29 March 2009

Two heartbreak poems.


The doctor scooped the mole
right out of my arm, leaving skin
cantaloupe-pink after the pass
of the melon baller. The scab started
concave, blood brown and translucent
in spots: over time as if ascending
via dumbwaiter it rose, cracked,
paled. Size, shape, hues of a black-
eyed pea, it could come off any day now.

John wears a suit to work now, his
memorized body long-limbed as Jimmy Stewart’s
in The Philadelphia Story. He makes
four times what I do. He’s moving
out of his parents’ apartment (such
dark woodwork I was sure it was
haunted). He’s still with Heather, who
slept across the hall with John’s
roommate years ago, who I mutter
is merely the closest substitute
for me, but with whom—and I know
because I know him—he must be deeply
in love. He’s even got two little Siamese
cats to obliterate Julie, once his only kitty-
kitty. When Cecily said she’d seen him I
had to ask. Couldn’t just leave it alone.

[January 2005]


Mmm, the 40-cent saffron solace
of Jiffy corn muffins: deconvecting them
I jerk up too soon, and a second sears
where thumb joins wrist, an embarrassed
lymph-ellipse. Never burned myself on the oven
before. I staunch the heat with olive oil
and tomato, the latter like a cool wet slap
on my stung skin. Now it’s reconstructed,
spiderwebbed, the dull rose of my lips,
elegant in its way, how it puckers to a point
at each end, like a smooth closed eye of grain.
I don’t mind scars, mostly: the stem-curve
on my foot, inked over with thorns,
the ashen footpath memories of cat
scratches, the drop beneath his right eye
my fingertip still recalls.

Except, of course, that stabbed ridge
of fear, the strip-mined trust, the unrest
he left behind. The way I can’t believe
love will ever again fold me, quiet, like egg whites
into batter, light as foam, firm as a hand
on my tear-burned cheek. The slit throat
of remembering, if not security,
the illusion of it, a cage of arms and strength
high above the rushing waters.
Like an orange-starved sailor I feel them
still gape at his name. What’s past is
underneath, undone. I can’t go back.

[April 27, 2007]

Ennead, Fall 2004.


I. Atalanta

Last night, I woke to his cursing
as he jerked the counterpane tangled by my legs.
"You’re running again," he snarled, and slept,
but I flexed my feet beneath the blanket and felt
my milk-white insteps itching for green.
Time was, there wasn’t a runner anywhere
could touch me, though they tried,
panting and pumping their thighs toward
my flushed victorious body. Even my husband
didn’t beat me, not really. It wasn’t fair.
Those apples were so bright in the sun—
goddesses have fought and lost for less.
Defeated, I pace between bed and kitchen,
my feet as heavy as a lioness’s paws.

II. The Weeping Madonna
This is not the kind of miracle you ask for.
Still in this statue, pushing blood through wood,
I cannot close my eyes or raise a hand to wipe
the stains from my blue and white. I used to wear
red but you have lost my flesh, made me Artemis,
Vesta, Tonatzín. But I bled at his birth,
shed tears as he dies, displayed—carved from,
crossed onto, a tree. They have cut the lines well;
the nose and hipbones are my boy’s, hanging
there still. What you call grace is only grief.

III. the yellow wallpaper
sucking paste from beneath my fingernails
spitting sputum-stained flakes all down my dress
I’ve been hanged askew my patterns misaligned
the edges don’t match so you’ll stare at it
forever it could make you come unglued

IV. Seeing Your Wife
You are the prince
turned into a hind,
and she the foundling
who found you in
a thicket. My heart
soaks my dress, runs
down my ribs to
freeze my feet. No
one knocks at my
tower door. My knight
lies in the heather,
while I spin words
into lead. I thought
we would be like
you, two doves, one
nest. But my shoes
are now not glass,
but iron, too heavy
to tread the dance.

V. The Wyrd Sister
I saw her again today, on the inside of my eyes:
hers are yellow, like an anime cat’s.
We share a shape, but she is made
of solid shadow with wrought-iron bones—
unbreakable, unbleedable, unburnable.
Her laugh would drive you mad.

