French Girl

French Girl

Now, “Frenchness” may seem to be an intolerably vague idea, and it smells of related notions like Volksgeist that have acquired a bad odor since ethnography became polluted with racism in the 1930s. Nonetheless, an idea may be valid even if it is vague and has been abused in the past. Frenchness exists….[I]t is a distinct cultural style; and it conveys a particular view of the world—a sense that life is hard, that you had better not have any illusions about selflessness in your fellow men, that clear-headedness and quick wit are necessary to protect what little you can extract from your surroundings, and that moral nicety will get you nowhere. Frenchness makes for ironic detachment. It tends to be negative and disabused. Unlike its Anglo-Saxon opposite, the Protestant ethic, it offers no formula for conquering the world. It is a defense strategy, well suited to an oppressed peasantry or an occupied country.—Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History

A Physicist Disproves the Existence of Vampires

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

It was bound to happen. According to University of Central Florida physics professor Costas Efthimiou, there is a simple mathematical argument against the existence of vampires. I saw it on Livescience.Com. (If you follow this link, click on slide #5 for the reference.)

According to Efthimiou, there were 536,870,911 human beings on January 1, 1600. Let us assume that the very first vampire came into existence on that day and bit one person a month so that he could sustain himself with his victim’s blood and change his victim into another vampire. By February 1, 1600, there would be two vampires; by March 1, four vampires; by April 1, eight vampires. If vampirism spread at that rate, it would take only two and a half years for the entire population of the earth to be converted into undead bloodsucking beasts. If that happened, there would be no one left to feed on.

Even if you played with the equation a bit and allowed vampires to feed less often, the constant doubling of the vampire population would have consumed the entire non-vampire population rapidly.

In the end, the proof resembles the story of the ancient king and the grains of wheat on the chessboard. If you’re interested in pursuing that tale, here is a charming re-telling of it on a Canadian website.

So when you go to bed tonight, you needn’t festoon all the entryways with wreaths of garlic. Instead, just eat the garlic. It’s good for you!

Horreur du Domicile

Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989)

Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989)

The following is a blog I first published on April 7, 2011 for the defunct Multiply.Com:

I have just finished reading Nicholas Shakespeare’s excellent biography of British travel writer Bruce Chatwin. As I write this, I am acutely aware that Chatwin was uncomfortable with his Britishness and with being classified as a travel writer. His entire life was a series of escapes from “home.” Despite being bisexual, he married and—except for a brief separation—remained married. Married or not, nothing could stop him from straying to parts unknown by himself, or with a male traveling companion; and, after his early years, he logged far more time in places like Afghanistan, Patagonia, Australia, Indonesia, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, West Africa, Nepal, and India than in the British Isles.

Chatwin was the male equivalent of Marilyn Monroe. People usually took to him at once, impressed with his looks, volubility and esoteric knowledge of faraway places and customs. Bruce seduced them, either literally or metaphorically. He would find a complaisant person and stay with them, sometimes for months at a time, while he commandeered their living quarters and set up to write books or articles.

I have read most of his books and loved every word of them. There was something new about them. Instead of any scholarly commitment to exactitude, he mixed fact and fiction into a new synthesis that somehow mirrored his evasions from workaday life.

These evasions also led to his death. Chatwin was perhaps the first famous Briton to die of AIDS. In between books, he lived the life of bathhouses and casual sex with multiple partners, befriending Robert Mapplethorpe in New York and a whole retinue of rent boys around the world. He would not admit that he had AIDS. His evasions on the subject were facilitated by the general lack of medical knowledge about the emerging global epidemic in the Eighties. He told people he had a rare Indonesian fungus, or some tropical parasite caused by his proximity to a dead whale, or something equally bizarre.

Whatever my feelings about the whole gay subculture, about which I am not the most tolerant of people, I cannot deny that Chatwin’s books, most particularly In Patagonia and The Songlines, are among the best written in the latter twentieth century. What do I care about divergences from literal truth?

There is a story about a patient going to a psychologist and telling him the details of his life.

“Hmm, that’s very interesting!” exclaimed the psychologist.

“Hah!” exclaimed the patient. “What would you say if everything I told you were a lie?”

“That’s even more interesting,” replied the psychologist.

That’s the way I feel about Chatwin’s work.

* * * * *


I have just finished reading Bruce Chatwin’s Anatomy of Restlessness: Selected Writings 1969-1989. The two things that these essays added to my knowledge of Chatwin were, first, his “horreur du domicile,” his unwillingness to be tied down to any one place. (The phrase is from Baudelaire’s Journaux Intimes.)

