  After years of consulting other witches in attempts to break the spell or at least identify the person who had hexed him, the trail led to an isolated farmhouse where Nelson Rehmeyer, an eccentric personality in a county that was apparently rife with them.  Blymire pays two nocturnal visits to Rehmeyer, with the aim of either cutting a lock of his hair or stealing his hex-book, a strange compendium entitled The Long Lost Friend, published first in 1819 by John George Homan (and still in print), containing spells, hexes, occult warnings and spiritual advice.  Possession of a personal item, particularly a highly personal item such as hair, clothing, etc., of the person one wishes to hex is a common feature of sympathetic magic such as practiced in York County.


The second visit does not go well.  The conspirators (one of which was a 14 year old boy) clumsily fight with Rehmeyer, savagely beating him to death and attempting to burn the body to conceal the evidence.  Once the body is discovered by a neighbor (led to the property by a hungry, braying mule), Blymire is picked up and charged in short order, as it had been known in the region for years that he had been hexed and was engaged in a never-ending pursuit of the person who had enchanted him.  Once arrested, Blymire, relieved to have had the spell broken quite happily told the story in minute detail, implicating his (equally loquacious) conspirators in the process.

The trial is a bit of a farce, while gaining worldwide attention because of the witchcraft angle, the local authorities, fearful that York will garner attention as a illiterate backwater full of superstitious yokels, work hard to keep the discussion of hexes and necromancy out of the trial, skewing the motive for the killing as simple robbery.  In the end, the conspirators are given harsh punishments (Blymire gets a life sentence), which are commuted years later. 

While the first portion of Hex is interesting in describing the belief system of the rural Pennsylvania Dutch country and the events leading up to the murder, the narrative starts to drag once it hits the courtroom. After the story of the murder and its aftermath is finished, Lewis spends an additional 50-plus pages on interviews with several witches and faith-healers circa 1969 in order to illustrate that the superstitions were still prevalent 40 years later.  In large part, the activities of these practitioners revolved mainly around bodily aches and pains, with an apparent emphasis on wart removal.  Rivalries between the witches, however, still remained.  I had occasion to spend some time in York back in the 1990’s, but I was unaware of the story of the area’s most famous trial, so I can’t tell you how active the witching community was at that time. 

Mephisto by Klaus Mann


 Mephisto, written in 1936, is Klaus Mann’s revealing, if fictional, portrait of his brother-in-law’s ascendancy to the directorship of the State Theatre under the Nazi regime.  In this novel, we see the trajectory of Hendrick Hofgen (Gustaf Grundgens in real life), a talented if mercurial actor, from relative obscurity to fame as a result of a Faustian bargain within himself.  


With early successes under his belt, Hofgen, a somewhat left-leaning actor/director is at first fearful for his life as Nazi power grows in Germany, given his earlier (albeit largely superficial) embrace of Communism, and his poor treatment of a brown-shirted fellow actor.  Safely out of the country when Hitler is elected Chancellor, he is lured back by his desire for fame when he is assured protection by an old acquaintance, an actress who has become the paramour of a powerful party member (clearly Hermann Goering, although Mann is careful not to use names when referring to high-ranking Nazis).  He acquires fame and wealth, a mansion, and a stable full of fine automobiles, and hosts fantastic parties with the well-connected.  Still he finds himself in precarious circumstances as the Minister of Propaganda, a rival to his protector, learns more and more of his suspicious past, which includes not only leftist activities but sexual deviances as well (disguised in the novel as a masochistic relationship with a half-black dominatrix, it is generally acknowledged that Mann was loathe to expose Grundgens’ true “deviance” – homosexuality – as he was in fact homosexual himself).  Ultimately, his protector wins out over the propaganda minister, and Hofgen comes to feel secure in his bubble, distancing himself from former loves and acquaintances (some very obviously representative of the “old” Germany), desperately shuffling off those who could expose his past, and shutting out the more unsavory events transpiring around him.