VI. Running Away to Sea
My aunt ran away to sea
though no one knew at first
what she was doing. Hands
covered in clay on board ship,
she stopped feeling in the heat
that fire that took her house,
that once ran through her head
in horses. She made instead
horses of waves, of brine,
grew used to the giddy horizon.
She shed her husband, shed
the mountains, shed her skin,
and plunged, a selkie, into the sea.

Today I glimpsed her in the mirror
in the humid curls about my face
and in the eyes the urge to run
to the edge of the shore, to dive
in, to lose my sorrow in scales
and fins—to swim for my life.

VII. Unrealized Film Noir Script
I could be the bad girl
lipstick like a stoplight
cigarette smoke exhaled in belly-dancer curves
flashing my garters as I open the suicide door
I would sit on your desk and swing my slingback heels
I would lead you astray

You could be the crooked cop
the gangster who wants out
the P.I. mourning his partner
You wouldn’t believe a word I said
but you’d take my money—and you’d know
that I was trouble the minute you saw me
but trouble is perhaps a chance for redemption
a chance for revenge
a chance for revelation

and they all would be against you
the police department City Hall the richest man in the Valley
you would be like America against the spectre of Communism
that is if you consent to be a symbol

You could be the hero in the shadows
cigar smoke exhaled like the breath from a gun
I would smell of jasmine and Pall Malls
drink whiskey like a man
hide a derringer in my bag to be
coolly pressed against your jugular "I’m sorry Sam
but I’ve got to have that bird"

I could get my just desserts:
"Goddamn it, Charlie, you sold me out"
my upper-class accents gone, back to
the guttersnipe I’ve always been

but no, you’d let me go
for whatever I did as the camera panned away—
this being the Forties that’s no small thing—
maybe I was just a pawn but more likely I was the power behind the plot
the jewel thief the madam the old man’s young wife

"It’s been fun, Phil, but I gotta be going"
with a wink, my false lashes like the vicious green fringe
on a Venus fly trap

VIII. Thirst
My chastity is not a virtue
but a void. These parched lips
cry: your breath, your spit
to damp the need, to lick
the flames. Were you here
to comfort me, I would be lush
green pasture but I am Death
Valley, bone dry.

I do not touch myself.
It doesn’t fool me anymore.

IX. Paralyzed Force of Unobtainable Desire
I played catch-and-release
with his heavy-lidded Romanian eyes
for hours while biting my lower lip
and pulling my shoulders back so my breasts rose
under the $4 shirt I’d just bought in Costa Rica
we groped in a restroom stall the night we met
and I waited for him in the crew bar the rest of the week
(drinking gin and Sunny Delite) got permission to fuck him
in the stateroom I shared with my aunt
obtained condoms

but he worked the breakfast shift all cruise
and wouldn’t kiss me anyway

the redhead baseball player/
philosopher and I saw Joan Jett
discussed Kierkegaard
got muddy up to our knees
Chandra said he was easy, so I
kissed him, it was like tasting
hot chocolate

he’s been in Lawrence
fucking someone else ever since

across the parking lot before I could say no
I said "excuse me" as he mounted his motorcycle
"but you are beautiful and I’ve really enjoyed
staring at you for the past half hour"
I gave him my number before I asked his age—
eighteen—and I thought "I could do eighteen
I could own eighteen"

he never called

still Wednesday nights the guest student flirts with me I swear
but the married one never flirts back

In brief.

Read recently:

The King's Rifle, Biyi Bandele: According to the cover blurbs at least, the only novel to deal with the experiences of West African troops fighting for the British in Burma during WWII. It's a tight, spare narrative that combines the universal horrors of war with the specificity of this forgotten segment of a forgotten front. It's also a coming-of-age story.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Nagaru Tanigawa: Given my fondness for Kenzaburo Oe, Haruki Murakami, and Yoko Ogawa, my boss has taken to handing me any translated-from-Japanese galleys that come in. This one's a pretty standard anime-series plot about a girl who unwittingly has the power to create and destroy universes, and whose desire to meet aliens, time travelers, and what the book keeps referring to as "espers" (psychics, I guess? or superheroes? or secret agents?) calls these folks into being. And they all join her after-school club to keep her happy. It was OK, mostly, but with some creepy fan-service-y sexuality: one girl (the time traveler) keeps getting stripped and groped against her will, and it's played for laughs even though she's clearly upset by it. Ick.

