EPHEMERIS

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April 28, 2023: I come across mention of a certain Poggius in Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, a novel set in Napoleonic times, all about naval life, you know. This mention makes reference to ‘euspongia mollissima’, or sponge simply, or that with which Achilles stuffed his helmet, so it seems, with a view, one supposes, of absorbing shock. Apparently, it was Poggius who brought this trifling detail to the attention of the world. In any case, it was only after a few more pages slipped by that it registered: another book I happen to be reading (The Swerve by one Stephen Greenblatt) makes a great deal of mention of a Poggio Bracciolini who happened to have been a ‘book hunter’ of the early Renaissance. The same man? No wonder humanist pursuits have had such need of archivists.

The Comptroller of the Universe had guests over (and it was my job to see that the crisps and olives were always replenished when scarfed up, or otherwise depleted. Although there was only so much smoked salmon to go around, and the baguette was finite). One of the guests, McGraviton, happened to say, apropos of The Swerve, that it has been roundly slagged for being against religion of an organized kind. “Just saying,” he said, as he demolished a heap of crisps in one go. That he was no believer, but that the book was ‘slanted’, whatever light it cast Lucretius the atomist and belated epicurean in, therefore, I ought not so confidently quote from it.

I had only wished to point out that what has come down to us from the ancients is so very slight as opposed to what all their libraries were stuffed to the gills with. And from there I had only wished to further point out that it does not take much to bring on a so-called ‘dark age’; you have only to pull a plug. At least with books in real time, it would take a while for worms to consume them all, &c. You would have a fair shot at getting through War and Peace before certain digestive tracts had done their worst. I would have thought these points banal, that they went without saying, but you can never be too sure, these days. You see what silly worries beset me as I walk around, smart phones everywhere sucking up my attention?

Even so (and in keeping with previous posts – see previous posts – to do with Bleak House), Chapter 34 of the same is a quiet chapter, the action in it mostly a question of ‘Amount Owed’, and it is a question that has sat prettily or not with almost every human being at one time or another since the days of the first grain silo, Uruk say, and was Abraham evading a bill collector when he went out of Ur? Sure, being cheeky here. Well, here is a ‘slant’: how (so The Swerve would have it) the Christian mentality managed to con the world into thinking that pain is preferable to pleasure. A proper Epicurean would tell you that gallstones are to be borne with equanimity, but to cultivate the pain, to say, “Bring it on”, why, it is madness. And so forth and ever after. Does suffering produce an art superior to that which comes of pleasure? Open question not necessarily open and shut. Check your ‘natural good’ at the door.

Indeed, Lunar has been going on to me about suffering and what is to be endured. I hear him, and I would be the last man to gainsay him and years’ worth of chronic pain, but sometimes the class clown irrupts in me, and my foot goes in it. This is how it might strike someone in the lower orders under the thumb, as it were, and he hears: Look, man, don’t bug me. Go sit in a corner and endure. Make some art, if you absolutely must. You could say as much to da Vinci mapping out a smile; you could say as much to Robert Johnson doing the blues, and it might seem to you it was the every-which-way-but-loose way that things have always gone. (I probably deserve it, Lunar sending over a hit squad to cause me serious discomfort right about now.) But noble behaviour? Do I have a quarrel with ‘noble behaviour’? No. God knows, however, you do not see it much where it is most often touted to exist, hey, in the political arena and so, henceforth and forever more. But that I get antsy when ‘noble behaviour’ is invoked as a creed to live by, and with all the rhetorical drama of an ancient Roman priest chanting words the meaning of which he no longer knows, as the Latin of them has long since flown the meaning coop. Noble behaviour? When Nero leaned on Petronius to go and off himself, and Petronius slit his wrists all the while composing silly ditties on a subject of Nero’s grotty sex life, now there was noble behaviour: going out with one’s wit intact.

C W Drake of Champaign-Urbana (which may or may not lie at the centre of the world) put it to me, that I watch what he deems are ghastly movies, and we are not talking Fast and Furious with its umpteen sequels. He wrote: ‘I read the plot line of The Tin Drum. Thank you, no. Where do you find these things? What, precisely, is it that you believe will lead the West down a semi-Stalinist road? Maybe it's these films you're watching?’

I had recently viewed the movie, not having seen it in years. And while, this time around, I thought I saw some bare patches here and there where the paint has been chipped and worn, I found it still to be a powerful film, and in some weird way, that it captured the madness of the time it portrays, for which there is probably no one single explanation, and, in any case, rationality is damn near useless in the face of it. What, are polls going to explain what made Hitler tick and how he managed to charm the masses with his hysteria?

And for the millionth time, one asks: how did all that come about? I suppose it is an old preoccupation now, one gotten damn near quaint, but as I watched The Tin Drum, and the kid who would not grow going rat-a-tat-tat on his drum throughout the course of it, it was hard to avoid having a thought or two for the present. Fever pitch: Never know how much I love you/Never know how much I care/When you put your arms around me/I get a fever that's so hard to bear/You give me fever…. Welcome to Fox News and the latest election cycle. Does anyone remember Peggy Lee? To be sure, the Stalin mention on my part was over the top, but besides Peggy Lee in the back of my mind there is Nadezhda Mandelstam, wife of the great poet Osip Mandelstam. Her books contain a sentence or two that she wrote (out of the Stalin era) on what may well befall the ‘west’ – its own period of ‘darkness’ deriving from its smugness (it would win the Cold War) and its sense of moral superiority… That’s all I had in mind. And even that foretelling of the future on her part has fallen into abeyance, has been scotched by events, now that we are well past 9/11 and the Iraq catastrophe. Or has it? Otherwise, McGraviton, the Moesian and Jacques the holographer departed the little soiree as put together by the wand of the Comptroller of the Universe; they departed in an elevated mood, seeing as, at last, some life of the mind had been had and crisps devoured. Of course, I am having fun at the expense of friends, but sometimes it does feel like this: that whatever is holding things together and keeping the whole beeswax from crashing down is the thinnest of glues and even thinner threads.


