a more personal beginning

I've been worrying that the style in which I'm trying to write my Bio of H.E. is too scholastic, and not gnostic or eccentric or personal enough. So I am thinking of beginnning something more like this.


I was in my second year of college, in the town of S., a long time ago, hen I first came down with what I know now is a sort of disease: the want of a desire to want. I was living in a furnished apartment above a garage full of old photographs. The garage was attached to a mansion inhabited by an eccentric and presumably wealthy couple, although I only had any relations with the wife, Mrs. M., a former CIA agent and photograph enthusiast (hence, the piles of old darkroom equipment and boxes of photographs in the garage, along with a very old and never driven Bentley

I was happy with the furnishings, and especially with Mrs. M.’s choice of firehouse red as the predominant color in the kitchen (stove, table, chairs, and even tea kettle). Then my father came by one day – they lived twenty miles outside of S. – and gave me a television.

Up until this point, I’d had no trouble with television. One of my first purchases, from my first job as a teenager, had been a small portable tv. This allowed me to watch tv in my bedroom, my own shows rather than those of my parents or brothers and sisters when they had dibs on the big tv in the downstairs room which was all set up for it – the couch and the chairs turned towards it even when they were empty and the set was off, as if the room was somehow asleep. But as I tried to find a place for the tv my father gave me, I suddenly felt that I didn’t really want it.

Up until that point, it hadn’t occurred to me not to want the wantable things that America is so full of. Looking back, this rather trivial moment was like the first symptom, the first black buboe that signifies that you have the plague. Because, as my life unfolded, I discovered I didn’t want almost any of the major wantable things. I didn’t want a car. I didn’t want a home. I didn’t want a boat, or a stereo system, or a credit card, or a closet full of clothes. I didn’t even want a couch. It wasn’t even that I was infected with a hippie Puritanism that meant that I wanted other people not to want these things; it was simply that I never, well, felt the urge to go out and buy them.

The significance of the PC and the Internet for me was that, in the nineties, I finally wanted something. But I didn’t want the latest things, even there: I was quite content with, say, Windows95 long after that software had been rendered obsolete. I only gradually and grudgingly have been pulled along by the trendy currents of personal computing design. Plus, my job, as a free lancer, depends on the computer.

I would not have a problem with the want of wanting if I didn’t have pretensions far above my station – for even when I was perched in my firehouse red kitchen in the town of S., I planned on being a writer. I planned on writing novels, in fact. I didn’t plan on poor thin narratives, but thick ones, fat cultural steaks full of the greases and hamburger of the America I saw around me, all its idiocies and splendeurs in my – and its - ephemeral moment. The most fabulously wealthy country of all time! My idea of the novel was on the lines of those of Balzac, whose Human Comedy – if considered as one novel, on the order of, say, In Search of Lost Time – is at the top of my list of great novels. Balzac not only wrote of people wanting lots in the restoration France of his time, but he himself was a tremendous and unmanageable wanter, which is how he went through fortunes as a sort of industrial plant of best sellers and still managed, most years, to remain well in debt. He wanted houses, he wanted art, he wanted excellent food and wine, he wanted women, he wanted clothes. In the letters to his future wife, Madame Hanska, who was as beautiful as a portrait and, more to the point, beautifully wealthy, plus being geographically distant on her Ukranian estates – where she couldn’t poke her nose too much into Balzac’s Parisian business - Balzac would heap up in great lists the things he wanted – the houses that they would both live in, jewels, objects of art - in a sort of fireworks of mad accounting and mad connoisseurship, while at the same time he would keep her advised of his schemes for liquidating his debts, which by 1844 amounted to, on his account, about 150,000 francs.

“I went out for the first time the day before yesterday. I bought a clock for our salon of an unheard of magnificence, and two pale blue garnet vases that are not less magnificent. All this for almost nothing. Great news! Rothschild wants my Florentine marbles. He is doubtless going to come to see them. I want fourteen thousand francs for them. Another piece of news! The Girardon Christ, bought for one hundred fifty francs, is estimated at five thousand francs, and twenty thousand francs with the frame [by Bustolone]. And you scold me, o louloup, for my dealings in the kingdom of Bricabrac-erie!” [ - my translation Lettres a l’etrangere, vol. 2, 446]

Balzac abundantly satisfied his love of bricabrac-erie in his novels, in which characters are always setting up apartments or houses with lavishly described furnishings – and it finally achieves its metaphysical form in Cousin Pons. Balzac’s reveling in such things as frames by Bustolone or boudoir figurines turned out by 18th century craftsmen had, as he well knew, a political sense: Balzac not only turned his negative capacity into a shopping catalogue, but he had a very high sense of the history behind the object and a genius for understanding how they were all connected. In the period of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, the storehouse of goods that had been accumulated for centuries in noble estates and monarchial palaces, in churches and bourgeois hôtels, were swept away in the deluge (the deluge to which Louis XV had so famously referred), to reappear in the pawn shop, the cart of the dealer in curios at the foire, among dealers in old furniture located in shadowy side streets, or mysteriously present on the fireplace mantel of the provincial peasant who had enriched himself buying seized church lands.