Growing used to his exalted position and emboldened by his fame, Hofgen assuages his guilty conscience by securing the release of a former leftist compatriot from torture and detention, but the release is short lived as the man, Hans Ullrich - in clear contrast to our protagonist – is a man of ideals and commitment who returns to his heroically doomed anti-Nazi activities.  In seeking further aid for his friend, Hofgen is starkly put in his place by Goering, who coldly reveals that he knows everything that Hofgen is, and that he is his to use or dispose of as he sees fit.  The bargain is complete, and Hofgen is in Hell, placed there by himself, and himself alone.

Klaus Mann was the son of the pre-eminent 20th century German author, Thomas Mann (who himself confronted the degeneration of the German soul in his 1947 novel Doctor Faustus). Although written in 1936, the book was not translated into English until 1977.  A film version of Mephiso, directed by Istvan Szabo and featuring Klaus Maria Brandauer received the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1981. I had hoped to re-watch it after finishing the novel, but despite its former acclaim, it has proved difficult to find on streaming services. After some wandering in exile from the Nazi regime, Klaus Mann became a U. S. citizen in 1943 and served in the United States Army during World War II.  He died of an overdose of sleeping pills in 1949.  His novel was the posthumous focus of a long-running lawsuit in West Germany brought by Grundgens’ adopted son. 


Recently read:

The Silent Crossing by Pascal Quignard

A series of thoughts, in chapters, on life, death and existence, tending somewhat towards the gnomic and grotesque. Still, a poetic and satisfying read that begs to be revisited often.

The Trial of Socrates by I. F. Stone

Towards the end of his life, the eminent liberal journalist turned to classical studies, and in particular, an examination of the trial of Socrates for “corrupting the youth of Athens” via the exercise of free speech.  Stone makes it abundantly clear that Socrates was a bit of a civic annoyance, no advocate for democracy, and held some (to modern ears) peculiar ideas about ideal government.  Despite the corrosive effect of Socrates’ teachings (which might, indirectly, have justified some atrocious mass political murders in 4th century B.C. Athens), Stone believes that his execution was a betrayal of the ideals of the Athenian polis.

All Souls by Javier Marais

A satirical novel of academia, in which a visiting Spanish professor maintains an affair with a female colleague (suspended for most of the novel), and searches for rare books in the second-hand bookstores of Oxford town. Points for passing references to two of my favorite authors, Borges and Nabokov.  The narrative threads come together nicely in the end.

Hamlet in Purgatory by Stephen Greenblatt

More of a general study of European notions of Purgatory (both Catholic and Protestant) as a background to Shakespeare. Interesting, but not a lot of new ground covered.

The Northern Crusades by Eric Christiansen

This gets pretty deeply into the weeds quite quickly with regards to the peoples of - and brutal colonization activities within - the Baltic north, but a good general survey of a little-known aspect of European history.

Phantastica by Louis Lewin, M. D.  
I picked this up based on references in the previously-reviewed Abrams book on opium use among the English Romantics.  This is a quaint review of hallucinogens published by an eminent German ethnobotanist in 1924. Although I can’t imagine this work retaining much value for students of neurology today, the exhaustive and painstakingly collected anecdotal data from around the world is enjoyably charming. Despite the hideous cover of my modern reprint (a colorized Gypsy(?) woman with a pipe and a “come hither” gaze) and its limited scholarly value, this is a good volume in which to browse. Dr. Lewin’s medicine cabinet must have been something to behold.


Tuesday, August 07, 2018

The Milk of Paradise: The Effect of Opium Visions on the Works of DeQuincey, Crabbe, Francis Thompson, and Coleridge by M.H. Abrams


This short work began as an undergraduate essay, expanded into a senior thesis by Abrams before being published by Harvard University Press in 1934. My 1970 Harper & Row Perennial edition paperback includes a new introduction by the author as well a selection of three works referenced in the text.  These consist of two opium-inspired poems by George Crabbe (who was an otherwise decidedly uninspired author) and a short story by Francis Thompson* entitled “Finis Coronat Opus”.   While Abrams’ work is a pleasant curiosity regarding opium use among 19th century British authors, most obviously Coleridge and DeQuincey, it’s the Thompson story that’s the real attraction here.  This is a tale of a vainglorious author of diabolical temperament who sacrifices his true love to a demonic power for a transitory taste of fame.  The suitably opulent - and somewhat creepy - prose is informed (it is Abrams’ contention) by Thompson’s opium-induced visions.  