Postscript I: “Who the hell is Talking Avocado?” Lunar has asked, seeing as that entity’s shadow has loomed over these posts of the past few months. Well, there it is, what is certainly a question. I would have to answer that the man has a certain charmed existence, for all that his chainsaws are uncooperative. That he is able to read pretty much what he wants at any time he wants, simply by having access to a nearby recycling depot: amazing what the intelligentsia will dispose of. That he can drive across those there United States on a whim and soak up the air and survive such exposure to ill winds. That, and whatever… That he may be, as we speak, composing a major gloss on the current Geist, that is to say, taking that word ‘Geist’ and making of it something so much less pretentious, so much less a Nietzschean bad morning after. That it is a fact: we like our cheap thrills. Like being trash-TV’d to death. Even bears and raccoons like it all as they rummage through our garbage. Cannot say this enough. It is like the prevalence of erotica in Roman wall art: it is in the air that gets breathed. But here, there, and everywhere – Zorro-like, is our Talking Avocado. Me, my faculties may have decayed to the point that I have been seeing the Inspector Montalbano TV series as high art, would even host a seminar on this notion, and I suppose I ought to direct a few inquiries at myself. What gives, sirrah? What’s up with that?

Postscript II: Or this: “Shove over, Karl (Kraus). Got a ciggie for me? Shall we do us up some Hamlet? Shall we ask: ‘What's Gertrude like in bed?’, and, in the asking, we would be nowhere near any Tucker Carlson crude-mode, that frat-rat swell? Are we not wild-eyed empiricists (rather than fabulists)? These words to follow are yours, n’est-ce pas? ‘The devil is an optimist if he thinks he can make people worse than they are’. Yes, I really do believe those words are yours, verily and truly. The sentiment, the stating of such, could get you shot back in your day; the uttering of which can get you tarred and feathered in ours.

Postscript III: It is a recurring dreamscape: dry, grassy hills – kind of Tuscan, although New World with New World towns. Always to the northeast of an unnamed and unseen metropolis, and I am often driving there in an old LeSabre. This time around, and I find myself approaching a shack, very ramshackle, built of scavenged wood. I knock on the door. After a few minutes a sour-faced man who looks to have been on an extended drunk answers, his shotgun aimed at my chest. We do not actually exchange words, but somehow I manage to convey the fact that I am expected and that he has a package for me. He grunts. He disappears. He returns with a package wrapped in brown paper, tied with a string, and it is roughly the dimensions of a large city phonebook. From this package I extract a smaller item, a book. Hardcover. Wine red. It would have been published quite some time ago, this offering to the sensibilities. Text with illustrations, the chief one of which is a fashionable looking young woman of the 1920s. The illustration has all the features of a photograph, but that it was drawn by a human hand, not AI’d. A smiling woman. Rakish, confident aura. Pert hat. Somehow, I am to understand she is the ‘modernist muse’. Not only that, I am somehow related to her. By blood? The shack dweller, badly in need of a shower and shave, nods ‘but of course’. There are shadowy people in the car who want an explanation….

Postscript IV: … flacci-nauci-nihili-pilification… your guess is way better than mine… but as in the sentence: There is a systematic flacci-nauci-nihili-pilification of all other aspects of existence that angers me…. From Master and Commander, diary entry onboard ship, Mr Maturin’s, and perhaps Patrick O’Brian, the novel's author, was having much too much fun. And then, Chapter 35 of Bleak House, having at it at 0530 in the morning, and I could not get out of my mind a notion of Yeats looking to compact the chapter’s contents into a few pearly quatrains, thereby putting at risk the poetry of the details, though we are only concerned with Esther Summerson’s illness and the somewhat Kafkaesque remarks, by way of Miss Flite, to do with Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a law firm of some sort that sucks up the lives of litigants come under its legalistic sway.

Postscript V: From The Prose of Osip Mandelstam, Princeton University Press, 1965: I do not like rolled-up manuscripts. some of them are heavy and smeared with time, like the trumpet of the archangel.


April 19, 2023: Chapter 33 of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, following, as it does, upon Chapter 32 and its somewhat somber tone, is opera buffa prose. Conceivably, ineluctable modality may have something to do with its buffa quality; then again, perhaps not. (More on ‘modality’ later.) But Krook had spontaneously combusted. So then, it follows: someone had to find the body. Persons did. Now the neighbourhood is abuzz with buzz. If someone had spontaneously combusted on your block… well, what would you expect? There would have to be an inquest. How do such things happen, Guppy and Snagsby uneasy? Will the Good Friday Agreement hold? What is the deal with Bud Light and Trumpy-Boy Jr? I am grateful that Bleak House was written, I surely am. I am not so grateful for a lot of other things that have been written, but there it is: you win some, you lose some.