Little Klein, Anne Ylvisaker: I met the author last April at a Midwest Booksellers Association convention in Des Moines (my first and only business trip), and I'm sorry it took me this long to read this lovely middle-grade novel. A simple story about a youngest brother, his scruffy dog, and an Iowa river, it's beautifully written and doesn't talk down to its audience at all.

The Gargoyle, Andrew Davidson: The book of last summer--so many of my colleagues had read it and loved it I finally had to give in, and was largely disappointed. It's well written, certainly--Davidson pays much more attention to the sounds of his sentences than is fashionable these days--and it's hard to beat the first fifty pages, an excruciating account of the narrator's slow recovery from horrible burns. But then he meets a crazy woman who thinks they were lovers in a past life in the 1300s, and she proceeds to tell their story; the more her voice takes over, the more the narrator comes under her spell, the more it becomes a dull love-conquers-time romance, and it loses its edge.

Reading now:
The House of Wittgenstein, Alexander Waugh: An account of the philosopher's brilliant, tortured family. It's written by Evelyn's grandson! I haven't read any Wittgenstein (he comes too late in the game for the Great Books program I went through), but it's a fascinating tale of madness, familial dynamics, and the convulsions of Europe in the first half of the 20th century. And did you know ol' Ludwig went to high school with Adolf Hitler?

18 March 2009

The Possession of Mr. Cave

The Possession of Mr. Cave: A Novel rating: 4 of 5 stars
The very first book I reviewed for Watermark, last March 13, was Matt Haig’s The Labrador Pact. (btw, anybody else notice that best-seller The Art of Racing in the Rain, which came out months later, has nigh the same plot as The Labrador Pact? Although from perusal of online reviews, as is typical for an American shall-we-say-retelling of a British original, “Racing in the Rain” appears to have a happy ending.)

So I think it’s appropriate, a year later (I know! A whole year! It’s like I’m some kind of grownup who can hold down a job!), that I review Haig’s third novel, The Possession of Mr. Cave. While Possession is narrated by the eponymous Terence Cave rather than a noble Lab, it participates in many of the same themes as the previous novel: the risks of good intentions. The unraveling of families. The desperate sacrifices of love. (I suspect Haig’s first book, The Dead Fathers Club, being a retelling of “Hamlet,” does the same.)

The Possession of Mr. Cave begins “as life begins, with the sound of screaming.” Cave’s fifteen-year-old son Reuben, showing off for a crowd by hanging from a lamppost, falls to his death. Cave, already a widower, is left alone with Reuben’s twin sister, Bryony. His redoubled desire to protect the child who was always his favorite leads him slowly from ordinary paternal regulations to increasing paranoia, as he begins to follow her when she goes out, eavesdrop on her conversations. When he discovers she’s begun seeing a boy named Denny who was present at Reuben’s accident, he turns draconian, confining Bryony to her room outside school hours. Then, he begins to believe Reuben’s angry spirit is working through him to strike at his father through his sister, revenge for a life of neglect, and Cave’s mind becomes a struggle between defending and attacking his daughter, and himself.

Eventually, in heartbreaking flashback, we learn the truth of why Cave has never liked his son, and the connection his wife’s death bears with Denny. Still, even at Cave’s most irrational, he remains sympathetic in his terror at his offspring’s penchant for self-destruction. The first-person narration’s loss of control plunges the reader into the chilling inexorability of a madness that, at every step, seems perfectly reasonable.

(Utterly distracting aside: the cover for the American edition is hideous, all poorly drawn silhouettes. I'm thinking of printing out the jpg of the British version (all moody, with a lamppost prominent) and gluing it onto my galley.)