I don’t recall seeing “Finis Coronat Opus” heavily anthologized in any of the abundant, and often repetitive, collections of classic horror stories, of which David Tibet’s The Moons At Your Door is the most recent example.  Tibet has another anthology on the way entitled There Is a Graveyard That Dwells in Man; if it isn’t too late, perhaps he could squeeze this little piece into it? 

*Thompson, whom I understand Chesterton enthused over, is considered a “Catholic” poet for his major poem “The Hound of Heaven”, and is known to have spent a good portion of his adult life on the streets as an opium fiend.




Friday, July 20, 2018

The King in the Golden Mask and Imaginary Lives by Marcel Schwob


With The King in the Golden Mask, Wakefield Press continues its endeavor to publish the works of Marcel Schwob with a volume of fantastic and macabre tales. The author spins stories of violence and mild sexual transgression that are divided between those derived from actual historical places or events and others that are pure fantasy.  There’s enough leprosy and mutilation to keep things interesting and, on the whole, the book is skewed more towards the lurid than The Book of Monelle.  The stories have that quaint poeticism that one finds in certain fin de siècle authors – they are nicely translated by Kit Schluter with an appropriate dreamlike quality, and are quite enjoyable, if not particularly memorable.  

Also published by Wakefield, just this year, Imaginary Lives resembles – and was an inspiration for – Borges’ wonderful Universal History of Infamy.  Not all of the 24 personages* in Schwob’s fictionalized biographies are degenerates and reprobates (Pocahontas, of all people, appears in the mix), but it’s not giving anything away to say that sad, unfortunate ends are the norm here.   In a few pages each, Schwob tells the story of a number of famous, infamous, and obscure characters from antiquity through the Renaissance and up into the 18th Century (he has a particular thing for pirates, it appears). This is a worthy addition to Wakefield’s Schwob project.

Very much in the vein of the aforementioned cruel tales is Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace in Rome, which I read some months ago but neglected to mention here.  It is the unfortunate tale of a 17th Century Italian engraver, who bears hideous facial scars as a result of an ill-fated romantic encounter, excellently told by a modern master and published by Wakefield in 2016.

Note: I’ve decided to revive my practice of providing Amazon product links, as decent bookstores can be hard to find, and the few loose cents dropped into my Amazon account every year or so is a good reminder to not give up my day job.  If you are fortunate enough to live in a place with a local bookstore brave enough to stock these titles in the vain hope that some ne’er-do-well will wander in looking for an intelligent, yet lurid, read (as Malvern Books in Austin does), then by all means patronize them.

* Just for the hell of it, here is the list:
Empedocles (Supposed God)
Herostratus (Incendiary)
Crates (Cynic)
Septima (Enchantress)
Lucretius (Poet)
Clodia (Licentious Matron)
Petronius (Novelist)
Suffrah (Geomancer)
Fra Dolcino (Heretic)
Cecco Angiolieri (Hateful Poet)
Paolo Uccello (Painter)
Nicolas Loyseleur (Judge)
Katherine the Lacemaker (Lady of the Night)
Alain the Kind (Soldier )
Gabriel Spenser (Actor)
Pocahontas (Princess)
Cyril Tourneur  (Tragic Poet)
William Phips (Treasure Hunter)
Captain Kidd (Pirate)
Walter Kennedy (Illiterate Pirate)
Major Stede Bonner (Pirate by Temperament)
Messrs. Burke and Hare (Murderers)




Friday, July 06, 2018

Les Nuits de Paris by Restif de la Bretonne


One would suppose from Jacques Barzun’s introductory essay to this selection that this project, which Restif originally imagined as 1,001 Parisian Nights, was conceived as a sort of documentary experiment.  An exhaustive catalogue of the seamy nocturnal underworld of Paris in the late 18th century, Restif’s extended rambles and the salacious tableaux he witnessed (and more often than not inserted himself into as a sort of immaculate and irreproachable moral authority – a pretty damn good joke in its own right) were allegedly duly reported to “the Marquise”, a mysterious noblewoman with an apparently bottomless desire to assist the poor, the disadvantaged, and the unavoidably debauched.  Barely 30 pages into this selection – itself a portion of a much larger work – we’ve already met con artists, brothel keepers, grave robbers, pickpockets, juvenile delinquents, murderers, pedophiles, gay-baiters, child prostitutes, and “effeminate men”. 