The word ‘protocol’ has its origin. Protokolon: Greek for ‘first glued’. It has nothing to do with a segment of your alimentary tract. It refers to papyrus rolls, the making of, by way of sheets, and on the first sheet was generally listed what would become the roll’s contents, its subject matter. (So I am told in a modern book entitled Swerve, duly cited in the previous post with all the particulars.) In any case, I am grateful for this book as well. It reminds me that the life of the mind, as lived by the Greeks and Romans and probably the Persians and most likely the Chinese et al, was a social affair. It was standard etiquette, or that, there you were in a state of recline on a couch. You were awaiting your turn to speak. Perhaps you were even paying attention to what was being said. Because, in theory, everyone would get their say. Solitary geniuses? You wish for someone to blame for that lot? Look to the Stylites looking to escape the world. Look to Cyril and his gang looking to cancel them there pagans, burning down the temples, skinning alive the Hypatias. If it had not been for them there Hellenists with attendant culture, there might not have been an Old Testament, Septuagint to you, for you to read, much less find sacred….

There are people (and here I have in mind ‘cutting edge artists’ I have known over the years) who regard museums as dead spaces. The patter might have it like this: museums are where art goes to die. But the word ‘museum’ connotates regard for the muses, those entities who once did have something to do with ‘human creative achievement’. To walk into a museum then and have a stroll around, eyes on items of interest, be it a Piero della Francesca, a Venus Willendorf; be it an arrowhead, some Etruscan jug, whatever, was to be living and receiving energy from a continuum, and if you wanted respect, you had better learn to respect. Otherwise, saeva indignatio or the snark of a Palladas, last of the pagan poets so it is said, and his epigrams seem to be on everyone’s lips these days, among them this: The Grammarian’s Daughter/Got mixed up with love/Had a kid masculine/Feminine, neuter… as translated by Timothy Mallon. Catchy, that. But mostly, Palladas was what you got when a way of life was rolled out on a gurney and, forensics completed, something new and perhaps less worthy now has pride of place. I recall having wept as I stood before a Breughel in Vienna. To this day, I do not know why, the painting depicting a mere scene – some peasants skating on a frozen pond. I cannot say that ‘experiential art’ has ever, or will ever, do the same, that is, take me over and I blubber away.

And whether it was intended as such – ecological statement, there is a scene in The Scent of Night from the Inspector Montalbano TV series where Montalbano goes into a rage upon discovery of the fact that his favourite olive tree in the neighbourhood has been uprooted. The construction of a new villa, perhaps a tacky eyesore, wants its lebensraum. The old should give way to the new with grace, so Palladas once intimated. However, Montalbano, not very policeman-like, succumbs to rage and trashes the house, and later, when the developer files a vandalism report at the cop shop, Montalbano pretends, eh (Italian hand gesture), that it is all news to him. The point being, Luca Zingaretti did not appear to be acting in this scene. Nowhere in any of the 37 episodes is Montalbano an activist. Sure, there are hints of a social conscience from time to time, just as there is iridescence in some hummingbirds.

Otherwise, the Articles of War being read on one of His Majesty’s ships, Napoleonic era, drum roll and: … ‘If any person of the fleet shall commit the unnatural and detestable sin of buggery or sodomy with man or beast, he shall be punished with death.’ Death rang through and through the Articles; and even where the words were utterly incomprehensible the death had a fine, comminatory, Leviticus ring, and the crew took grave pleasure in it all; it was what they were used to – it was what they heard the first Sunday in every month and upon all extraordinary occasions like this. They found it comfortable to their spirits, and when the watch below was dismissed the men looked far more settled. From Master & Commander, Patrick O’Brian, HarperCollins, 1996. Make of it what you will.


Received: Eidolons, by Lorraine Simms, a book (French-English) of images with ‘ekphrastic poems’ by James Sutherland-Smith, translated into French by Sophie Voillot. Published by OBORO, Montreal.

Received: Issue #110 of CNQ, Canadian Notes and Queries, left on my doorstep as it were, in a basket, along with The Bibliophile, be it a catalogue, News from the Bibliomanse, in addition to one enigmatic postcard. Shall I call Social Services?

Postscript I: Cornelius W Drake defends to the death Fire Maidens from Outer Space, (once voted the worst ever movie) and all 1950s sci-fi flicks in general. The man is a strange-o. Perhaps there is not much else to do alternatively in Champaign-Urbana but watch MTG, congresswoman, shake it on out and do the roly-poly and torment sentience.

Postscript II: Talking Avocado has been on a Kubrick kick, how he came across Dr Strangelove in ’69, or was it ’70?, but the movie, ah, it was a small epiphany to a suburban boy adrift in the choppy waters of adolescence, a window onto a new perspective, the way pot and mushrooms would be some years later. Dr. Strangelove was so odd, so singular, so irreverent without being goofy a la Red Skelton or Wayne and Shuster—are you familiar with Wayne and Shuster, maybe too Canadian—at any rate, I was hooked on Kubrick from that moment on. And now the ‘ineluctable modalities’ bit from above, say what: … A great loss, like the novel Joyce was planning after Finnegan’s Wake, which was apparently going to be very feet-on-the-ground and straight forward. I mention Joyce because I am now up to my shins in Ulysses, determined that this time I’ll make it to the end after so many aborted attempts. And en route I don’t mind just bobbing and drifting amid the bon mots and ineluctable modalities; though maybe a slap upside the head from one of his mates—sending his hat askew and his specs awry—might have made him a little less indulgent and longwinded…. What is the old riposte? One can only live in hope. Hey, man, did you get your chainsaw going?

 

April 14, 2023: I steer clear of bandwagons. Hyper-partisan politics does not have the appeal that once it had. There may come a time when you and the neighbour you are not so enthusiastic about may realize you have an enemy in common, fascists at the controls, and then again, that time may never come. Meanwhile, nothing much changes: one does not like to see one’s life as farce, but some conclusions are hard to avoid. (Which it is a direct quote from an interlocutor of mine, feeling up against it, these days.)