13 March 2009

Dancing queen.

Today Mark was planning to return all our copies of a graphic biography of Isadora Duncan, on the grounds that "people who care about Isadora Duncan don't care about graphic novels, and people who care about graphic novels don't care about Isadora Duncan." I realized I was that elusive audience!

12 March 2009

Zeitgeist schmeitgeist.

So I take back what I said about Watchmen being "pretty great," because I finished it, and the ending is DUMB STUPID. And a little offensive. "One of the 100 best novels since 1923"? Seriously, Time? It's not even one of the best graphic novels I've read in the past year. And I've read a total of five.

At least I've quashed any desire to see the movie.

11 March 2009

Zeitgeist catchup.

So I'm reading Watchmen: it's pretty great. Good story, well told, fascinating implications. But I hate the art. All the characters are hideous, especially the women. I get that it's stylized, that it's echoing the conventions of superhero comic art at the time (or maybe the 70s? can't say I'm well-informed in the genre's history. I mostly read Archie comics in my youth.), that even though I would enjoy it more as a novel novel it has to be graphic because of the nature of the tale and its implications...but man is it aesthetically unappealing.

04 March 2009

Fan letters, Pt. 2

This is a long one:

I’ve been writing fan letters since the jacket photo.

Dear Saša Stanišic:
Hi! How are you? I am fine. You are completely adorable in your picture. You were born in ’78? I was born in ’79! OMG, we have so much in common!
Anna Perleberg

My mother speaks German, so she helps translate:

Liebe Saša Stanišic:
Guten Tag! Wie geht’s? Es geht mir sehr gut. In deinem Foto siehst du ganz schön aus. Du bist ’78 geboren? Ich bin ’79 geboren! Wir haben soviel gemeinsam!
Herzliche Grüße,
Anna Perleberg

We don’t know how to translate OMG. Do they say AMG in Germany for Ach mein Gott? We don’t know.

He is adorable, with his long bangs and his sweet smile; he looks proud and happy to be here, in Kansas, in the bookstore where I work, in my satchel with my umbrella and my comfortable shoes. But that doesn’t excuse it. The fan letter is an embarrassing and presumptuous genre, and I know this, and I know I don’t know him, and I doubt he’d care whether a stranger thousands of miles away finds him attractive. I wouldn’t. (It’s like the horrid MySpace message I got yesterday from a nondescript, though local, fellow, which said solely:

so fucking sexy!!!! [sic]

Oh yeah, thanks. I so appreciate your undifferentiated probably drunk Internet lust. I hit delete immediately.) Hence the sneering parody-of-itself tone of the first imaginary letter. I don’t write it down, just announce it to my mother that night in a giddy singsong.

I start reading the book. It’s lovely—a child’s pattern of hazy memory and belief in epic coexisting with the ordinary.

I’m driving home that Saturday after work, half-starving, ready to splurge on Taco Bell. I’m playing my 90s-lady-pop-singer mix, and I’m singing along very loudly and feeling about 14 in all the best ways. The noise when the Mazda hits me is fantastic; he’s turning left, accelerating into my passenger door. I spin around and end up sprawled across two lanes, facing roughly west from my original east. I am more angry than I have ever been in my life. And the first words out of my mouth, after climbing out of the ruined Saab (O my poor Ulf, my sweet crumpled hatchback) and stalking down on him like Nemesis, fire in my eyes and Hello Kitty on my shirt: "You killed my fucking car." (Yeah, it’s from The Big Lebowski. I don’t realize that till an hour afterward when my sister starts laughing on the phone—it’s just the natural thing to say. I think this makes me awesome.)

Dear Saša Stanišic:
My car got smushed today. Can I come live with you in Germany? My German is terrible so far but I pick up languages quickly. I have a tattoo in ancient Greek.
Anna Perleberg

I know the German word for "terrible" is schrecklich, but I don’t know how to spell it. I’ll ask Mom.