Restif (the “de la Bretonne” was an affectation) was a tireless scribbler who, when he wasn’t on the prowl for a suitable orifice, was consumed with writing about what he found when he got there, and keeping precise records that, if we can trust him as an erotic memoirist, rival those of his near contemporary, Giacomo Casanova.  On his own terms, this short, fat, balding and swarthy fellow was a bit of a libertine, or as we might more accurately describe his sort these days, a serial rapist. In these pages, however, the idealized Monsieur Restif is much more interested in returning seduced young maidens back into the arms of their worried parents than one would suspect from what we know of his autobiographical portrayal in other works.

The dust jacket of my 1962 edition shows an amusingly clean drawing of Paris in broad daylight that belies the dark and disturbing portrait of the nocturnal metropolis that Restif is trying to convey. Reading the selections, I like to imagine what a delightfully dark series of graphic storybooks this could make under the pencil of a suitably talented illustrator (think of something akin to Dore’s illustrations of London as a city of dreadful night).

We must assume that there is a kernel of reality in the vision that Restif is attempting to portray, but I am less inclined than Mr. Barzun to see Restif as a social reformer (although he did, in fairness, support reformation – although certainly not elimination – of prostitution in Paris) than as an exploitative storyteller trading on and embellishing to lurid effect the dangers and degeneracies of the lost and hopeless habitués of the dark city. This is neither Henry Mayhew’s London nor Jacob Riis’s New York, but rather an entertainment based on the debased sufferings of the lower depths, in which the Marquise is the conscious stand-in for the titillated reader. It is, for all that, quite entertaining, particularly when taken in small doses.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Recent Re-readings


Light in August by William Faulkner 
I haven’t really read Faulkner since my college days, but I recall this one as being a favorite, and I’d intended to reread it since way back when Vintage reissued the Cormac McCarthy catalog (which I devoured) in softcover prior to publication of his breakthrough “Border Trilogy”.  For the past 25 years or so, we can safely call McCarthy mainstream, but back in the days of Child of God and Blood Meridian, the influence most cited for McCarthy was Faulkner. 
As a southern gothic masterpiece, there is enough cruelty, menace, and just plain creepiness in Light in August to justify the connection with early McCarthy.  Joe Christmas, who dominates the novel, is one of the most remarkably drawn characters in American fiction, a  soul doomed from the start to a life of pain and darkness. As it builds, the narrative pulls you along remarkably well, and it stays with you.  I’d forgotten many of the details over the years, so a second read was definitely rewarding.

Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach

Any reader with an interest in the degenerate/symbolist literature of the fin-de-siecle must hang their head in shame if they are not acquainted with this story of degeneration and obsession.   Hugues Viane, a widower, has made a cult of his young, dead, wife.  He obsesses over her relics for hours in the rooms he has dedicated to her in his gloomy house before he passes into the twilight of the Bruges night.  He has chosen this Belgian town for its pallor of death and stagnation, a congenial atmosphere in which to pass the remainder of his mournful, empty life. 

Of course, it’s only a matter of time before he begins to notice a phantasm of his wife working her way through the streets.  She is a doppelganger to whom his obsession transfers: he establishes her in  a cozy apartment in which he can spend the days and nights slobbering and fawning over her, pawing her long blond tresses, the very image of those which he has established in a glass reliquary in the shrine room of his own house.  She soon tires of this creepy attention, and, with loathing, begins to bleed him dry.  

I won’t reveal any more, except to smack my lips at the appropriately lurid denouement.  Keep the Dedalus edition on your shelf, as it’s worth a great deal of decadent street cred.  And reread it occasionally for the delightful melodrama of it.