I was working something out on the guitar. A Batman movie was in its death throes on the TV. A penguin-like creature, running around like a lunatic in his motorized rubber duckie, was about to get his due. Harman asked: “Who’s the actor?” Would an answer permit the insanity to carry on? “That little guy – what’s his name? – Danny D-Somebody…” Alright, so I would play it cute. Harman would play it straight: “Right. Him.” But where was Lucretius in all this? Setting up Venus, no doubt – that presiding goddess over a proper universe – for a proper response: whatever you do, don’t stoop to this. (More about Lucretius soon.)

I continued to play the guitar. The TV continued to do its thing. Next up, a chestnut from the year 1968: 2001: A Space Odyssey. I had seen it a number of times over the years. I was not intending to pay it much attention, more focussed on memorizing a sequence of fingerings on the guitar. But then, the opening vignettes were being served up. And when the black ‘monolith’ appeared and when, subsequently, the hominin grabbed a femur from a pile of bones and started bashing things with it (he had had his epiphany); and when, later, millions of years later, and human moon-dwellers were confronted by yet another monolith, and were just as puzzled as their hominin forebears, though the femurs in question were now advanced technology, I thought to myself: “It’s said to be a visionary movie. Perhaps it is. But not for the celebrated ending. It’s the beginning that tells a tale, the endless bewilderment, serendipity too – that very first weaponized femur. And what would be the point of a vastly greater intelligence out and about in the cosmos if we human beings, with our shabby minds, could never come to grips with it?” … But that those who worked on Kubrick’s film by way of Clarke and Sagan at least did something right: femurs, sure. But no silly looking aliens….

Lunar: … But this morning, almost as if on cue, he raised the spectre of AI and where it will take us and what occurred to me that hadn't when I wrote you is that I suspect there is going to be a grassroots rebellion. He agrees with me that it is closely aligned to eugenics, the process by which we almost willingly make ourselves redundant unless ... a grassroots rebellion ... something has got to break loose sooner or later. It may take another generation who'll see the pup they'd be handed. Or will it be already so far gone that reaction is no longer possible? Maybe this is where Carpenter (of P M Carpenter fame) might be making some sense. After all history is a series of reactions. And now, speaking of grassroots

Cornelius W Drake: I'm traveling the Russian countryside with Gogol, meeting all sorts of odd ducks. Grass roots, you know...

In any case: the AI bandwagon. In the sense that here is more fat to chew. One asks whether the thing is good for us. One asks whether the thing is calamitous. Me, I vote dunno, more inclined to wonder what went through Yeats’ mind as he read Dickens’ Bleak House, if he, indeed, did read Dickens’ Bleak House, given that Yeats’ mind was a compactor and Dickens’ mind was Everything & the Kitchen Sink, could not get enough of details. And there they are, those details, in prose space and suspended like particles, not that the man’s novels are fizzy drinks…. AI might claim to have an answer for my quandary. I might go ‘bollocks to that’ and order a pint. I might prefer the ‘American roots music’ of CW Stoneking to that of Copeland, even if Stoneking is Australian. I might contend that, Bleak House, Chapter 32, allows a supernatural air to pervade the atmosphere, and then a straight run to the chapter’s conclusion in which Krook, the decrepit imbiber, the collector of detritus, spontaneously combusts. Which led me to other thoughts by way of some perverse reverse feedback loop… Or that, it seems we no longer directly apprehend nature (or else nature is so altered we no longer know what we apprehend), there being so many filters through which our senses are put through (AI again, as an example, if not drugs); and, rambling on, if art is separate from nature, we have swallowed up art too, only to increase our separateness from everything, from ourselves…. Even if CW Drake of Champaign-Urbana sees fit to ask, “What spiritual trouble? Since the Enlightenment we’ve been bowling merrily along, and rational minds have made much of life as clear as crystal. Remember that, next time you need an anesthetic.”

I too have been guilty of taking books for granted. I am not yet crowded out of my apartment by heaps of the things, but it is getting there, Harman restive. I do not live for books, and they do not live for me, but I suppose I have spent most of my life with my nose in some tome or other. It might prove worthwhile to recall that books had progenitors.

Books have progenitors. For instance, such progenitors were in the form of papyrus rolls. Lose your place in one of those and you would have a devil of a time regaining it. Then along came the codex. It was, it is, something that more closely resembles the book as we know it. Parchment, vellum pages, and you can find a lost place so much more easily, as you leaf through a compilation of calf skin sheets. It is an ascendancy that only the computer challenges.

But before Gutenberg, books had to be copied out (if what was wanted were multiple copies of a manuscript). A lot of that work was done in scriptoriums, the quality of life in those arenas akin to that of boot camp. (I base these remarks on a book I will cite below.) Scriptoriums were generally well-lit rooms of monasteries. As it is in boot camp, egos were frowned upon. Your only reason to exist: to copy. Copy, copy, copy. Keep copying, you sonofa, you double-poxed hound…. It was not necessary – it was considered a negative – that you comprehended the words you were meant to copy. The work was nigh on sadism; it was drudgery; it was perhaps mind-numbing. So much so that, in the margins of one manuscript which has survived, a research assistant might read that a copyist of old thought to vent: “Christ, give me a drink.” I had always thought of these monks in a heroic light, as in, what, beacons of learning in dark times? I have been wrong. Most of these monks were oafish, barely literate, and would rather be out and about sowing wild oats, getting pissed….


Cited:
The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt, W.W. Norton & Co, 2012. I find the book title unfortunate, but what it is meant by it is this: ‘an unexpected, unpredictable movement of matter.’ The Latin equivalent is clinamen. The book is devoted to Lucretius, and the Roman poet, so it would seem, meant to say that there may well be mysteries in the world, but no miracles, the laws of nature ironclad, ditto for physics. The author believes that the reappearance of Lucretius’ lost poem called On the Nature of Things constitutes in itself a ‘swerve’, inasmuch as it may have changed the course of history, and certainly it affected the history of the intellect from Renaissance times on.