I keep reading. I read sitting on the ground out back of the bookstore, in my green-and-yellow 20s dress, the grass crosshatching my calves. I read till late in my scrap-wood bed while it rains and rains and one cat is frightened by the thunder and one is unfazed. It’s a beautiful book.

Dear Saša Stanišic:
I’ve worked here for three months and I’ve been reading mostly young adult novels because they’re inventive and melodramatic and unselfconscious and most of the just-plain-adults are dull and overwrought at the same time. Your book is the first piece of grown-up contemporary literary fiction I’ve found that I’ve fallen in love with. I know it’s the book and not you but it’s easier to focus on a face, especially a lovely one. I’m lonely, you know?
Anna Perleberg
P.S. My boss, Sarah, said she met you in Louisville, KY, and went for a walk with you at 1 A.M., that she passed up walking next to Ethan Canin and Leif Enger who she has total crushes on to walk next to you. I was so kneejerk jealous I said OMG without a trace of self-parody.

So I guess he speaks English. Well, of course he does, he’s not American. I am, so I’m afraid I only speak English. I can read French and (some) ancient Greek, because I studied them in school, but my tongue has lost the former and never really had the latter, beyond the first few lines of The Iliad. The tattoo is the first three words: μηνιν αειδε θεα, rage, sing, goddess. I think it’s breathtaking and sad that the first word in Western literature is rage.

I do know a few words of German—ein kleines Bißchen, "a little bite," Mom taught me to say. Her father grew up speaking it on a dairy farm in northern Wisconsin. She majored in it in college. My dad speaks it too—the two of them grew up mere miles apart in Milwaukee but didn’t really meet until a mutual semester abroad near Reutlingen. When I was little, they used to discuss Christmas presents in German, but eventually I figured out what Kinder means.

I stay up until one Sunday night finishing the book. Which is fine cause I don’t work the next day.

Dear Saša Stanišic:
Your writing’s like water. It licks against the bank and falls back in on itself. It runs off in tear-tracks and laughs in eddies around bait-stripped hooks. I react to the plot, granted—one day at lunch I’m grumpy and then I read about fleeing Bosnia and OK, nothing has ever happened to me worth complaining about, which just makes me grumpier—but mostly it’s the words, the structure, the recursive flow of time that dazzles me, the immediate characters, the nostalgia it creates in me for places and times I’ve never been. I read a couple of reviews saying "stream-of-consciousness" and "magical realism," but I think both those designations are crap—the first because there’s such control to the narrative, how we hear a story before Aleksandar does, how moments that pass by almost unnoticed at first (the painstakingly counted headers, the spectacled catfish) resonate later like a common childhood. And the second is nonsense because, I think, there is nothing in the book that happens that doesn’t
really happen, in the most fundamental of ways, that magic is no less or more believable than that a whole country should get up one day and start murdering each other. The title image crystallizes it perfectly: this act of meaningless violence against an inanimate object, this moment of threat as the only possible reaction. It’s sad and true and terrifying. And it works. The world bends to unreason, again, to a hammer’s blind click.
While the fan letter remains superficial and ridiculous, this is something different, I think, an attempt at reciprocity: a writing back, a story for a story. Thank you, Saša, danke schön.

[June 2008]

And this is the best thing about my job: my boss passed this fan letter/parody of a fan letter/short story about writing a fan letter on to a high mucky-muck at Sasa's American publisher (Grove/Atlantic), who passed it on to him. And he wrote back. He wrote back in an echo of my style and a reciprocal awe, a "story for a story for a story." He looked me up on MySpace where there is much writing stashed away and this is what he said about it: "Reading you was trainy (fast, charming) and car-accidenty (pointy, ironic) and Sergej-Barbarezly [his favorite footballer] when he scores a header (JAAAAAA!)."

