Tuesday, June 07, 2016

the lost classics

There is a subculture of neglected or lost books, of which I am a member. I am a frequent visitor at the neglected books blog, which keeps lists put out at various times by journals like Anteaus and American Scholar. Typically, these lists are compiled from the responses of authors who are asked to name a book that deserves more recognition.
While I was travelling back from Paris a couple of days ago, I read a book, Lost Classics, which consisted of little essays extolling neglected books, lost books, childhood favorites, and the like. The essays were built on the format of the personal essay, the dominant form in our time. I’m not against personal essays, but I do find that context sorta gets whacked in favor of a rather uncritical self report.
I thought, naturally, about what I’d include in a list. And then I thought I’d write my own little essays about writers who have not gotten a fair shake in the American culture I know.
But before I do that: what does it mean, in a book’s career, to be lost? Or, more broadly, to be rediscovered?
The rediscovery of, for instance, the Bible during the 16th and 17th century was not an event of merely antiquarian interest, but was of vast importance to the  formation of a literate public, and to the formation of pre-modern culture. It was not the only cause of the religious wars, but it played a very important role in them. The New Model Army of Cromwell may have been the first to supply its soldiers with books – specifically, the Soldier’s Pocket Bible.
The Renaissance is also inextricably tied to the “new learning”. Although historians now tend to dissolve the Renaissance into an epiphenomenon or a retrospective illusion about the 14th and 15th century, I am true to my education and like to think of Gemistos Plethon sailing from Byzantium to Italy with a boatload of manuscripts in 1438. This is the Gemistos celebrated in Pound’s Cantos. Whoever the agent,it seems that there was a rage for manuscripts in Florence in the early fifteenth century, and that Plato was finally released into the European mainstream by translators and commentors like Ficino. Whitehead’s remark that all philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato is a bit too magisterial – Plato was teleported into Europe in various stages. Still, Whitehead’s remark is a good measure for scaling the importance, in the posthumous life of an author, of rediscovery.
That said, I’m going to list a few of my discoveries.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

curiosity cabinets

A detached page…

Visit to the Muséum d’histoire naturelle yesterday on Rue Buffon. I am fond or, to be Frenchy, J’adore this little piece of Paris, between the Austerlitz station and that Hammam-mosque on St. Hilaire that boasts a little salon de the. First, I, with Adam in tow (or, more precisely, en avant, since I was pushing Adam in  his stroller) met Francois at the Luxembourg Park, where we strolled about under a grey sky that was determined to make the Park look ordinary or even dreary. And succeeded: the Park did look dreary, as we walked down dreary paths among dreary, locked up amusement areas for the kids, past the dreary tennis courts where two ardent but very wet players were batting around an increasingly soppy ball, and past the rain bedraggled flowering bushes, and past the dreary orangery into the coven of streets near Saint Sulpice, wet and grey, and into an American style lunch place. It was American style down to the menu, which advertised bagels and lox and various super burgers. Francois and I discussed the dreary state of American and especially French politics (I said that if it was between Juppé and Hollande, I’d be for Juppé, and Francois said Juppe was making an effort to get the bobo vote, like mine). Adam, after eating his bagel with cream cheese, quietly imagined that a red plastic lego piece he was carrying was Spiderman and had it fight with various other objects, all of which were, for the moment, supervillains and superheros. Finally it was time for coffee and I noticed how patient Adam had been and proposed going to the Muséum, where I thought we would find dinosaur skeletons.
In fact, I had never visited the Muséum’s exhibition space. In 2010, I have a very sweet memory of strolling the flourishing garden on an Autumn day with A. I was new in Paris then. I also remember, in 2012, visiting a seminar room in the complex of buildings with M., where we listened to lectures on the history of taxidermy,  M. being a great fan of taxidermy.
In any case (a trick of language, this “in any case”, like a dreary usher inviting the guests in to see the cosmetized corpse of a transition), there we were, entering the vast first floor hall, gazing at the cadenced, suspended skeletons of whales under what dim artificial light there was, with the outside light barely filtering through the colored windows far above us: this gave the whole the aspect of being a vast, antiquated acquarium. Adam was hesitant and frankly afraid of some of the stuffed animals. This was not just due to the Muséum’s intention, but an echo of yesterday’s disastrous decision to visit the Musée Grevin: a wax museum on Boulevard Montmartre. It was raining yesterday – rain was always strumming its fingers on the roof when we were in Paris  – and so I had looked up things to do for kids in Paris when it rains. A. was off to a business meeting. After navigating the Metro with the stroller and  Adam, we plunked down our Euros and plunged into an atmosphere of grotesque entertainment. Adam was not amused. In fact, he immediately felt something was not right at the Grevin when we went into the hoaky antechamber, a mirrored room, and were entertained by various cheap light and sound tricks. This, he decided, was definitely a monster haunted place, which who in their right mind would want to visit? The wax figures were even worse: they were too lifelike and at the same time unlifelike – had that zombie-ish glitter of in-between. Soon he was crying, and soon I was rushing through the many many chambers of that combination of chamber of horrors and celebration of celebrity with a sobbing little boy in my arms. However, the Muséum d’histoire naturelle was not out to frighten, but to edify, and Adam realized this. The rather kitsch tableaux at the Grevin charm me (I like these lefthand descendents of curiosity cabinets). The taxidermist’s dream of herds of Sub-Saharan beasts in the Muséum are charming in a different way (these are the true, lineal descendents of the curiosity cabinet – I could draw up a family tree, and show you the affects of unnatural selection). All the skins are genuine – they belong to beasts that died long ago – and the point is to learn about them close up. Or the ostensive point. The closest we came to the Grevin was the Salle des disparues et presque-disparues. It was a long, shadowy gallery, practically unlit, on the top floor. A glass case with a giant stuffed dodo is the first thing to greet the visitor, providing the motif for the effigies within. Dodoes are, legitimately, the monarchs of the kingdom of the extinct – or extinguished, as the French say. It is a tour, in brief, of man’s inhumanity, or perhaps better, surplus humanity, to beasts, braining them, plucking them, eating them or wasting them, and leaving mounds of bones upon the shore. It was so dark in there that I couldn’t read the notices on all of the glass cages, and am not sure if the snowy egret is extinct or nearly extinct – or was that the whooping crane?
Emerging from the end of the world, we descended to the ground floor again and went out to look at the Garden. The Garden was wet. Still, I like the tall plane trees that line the big peripheral paths, which led us to the gates at the bottom. In the area near the gate, there’s a large statue of the “discoverer” of evolution (a little French bragging here – the statue is of Lamarck). Tucked in a corner towards the left was a lonely ice cream stand, which we headed to. Adam ate  a double chocolate ice cream at a table from which we’d wiped away the puddles of water; after this,  Francois headed out to photograph the Seine cresting under the Pont d’Austerlitz while Adam went back to the statue and climbed onto the plinth. Then he started skipping around the statue singing London Bridge is falling down. I watched him, and allowed the spirit of some old poet to wander around inside me, looking for the symbol here. Surely I was being given a Baudelarian correspondance, and what was I going to do with it?
The day grew drearier.

Later, in the news, there were reports of flooding in Northern France. 

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...