The Bhagavad Gita
Finally, I’ve probably mentioned the impact the Bhagavad Gita had on my young mind - and the rich worlds it opened -  when I found the Penguin edition, translated by Juan Mascaro, many years ago at a Las Cruces, New Mexico library sale.  Mascaro was well versed in the Spanish mystics, and he brought that sensibility to his translation of this text (as well as to Penguin’s edition of the Dhammapada).  While there was much lyricism and beauty in his rendering, I became suspicious as I got older of just how faithful his translations were. In his introduction to the Gita, Mascaro aims for universalism, approaching the text in light of what Huxley used to call the Perennial Philosophy. 

The Gita is a philosophical/religious discourse forming a portion of the much larger epic, the Mahabharata. In 2008, Penguin finally released a new translation by Laurie L. Patton, and while the unfamiliar format is at first jarring, the translation appears to be much more faithful to the text, fixing the translation firmly in context without Mascaro’s universalism, and providing a useful introduction to the work. 

As I’ve been reading Patton’s translation, it has begun to grow on me, and I’m not sure I’d go back to Mascaro’s edition for any reason other than sweet nostalgia.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Sin and Fear: The Emergence of the Western Guilt Culture, 13th -18th Centuries by Jean Delumeau









As this work reminds us, the Church, throughout much of its history didn’t go out of its way to offer loving comfort to the poor and oppressed (or anyone else, for that matter) as they made their way through this vale of tears, and what made matters worse was that “opting out” wasn’t an option. Essentially, you were born Catholic (or heathen, but that’s another story) and you were expected to stay that way.  Deviation on the smallest point of doctrine might well earn you a visit from your friendly and enthusiastic inquisitor.

So what did the Church do with this captive audience?  Bombard them fairly constantly with harangues about their own state of deathly sin in this life and the promise of unceasing torment in the next, that’s what! In Sin and Fear (1990), Jean Delumeau more than supports this thesis with anecdotes, sermons, lyrics, and other writings from throughout Europe that ceaselessly dwell on human unworthiness, the unavoidable punishment of sin (even the rules for sexual relations within wedlock could be so convoluted as to require a tax attorney to interpret them, let alone some poor illiterate peasant), the general suckiness of life and the overwhelming stench of death. The words and images emphasizing the morbidity of the flesh and the stink of corruption were omnipresent, and all it took was a good outbreak of the plague to reinforce the truth and hopelessness of it all as, to quote Lou Reed, “all the dead bodies piled up in mounds”. 

In short, you pretty much had it drilled into you what a worthless bag of worm meat you were, and your hopes for at least some comfort in the afterlife were pretty much nil.  Delumeau at one point quotes a sermon wherein the priest tells his congregation that there wasn’t a damn one of them that had the remotest chance of escaping hell.  This isn’t to say that maybe you lucked out and got a humane, kindly village priest, but he was probably the anomaly, and anyway if word filtered up that he was coddling his flock with some fool notions of God’s mercy and loving kindness, he was likely to be shipped off for “re-education”, because, as everyone knew, God the Father* was a real son of a bitch.

Now, sadly, I’d like to tell you that the Reformation (and the seemly endless cycle of religious wars - how’s that for an oxymoron?) showed the Church the error of its ways, but of course as we all know, Luther, Calvin, et al., fine products of the guilt culture that they were, were just as merciless in their grim accounting of the corruption of the human soul, and Jonathan Edwards’  key sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” only proves to show that, far from being just an outgrown medieval mindset, this madness was still alive and kicking well into the 18th century and beyond.  In the psychological dimension, the author makes a pretty good case that the relentless instillation of fear and guilt over a period of centuries created a cultural psychosis that we, at least in the west,  are still a far ways from escaping. 

*At one point in this heavy tome, Delumeau reminds us that the original association of the word “father” was not some gentle and forgiving Ozzie Nelson-type bumbling around in a cardigan, but rather a violent, demanding autocrat with a short fuse, so whether you’re thinking of the God of the Old or New Testaments, the parish priest, the Bishop of Rome (whose informal title, after all, derives from the Latin papa) or even dear old Dad, the initial association in the early days of the church one was not necessarily a positive one.