Received: August Heat, by Andrea Camilleri, Picador, 2010. Well, it was sitting there in my local, in a section I seldom visit, i.e., the mystery section. As with Dickens and his Krook in Bleak House, Camilleri had a character (this character shows up in an episode of The Young Montalbano, prequel to the Inspector Montalbano televised series) who hoards bits and pieces and odds and ends of literally everything, even his own feces, but that he does not spontaneously combust, an unexplained phenomenon, in any case, either way you look at it. (Caveat: I am not certain that this character is altogether Camilleri’s; there seems to have been another writer set loose on the aforementioned prequel.)

Postscript I: I have not been an avid reader of genre fiction, but there have been exceptions. To be sure, Patrick O’Brian in his series of naval novels of the Napoleonic era (beginning with Master & Commander) taught me to have greater regard for genre work. Before him, Rosemary Sutcliff: The Eagle of the Ninth. It was written for children. Perhaps, I am still one of those. And Mary Renault?…

Postscript II: Masked Man not the Lone Ranger: jerks on social media… students who have absolutely no idea what happened in the 20th century… all that matters is the moment… and perhaps the 1960s were just one enormous chatroom of a sort… Otherwise, Talking Avocado, not the Masked Man, is still having words with his chainsaw that refuses to start, finding his solace in The Great Canadian Novel, the concept….

Make of It What You Will:A certain Cratippus composed a learned historical work in which he passed himself off as an Athenian, a contemporary and intimate of Thucydides. The title of this strange work, ‘Everything Thucydides Left Unsaid’, hinted at its character: it was full of wisdom after the event. … From The Vanished Library, A Wonder of the Ancient World, by Luciano Canfora, University of California Press, 1990. It being an account of the Library of Alexander, in which all the books of the world were to be housed, even those that hucksters wrote. Now someone will say, “But we have hit on it. We have done what the ancients wished to do. We have got the Digital Universe, and it’s in our back pocket, done deal. Alles. Tutto. Tout. Everything that was printed matter is in it. Even that which hucksters have written, write, and will write.” And that someone will be correct and can pass go.

April 8, 2023: Well, I may as well quote myself. No one else is going to do it. ‘The older I get and the more I know about literature, the less I know. I’m sure there’s some sort of physics that applies here, some kind of quantum folderol. The older one gets, the more shameless…’ But there it is, and yesterday, another shameless old sod popped into the Oxford (which is a café is a café is a café) with all the insouciance of a man who does not think he is the centre of the universe; he knows he is. McGraviton plumped himself down at my table and launched.

And he was off and running, and it would seem he is contemplating early retirement seeing as the more absurd elements of wokeness are kicking in at his place of work, a government office, on the strength of the increasingly anal behaviour (algorithmically abetted) of his bosses and fellow staff members, even in the matter of how best record one’s hours of labour on some project or other. I was deluged. So that finally, as I was at risk of drowning in the Charybdis of a verbal onslaught, I raised a time-out arm. Voi qualcosa? Which is to say, the man speaks a little Italian in addition to his considerable French and his Newfie English (as when every word ending with ter reverberates forever and ever). "Do you want something? I mean, we are sitting in a café, and you might wish to order a tidbit and something with which to wash it down.”

Righto then. He would have his coffee, his croissant, his badinage with the server. And we moved on. There was the matter of his short story collection. The manuscript will have to be vetted for ‘sensitivity issues’ before it sees publication, and does whatever merits the writing may or may not possess have anything to do with such vetting? Satirists are busy making the world safe for satire…. There is a rogue black hole barreling across the universe….

In any case, as McGraviton resumed his narrative, I had in mind a notion of Chaucer’s droll rhymes. (Canterbury Tales.) Now Chaucer in his day was a kind of high level bureaucrat, may have been an agent of espionage to boot, and perhaps predisposed to drollery on account of his vocations. McGraviton, not all that high level a wage-slave, but getting there, and perhaps a double agent even so, is nothing if not droll. For all that, he did not ask how many lines of the Chaucerian epic’s 17,000 lines and change will have to be reconnoitered, reconstituted, rewritten, recast, recalibrated, purged of sin, so as to spare the sensitivities and predilections of fragile souls? But me, I wonder. It is to be wondered: how fragile is fragile? And the left takes the right to task for banning books…

At length, the McGraviton words petered out, as did my attenuated responses: ‘I hear you, brother’. ‘Verily.’ And ‘Amen’. And we concluded things by congratulating ourselves for still being left-of-centre despite our advanced years, but that it is getting to be a slog; that it is like walking barefoot on spilled tacks just to walk the walk and talk the talk; missions accomplished. We left the café and proceeded up the block. I had provisions to obtain at the poor man’s supermart. McGraviton would avail himself of the bookstore. “Bookstores make me happy,” said he in a dozy kind of way. I kind of winced. What future is there for bookstores and what kind of books will be in them? Readable ones? AI-ed ones? Which comment cum question is not necessarily as glib as it might strike you as being....

There was an e-mail lurking in my inbox when I got home, one of those ‘forwarded’ things, and it obviously had designs….

