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Tuesday, January 01, 2013


I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
  And what I assume you shall assume,
  For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

  I loafe and invite my soul,
  I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

“Loafe” is one of the great verbs, I think. Partly, this stems from the homonym “loaf”, as in a bar of something – bread, for instance. The loaf of bread is not something that can loafe – alas, it exists either on a plate for you to eat, recently made or at least shot up with enough preservatives to seem recently made, or it starts to look greenish and ready for the penicillin factory, at which point it is given the unceremonious heave ho into the waste can. Of course, when bread was much more precious and famine was a real possibility in the hinterlands and urbs of Europe, you would not be so cavalier with a loaf of bread.  Hans Christian Andersen begins one of his characteristic fairy tales (which mix sentimentality and a truly satanic sense of punishment) with the sentence: “There was once a girl who trod on a loaf to avoid soiling her shoes, and the misfortunes that happened to her in consequence are well known.” The backstory here is that Inge, product of a poor family but gifted with such beauty that she was adopted by a rich family, much to her satisfaction and pride, was given a loaf of bread to carry to her poor family and tossed it, instead, in a mud puddle so she could walk across it. Ah, the simple but symbolic actions that bring immediate grief in Andersen’s universe! “… the loaf began to sink under her, lower and lower, till she disappeared altogether, and only a few bubbles on the surface of the muddy pool remained to show where she had sunk. And this is the story.
But where did Inge go? She sank into the ground, and went down to the Marsh Woman, who is always brewing there.” As in The Red Shoes, it is Inge’s footwear that spells her doom: once she is underground, the loaf of bread is stuck like a lead weight to her foot, bringing her, of course, to the gates of hell. A very fine tale to tell children – what child would not like to see the Inges of the world get their comeuppance! But this loaf has made itself, in a sense, the very opposite of the loafing and inviting one’s soul among the tall grass that Whitman has in mind. The OED gives a rather unbelievable etymology of loaf – it is a “back formation” from loafer, which comes from Landlaeufer, a tramp. The earliest use of loafer according to the Oxford boys is in 1830. Henley and Farmer, in their 1927 slang dictionary, derive it from the French, louper.
From ranging about like a beast to tramping with one’s hands in one’s pocket, this was the image of the loafer in the mouth of the street, from which Whitman took his verb. But in so taking it, he strips it of its desperation – rather, he discovers a tramp Zen in the word. Unlike poor burdened Inge, Whitman loafing among the grass is unburdened and more than unburdened.
I am thinking of these matters of loaf because Adam is, supremely, a loafer – but not a walker, or tramper. He loafs and enjoys his soul not in the grassblades, but in the highly domestic foam bed or the bouncy bouncy or the pousette. Lately, he often tries to force himself up from the chest up – making a stab at the whole homo erectus thing. Poor guy, little does he know the griefs he is bringing on himself by coming out of the loaf and into the rat race. But such is history. Still, as he loafs, lolls, and lounges, I have slowed my own pace somewhat to his. Loafing and being at my ease is no simple thing anymore – magically, a screen or a book appears, and you are no longer inviting your soul but shooing it away. However, prisoner of the entertainment-security complex like all the rest of us, I am getting a small lesson in loafing from Adam. Who, in turn, is moved more and more often to burble a commentary about certain of the things in his line of sight, and certain of the sensations of what seems to be this  thing, this loaf, that has legs and feet and arms and hands and is, well, him.

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