It's hard to describe fully what this means to me (in person it is simple: a hand to the heart and a slow sink to my knees). In The Madwoman in the Attic Gilbert and Gubar speculate about the traditional male-author-to-female-muse relationship, and what gender is a woman's muse? and for me, always, he's been a boy. (Well, almost always. When I was very young he was a book, a jewel-encrusted book with hammered-gold pages.) I am often apologetic about this, about the fact that I write most and well where there is a cute boy listening, but I suspect this a function of internalized double standards: men do not feel less than for writing for the women who enthrall them, and who are enthralled by them. Hearing from Sasa (and writing back, and hearing back again) is not simple chemical attraction, though: there is a mutual engagement and respect for each other's work that, wow. Words start to fail me. Anyone can think I'm hot, you know? But someone who feels the power and beauty of my words when they succeed, even at a distance. That's it. That's what I want.

Who's an adorable little hemophage?

One last bit of vacation wrap-up:

I read Bill Schutt's Dark Banquet mostly on my flights back from SF. I think as a fancy-pants literary type (or, as one co-worker accused another, a "book bigot"), I'm supposed to be down on popular-science texts...Mary Roach's Stiff and Bonk, Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point and Blink, and a hundred knock-offs with spare white covers and brief titles...but you know what? I am large. I contain multitudes. And I loved reading about vampire bats, mites, chiggers, and the like with Schutt's gentle, wondering slant. One chapter begins with a hilarious retelling of a famous scene from The African Queen from the leeches' point of view. His musings on blood itself--how of course critters evolved to eat it, since it's everywhere, but how it's a hard way to make a living, since nothing wants its blood et; how human beings have of course always understood the connection between blood and life, but have bungled their interpretations to disastrous effect--the first transfusions of calves' blood to a violent, mentally ill man with the notion it would calm him down, the millenia-spanning practice of bleeding, where cyanosis was considered a good sign. Did you know George Washington was drained of eighty ounces of blood during his last day alive? Forty percent of total volume. Yeesh.

And man alive, how cute are vampire bats? Even if their wee lil metabolisms are so rapid they have to pee while they're eating lest they burst.

02 March 2009

Fan letters, Pt. 1

The Girl With the Clockwork Heart
(for Melora Creager)

They come from miles around to see her,
the girl with the clockwork heart.
She walks and she talks and she breathes and says "please,"
but inside she’s just gears and spare parts.

Her old one was broken not so long ago
by a full-lipped narrow-hipped boy.
He felled its walls with a trumpet call
when she thought she had found perfect joy.
Her heart beats, but it’s only a toy.

She does everything that a girl should do
though her tin ticker doesn’t respond.
Yes, she reads and she writes and she’s up late at night
watching TV shows of which she’s fond.
She likes animé flicks and James Bond.

Put your ear to her chest and you’ll hear clicks and whirrs
but they will not change at your touch.
She can’t feel a thing beyond wishes that bring
a spring to her step—but not much.
Just amusement and duty and such.

They come from miles around to see her,
the girl with the clockwork heart.
She smiles and she frowns and she jumps up and down,
but inside she’s stuck gears, rusty parts.

[Spring 2004. This isn't a great poem by any means, but it would be a fine, fine song for Rasputina, the avant-garde goth cellos-with-distortion pedals trio of which Melora Creager is now the sole remaining original member. I've seen them in concert four times: at the third I gave a copy of this poem to the affable drummer.]

Current projects.

And projects they are!

First, thanks in part to Christian's dissertation, I'm rereading the glorious Gothic page-turner The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe. I'd always thought of it as 18th-century chick lit (I came to it via Austen's Northanger Abbey, which warns by example of the dangers of taking such stuff too seriously), but I'm informed that her contemporaries considered her one of the greatest writers in the English language. Cleaning out my closet yesterday I rediscovered some thoughts I'd jotted down when I first read Udolpho in the summer of 2001:

"Gothic romance is compelling because the overplayed emotion represents what it FEELS like to have an emotion, even if the external appearance is very different from ordinary life. When a lover leaves us, even for a short time, it FEELS like forever; it FEELS as if we will die. . . . Similarly, we may feel the rage to kill someone over a slight, but most of us do not--in gothic romance, characters are able to follow through on this everyday feeling in a non everyday way, and can take their revenge in blood. In this way, what seems overdone is actually a more accurate representation of the experience of emotion that we all have."

It's great fun. And people say "Ah!" and "O!" a lot.