Slick Williams of the Benedetto archtop, who has been exercised by all the AI controversies – is it a good thing, is it a bad cop sort of thing? – had sent me a link to follow, and it led to me, what? the transcript of a podcast devoted to all things AI. The negative possibilities of said technology were duly noted. As was any positive potential. &c. Just that, given the tone in which all this was discussed with respect to what may well be the greatest revolution in human history barring the hula hoop, and the man and his interlocutor may as well have been discussing a change of socks. Hey, man, we got this beat because we’re, well, human. Nothing can out-evolve us. And then, sharp detour, and I read something in a selection from Benjamin Robert Haydon’s autobiography (it takes refuge in my anthology of the Romanticals), and the selection had to do with the Elgin Marbles and the controversies surrounding them, and we are talking 1815. Now, would I care to dine in an establishment called The Old Slaughter Chophouse? And then argue art until past midnight? Sure, why not? Perhaps the old masters require tutoring viz. their old master behaviours…?


Postscript I: Lunar: The thing to remember is that whatever you are, whether it be believer or unbeliever, some vast swathe of the world's population is wanting to see you in hell for it. You just can't win.

Postscript II: Cornelius W Drake of Champaign-Urbana, with respect to recent goings-on in the Tennessee state legislature and the expulsion of two black Democratic lawmakers for uncouth misbehaviour: Tennessee today reminds me not so much of the 1960s, but of the 1920s, and its national embarrassment over the monkey trial. It was that which caused Christian fundamentalists to reign in their religious meddling in politics for the next 50-60 years….

Postscript III:
From Lucian’s The Parasite, a bit of dialogue in the words of one Simon: “Now then, let us apply to the Parasitic the individual characteristics of an art and see whether it is in harmony with them or whether its theory, like a good-for-nothing-pot when you try its ring, sounds cracked. Every art, then, must be a complex of knowledges; and of these, in the case of the parasite, first of all there is testing and deciding who would be suitable to support him, and whom he could begin to cultivate without being sorry for it later. Or do we care to maintain that assayers possess an art because they know how to distinguish between coins that are counterfeit and those that are not, but parasites discriminate without art between men that are counterfeit and men that are good, even though men are not distinguishable at once, like coins? Wise Euripides criticizes this very point when he….” We are not treating with notions of welfare here and the homeless and the seething New World underbelly, but of a large part of the arts industry as well as plenty of alleged free enterprisers all of whom are amply remunerated and here they hobnob and there they leverage, and it all comes out in the wash in the end, don’t it, duckie?

Postscript IV: Talking Avocado, of a sudden feeling talkative (that this getting chatty was perhaps a delayed reaction to his recent American road trip), said he had the intention to send me quotes reflecting on the nature of mass psychosis and the peculiar atmosphere of our time. But that, he quit on it. Threw in the towel. Raised the white flag. Quote after quote seemed apt here and perhaps there. Quote after quote was just another excuse to perpetuate an ugly prejudice, in the sense that one part of the collective may be out of its ever-lovin’ mind but that we are perfectly sane. Still, he settled on the following, an instance of generalizing from Carl Jung a while back, he the head shrink, with whom Talking Avocado has issues, but what the heck….:

“Indeed, it is becoming ever more obvious” he (Jung) writes “that it is not famine, not earthquakes, not microbes, not cancer but man himself who is man’s greatest danger to man, for the simple reason that there is no adequate protection against psychic epidemics, which are infinitely more devastating than the worst of natural catastrophes.”

(And yes, after a moment or two of reflection, and double-checking for verbal IEDs, and for that which may seem imprudently insensitive, particularly with respect to the seeming overuse of the word ‘man’ in the quote cited above, and whether or not the study of psychology is a science or divination by birds, and I have judged that, in a general sense, we at Ephemeris are in accord with the sentiment.)

April 6, 2023: You are cruising along. You are pleased to think you have, in your readings, read every word the English language has on hand. You come across, in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House ‘garniture’. As a word it is not, perhaps, that unusual a word, so why would it take you aback? You are quite sure your eyes have never clapped on this word before, and will they ever clap on it again? And what does it signify, apart from ‘embellishment’ or, with respect to the French wing of the Romance languages, a food complement? You had already guessed at its meaning by way of ‘garnish’, but even so…. And then you read somewhere that bad things can happen to your health, to your thighs, for instance, if you live a sedentary life, especially one of books &c.; that physicians were concerned about such things as far back as the 1700s. So far as you can tell, your thighs are working; you have not turned into a lantern; you are not (as Spinoza did) reprising The Hunger Games, setting spider against spider as a way of relaxing the mind from the rigours of over-reading…. Incunabula, anyone?

It was on my mind to remark on ‘primary works’ of literature, The Iliad, for instance, or The Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, even Bleak House as stand-alone works; works that spawn a great many other works. Gilgamesh… I am not sure how ‘primary’ Shakespeare was who, himself, borrowed so much: Ovid, Plutarch &c. (This remark is not intended as a knock on the Bard, just that, after so many years of ‘reading’, I can own that I have taken Shakespeare for granted as well as everything that has ever been said and written about him. I have not really thought on the man.) Perhaps because I have begun to read Canterbury Tales - again, and am lapping up the drollery of its rhymes, as if all rhyme should be droll. Perhaps because I have been trying to imagine Iowa in the days when saber-toothed tigers were running around in the state, not MAGA Republicans and creative writing stalwarts. I have tried to imagine London as Bleak House. It is easier to imagine Ur.

My imagination having bailed on me, I am left to wonder what was in Dickens’ mind when he named two of Mrs Bagnet’s daughters (Bleak House) Quebec and Malta? Anti-Foreign Ministry? Am I missing some obvious answer here? In Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938), which it is a film, which I watched between innings of a baseball game the other day, and for which I will be calumniated by lovers of film, the invading Teutons look as creepy as anything special effects manages to conjure up now, and with budgets the size of small nation-states. It is easy to tell who the ‘bad guys’ are. Well, I did sacrifice three or four innings of the game so as to solely concentrate on the cinema. Despite the corny dialogue and the puppet-like acting, despite the propaganda that might bring a tear to a Stalinist eye of the Stalinist era – the motherland and all that, the film was, its rhetorical flourishes aside, a great one, and it is deemed to be one of the greatest films of all time. Imagine that. But is it fair to cast Putin’s apparent madness in its light?

Primary works? How about primary metaphors? We might guess at what might constitute such metaphors in ancient literature, as in Homer’s wine-dark seas or Achilles’ heel or ‘winged words’ and such… For a more modern primary metaphor I nominate, qua Dickens in Bleak House, his mention of an old silver watch, with hands like the legs of a skeleton. This reads to me like a point that is mid-point between an age that has been gathering momentum for a while and yet, heralds an age or two still to come…. Shivers in the old spine… Which leads to some jail cell or other as being a metaphor for the state… And there is nothing new in this… Consider the Mamertine (Rome), but then consider refinements as introduced by the more evolved notions of ‘state’, say, and we have Lubyanka; we have the Ohio State Reformatory; we have Chateau d'lf; we have the Hanoi Hilton, Guantanamo, the Caseros &c. Which gets us to the postscript below…


Postscript I: Slick Williams of the Benedetto archtop and Spanish dictionary (he reads Spanish authors exclusively) has written me a letter. It is the sort of letter that requires an envelope, a stamp, and the workings of a postal service, including that of the footwork of a postman or postwoman not in the ‘after’ sense of an event. Old age and what happens to people in old age – that was the theme kicking off the letter. Old age grimly reported upon, and so forth and so on. Then mention of The Kiss of The Spider Woman which Slick read in Puig’s words, not a translator’s, and not as cinema. It is a work that would tell us there are reasons other than petty larceny by which people find themselves waking up in prison, tortured half to death. Slick then moves on to AI: I’m not basically bothered by the possibility that I could read a piece or see some art work or listen to some music, have a reaction to it thinking that it was human-produced, and then having it revealed to me that it was produced by a machine – a parallel with all those instances of critics being pranked by paint brushes wielded to chimps or tied to donkeys’ tails. I’m satisfied that a work of art means one thing when it’s done by a chimp or a machine, and another when it’s done by a person. But I have a queasy sensation that we are about to get swamped, and even if some of us can distinguish shit from shinola, most of us can’t, and won’t… …. …. most people aren’t going to be troubled by everything starting to resemble bad television… …. …. I am now pretty sure I wouldn’t have had the strength of character to resist the Nazis. I sort of know who John Donne was but I think I could probably get through life okay not knowing… …. …. in a world where anyone, including me, could tell a digital assistant, ‘Write a tender coming-of-age novel, roughly 80,000 words, about a young man apprenticed to a world-weary but principled mentor (think Phillip Marlowe) who has a heartrending (but not heartbreaking) (and not maudlin) (but not cold-hearted) affair (with just enough sex in it to make it seem like it was written by a healthy adult male) with an exotic (but not stereotypically exotic) Russian, say, but not, you know, Siberian &c.

Postscript II: Whereas Talking Avocado has taken up The Idiot (Dostoyevsky), and has stalled out roughly where I stalled out. ‘Like a swimmer in the middle of a lake, I’m clinging, at page 402, to a chunk of driftwood and taking a rest, wondering if I have the strength to reach the other side. I suppose I have to give in to its pace, find its current and flow with it so as to reach that far shore, and then run like hell from the Russians. While checking world weather this morning I stumbled on an article about Safe Rooms for ethnically marginalized students at various Canadian Universities… …. …. I confess to an overwhelming feeling of sadness. The social fabric, no doubt always frayed, worn and torn, seems to be unraveling at every level, fueled by grudges, fear, ignorance, indignation, and no doubt finance. But then what do I know, I can’t even get my chainsaw started.’

Postscript IV: The barbarians were a kind of solution. &c &c &c –
From Waiting for the Barbarians, C P Cavafy, Selected Poems, translated by Keeley and Sherrard. Princeton University Press, 1972.

Postscript V: Whereupon it was noted by one Cornelius W Drake of Champage-Urbana that Marjorie Taylor Greene is Bull Connor in a female body. Transmigratory trans-genderism?


April 1, 2023: I asked Lunar what lines of Giacomo Leopardi’s prose have stayed with him over the years. He struck an attitude, one that resembles Rodin’s The Thinker, chin on hand. His mind went on a mission. And in a timely fashion, he directed me to the following from the man’s Zibaldone, that ‘hodgepodge’ of thoughts running into the hundreds of pages:

To a sensitive and imaginative man, who lives, as I have done for so long, continually feeling and imagining, the world and its objects are in a certain respect double. With his eyes he will see a tower, a landscape; with his ears he will hear the sound of a bell; and at the same time with his imagination he will see another tower, another landscape, he will hear another sound. The whole beauty and pleasure of things lies in this second kind of objects. Sad is that life (and life is generally so) which sees, hears, feels only simple objects, only those objects perceived by the eyes, the ears, and the other senses.

Or perhaps the lines he meant for me to read were these:

It is well known that great pain (like every great passion) has no external language. This means that when a person is in great pain, he is unable to define, to establish in his own mind any idea, any feeling about the subject of his passion, which idea or feeling he might be able to express to himself, and turn and exercise his thought and pain around it, so to speak. He feels a thousand feelings, sees a thousand ideas run together, or rather feels, sees only one feeling, one vast idea, where his faculty of feeling and thinking remains absorbed, powerless either to grasp everything or to divide it into parts, and to determine some of these. Therefore at that moment he has no thoughts of his own, he does not even know the cause of his pain… &c.