Then, for my non-fiction tome, I'm reading Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's groundbreaking The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. I used it as a source so often in my stint in grad school (does anyone else reread their old academic papers for fun? Man, I sure do), I decided to take it on in its 600-page-of-feminist-criticism entirety. I guess it's old hat by now, academically (there are some amusing passages in the preface to the 20th-anniversary edition where Gilbert and Gubar essentially apologize for their white, middle-class, English-speaking bias--oh, and the hopelessly antiquated notion that authors even exist), but as with Udolpho, I'm having great fun. I've even made a marginal note: "angel in the house=manic pixie dream girl." Quick, someone assign me a paper on the subject.

Dead white men, and the woman who loves them.

The Book of Dead Philosophers (Vintage) The Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
In my former life as a St. John’s College undergraduate, I read a lot of philosophy. I’m not bragging, especially: around about junior year, I realized I don’t really care for the genre (preferring the more oblique and elegant stylings of literature). By then it was too late, and I was doomed to apologetically telling people I’d majored in philosophy to the end of my days. But while I remain, I think, well versed in all the heavy hitters (Plato, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche), and have dim memories of less well-known thinkers such as Maimonides, Averroes, Plotinus (well, I remember the book was green), because of St. John’s academically sui generis notion that it’s the texts and not the author’s historical contexts that matter, I know next to nothing about the lives of these men. (Yes, they’re all men. And mostly white. That’s a can of worms for another day.) Simon Critchley’s straightforwardly titled “The Book of Dead Philosophers” remedies at least part of this gap in my background by presenting pithy and often quite funny accounts of the lives, ideas, and most importantly, demises of 190 philosophers, from Thales (originator of the maxim “Know thyself,” who believed water was the universal element) to (prematurely) Simon Critchley (entire entry: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”).

Some highlights from the catalogue: William of Ockham (of Razor fame) perished in the Black Death. Thomas Hobbes, who called man’s life in the state of nature “nasty, brutish, and short,” lived till his nineties, which he attributed to eating lots of fish, vigourous walks, daily massages, and singing loudly in bed. Jean-Jacques Rousseau died of cerebral hemorrhage, possibly a consequence of having been knocked down two years earlier by a Great Dane running at full speed. Jeremy Bentham’s body (though not his head, which was commonly stolen by prankish students) sits preserved in a glass case at University College London (Mark’s seen him!). Sigmund Freud’s prolific cigar smoking led to numerous mouth cancers. Michel Foucault was an early victim of AIDS.

Why take this morbid approach to the history of philosophy, you ask? Critchely takes his epigram from my all-time fave, the charming, wide-ranging inventor of the personal essay, Michel de Montaigne: “If I were a maker of books, I would make a register, with comments, of various deaths. He who would teach men to die would teach them to live.” Montaigne’s subject in the essay the quote is taken from is Cicero’s adage “to philosophize is to learn how to die.” As Critchely says, “[t]he main task of philosophy, in this view, is to prepare us for death, provide a kind of training for death, the cultivation of an attitude toward our finitude that faces—and faces down—the terror of annihilation.” It is this attitude that Critchley finds dangerously lacking in this era, where longevity is “the sole unquestioned good of contemporary Western life,” no matter at what cost it is obtained. “The Book of Dead Philosophers,” then, is itself a serious work of philosophy, examining the connection between the examined life and its usually ordinary, often ignominious end, with no less a goal that assuaging our fear of death.

And how did Montaigne die? In 1592, of quinsy (peritonsillar abcess), unable to speak, but apparently unafraid.

01 March 2009

One-night reads

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Kate DiCamillo: Sweet, sad, story about a cold-hearted porcelain rabbit who's lost by his little girl and learns to love. The end made me cry!

I Love You, Beth Cooper, Larry Doyle: Frenetic, funny graduation-night tale--what Superbad would have been had it had any respect for women. And Beth Cooper the movie comes out this summer, with that one chick from Heroes in the titular role (heh, "tit"). This one had me cackling the way few things outside The Office can do.
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