And somehow, and I am not entirely sure how, the lines immediately above seem to swim along just fine with a proposition (of quantum mechanics) that the universe is open-ended, not a deterministic closed-system, or that ‘reality is more than what a single agent’s perspective can capture.’ So an article I have just read states, and it certainly states away – with all the panache of a physicist who would whip up enthusiasm for science among youngsters, science as glamorous a prospect as some dear heart’s coming out party.

The statement insists: ‘However, unlike the art movement (Cubism) Qbism does not attempt to represent reality. It does not attempt to bring the different perspectives together in one third person view. Qbism is fundamentally anti-representational and first person’. &c. &c. &c. and…

And then, and there is always one of those – a then, and now that we have had time for a brief spate of hiccups and to scratch our noses; and now that we have had time to contemplate inferences, it being fact that Stormy has seen Trump naked, which begs the question – is it ‘peccadillo’ or ‘peckerdillo’?: ‘…the Qbist vision is that of an unfinished universe, of a world that allows for genuine freedom, a world in which agents matter and participate in the making of reality.’ To which end, and quite separate from the fact of Lunar’s chronic pain, and yet he has the giggles with respect to the Trumpian, I had a dream last night that had to do with rhyme.

I was in a car with two men, just that I could not make them out at first. Even so, I was prattling on about rhyme. Yeatsian rhyme. Skip James rhyme. But that I found in both instances of verse-making the same stateliness of tone, that is, unless I was high on something. Hence Yeats, and they are famous lines of his:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
….

Hence Skip James (and I first heard the lyrics when Gene Jaleski sang them (sounding Irish in the process) at the Null Set Coffeehouse, 1966, one hot summer evening, Olympia, Washington:

Hard times is here and everywhere you go/Times are harder than ever been before/
You know that people, they are driftin' from door to door/But you can't find no
heaven, I don't care where they go….

Now I could make out the man at the wheel. He bore quite the resemblance to the actor Morgan Freeman. Perhaps he was Morgan Freeman. I spoke to him words to this effect: “I sing the lyrics of the Skip James song quoted above – Hardtime Killing Floor Blues – in my head, and Yeats vacates my mind, off for a tea bun or a seance.” Mr Freeman shrugged. I shrugged. Hey, this is just a dream. We are not doing comparative literature.

The other man in the car was now visible as well. He turned out to be a friend of mine who died a few years back. But as he was wont to do when alive, he was doing it now, that is, saying, “Why can’t you just apply blues rhyme to the Yeatsian meter, and that’ll resolve the matter, that of bringing two worlds together…” &c. There had always been a ‘mattering’ Mad Hatter demon in this Quebecker, though he was respectable for all that, a man of the business world. I replied that ‘it doesn’t work that way.’ End of dream. But not before we figured on stopping somewhere – spud shack lay-over, poutine on the menu. Over beers, we would discuss Trump and his indictment, now that the baseball season had started….

Whereupon I woke up with John Fahey in my thoughts. He was an American guitarist, composer and arranger who breathed his last – perhaps wretchedly – in a cheap motel. He made of certain blues songs symphonies by way of open tunings, sometimes with wonderful results. As with Stomping Tonight on the Pennsylvania-
Alabama Border
(from his album Death Chants, Breakdowns, & Military Waltzes, 1963, but that the piece was actually done up in standard tuning: EADGBE). The man had a horror of stodgy folklore liner notes, so much so, he invented stuff on his album covers, took liberties. But in any case, there you go, a lifelong ambition achieved that practically achieved itself: mention of Leopardi and Fahey in damn near the same sentence.

And then this, continuing on: ‘A key aspect of quantum mechanics is randomness. Rather than making firm predictions, quantum mechanics is concerned with the probabilities for potential measurement…’ or, what? a blah-blah-blah moment even as one approaches an event horizon, a moment that, perhaps, is part and parcel of the on-going self-creating world of the universe, and eureka: well, I do not care? You stand before a moving bus, and it will mow you down.


Postscript I: With respect to Trump and his indictment, Lunar has remarked: “What better way for a country to fall… on a peroxide blonde….” At any rate, so Lunar further remarked, politicians rarely fall because of anything major; he had in mind a certain measurement with a view toward a certain anatomical feature not the man’s
pinkie. I await the thoughts of Cornelius W Drake on this….

Postscript II: And right on cue, I have heard from Champaign-Urbana where Mr Drake resides. He says that he agrees with P M Carpenter: I am among the many who preferred that the Justice Department would go first, or alone, in holding Trump criminally responsible, and for much more serious felonies. Bragg's case involves the
somewhat common practice of cooking the books and probably — the indictment has not yet been unsealed — the legally dubious charge of a campaign finance violation. These, it scarcely need be said, pale when juxtaposed with inciting an insurrection, attempting to overturn a democratic election, obstructing justice and possible
espionage
. In other words, it seems there is some acknowledgement on Mr Carpenter’s part that what is ‘minor’ here will likely trump what is ‘major’ when it comes to Trump… But that continuing in this word-vein risks ruptures in one’s synaptic processes…. Get it? the major-minor thing not a British make of automobile…

Postscript III: Whereas Talking Avocado is down for the count, recouping from his extended road trip across the states of a certain nation-state to the south of here, and in keeping with the spiritual geography of the Pennsylvania-Alabama border. He would talk about chainsaws, his a two-chainsaw household. One electric, one gas-powered. The two machines hate the sight of each other. They will not perform when the one is too proximate to the other. And one sings ‘bringing in the sheep’ while trying to bring on the wood….