Secondly, it is surprising to find in a former art specialist who worked for Sotheby’s in London such a dislike of people who are essentially collectors. This is from the last essay in the book, entitled “The Morality of Things”:

Such observable disparities turned people against art, particularly valuable art. The artists started it by creating unsaleable nothings. Now they have been joined by a chorus of critics, who once jumped on the art wagon and find it convenient to jump off. A famous New York critic declared the other day that, in his experience, people who are attracted to art are—it goes without saying—psychopaths, unable to tell the difference between right and wrong.

Why psychopath? Because, in some opinions, the work of art is a source of pleasure and power, the object of fetishistic adoration, which serves in a traumatised individual as a substitute for skin-to-skin contact with the mother, once denied, like the kisses of Proust’s mother, in early childhood. Art objects, leather gear, rubber goods, boots, frillies, or the vibrating saddle, all compensate for having lost ‘mama en chemise toute nue.’

If you would like to read my review of Anatomy of Restlessness on Goodreads.Com, you can find it by clicking here.

Where in Arizona Is This?

Not What You Think....

Not What You Think….

Well, for starters, it’s not in Arizona. It kind of looks like a model of a geological formation, but it isn’t. What we have here is a crack in a piece of steel as magnified by an electron microscope. For an interesting look at other objects magnified to a factor of n, check out this website.


“Power Without Wisdom Collapses Beneath Its Own Weight”

Jan Amos Komensky

Jan Amos Komensky

Almost three hundred and fifty years ago, one of the greatest minds of the Renaissance and the founder of modern pedagogy, Jan Amos Komensky (Comenius) wrote in a letter to the Prefects of the Dutch Navy:

“Your homeland has entrusted you with its bounty, that you protect it against all foreign foes, but you must not be ignorant of the art of defending it from foes within, to wit, the obscuring of the mind, loosening of morals and desecration of life. And not only protect it for the present time but also to take wise care how in the future the generations that will rise after you, your sons, may successfully protect the happy state you have prepared for them and then pass it on to their offspring until the end of time. It is therefore necessary that you bequeath to them not only the strength and determination to maintain it themselves but also wise counsel, otherwise power without wisdom collapses beneath its own weight.”

How is wise counsel being passed on within the family, the school, the mass media or the other institutions concerned with it in some way?—Ivan Klíma, Between Security and Insecurity

The Man Who Chased Earthquakes

Vladimir Keilis-Borok (1921-2013)

Vladimir Keilis-Borok (1921-2013)

Last year, my neighbor Luis had knee surgery at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. Because he is in his eighties and lives by himself, he spent several days recuperating at a nursing care facility across the street from the hospital. His roommate turned out to be a famous Russian scientist by the name of Vladimir Keilis-Borok, whose life work was trying to find a way of predicting earthquakes using mathematical data culled from data about faults and previous tremors.

Martine and I had seen Vladimir only twice during our visits to Luis and found him to be brilliant and engaging. He spent much of his time at the nursing facility working on mathematical models on his laptop computer. During one of my visits, he asked if I could recommend someone to help him with his computerwork. I immediately thought of my friend Mikhail, who spoke Russian and knew many computer people in L.A.’s Russian community. Somehow, it never went anywhere. Perhaps the funding just wasn’t there.

I was saddened to see that the Russian scientist passed away last week. A glowing obituary appeared in the Los Angeles Times commemorating his accomplishments and his pursuit of that Holy Grail of earthquake prediction. If somehow someone could put it all together, his work could be responsible for saving the lives of untold millions of people who, like myself, live near major fault zones.

Victorian Genre Fiction

Sherlock Holmes Was Not the Only Game in Town

Sherlock Holmes Was Not the Only Game in Town

The paperback whose cover is illustrated above first came out in 1972, followed by three other volumes of non-Sherlock detective stories written during the same period. Edited by Hugh Greene, brother of Graham Greene, the books were a revelation to me. I started Reading Richard Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke stories; Ernest Bramah’s Max Carrados stories (Carrados was blind, and could read the London Times by feeling the elevation of the ink on the paper); the novels and stories of the vastly underrated Arthur Morrison; Jacques Futrelle’s “Thinking Machine” stories (Futrelle died on the Titanic); and Baroness Orczy’s The Old Man in the Corner Stories.

And that was only the beginning! I also noticed that the Victorians and Edwardians wrote excellent horror stories as well, and that many of them were available from Dover Publications, including such luminaries as Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, Arthur Machen, Mrs. J. H. Riddell, and Wilkie Collins. Now, in the age of the Kindle and other e-books, one could pick up virtually all of Blackwood’s short stories in two “megapacks” for a mere $1.98. There are even two well-known “psychic detectives” investigating hauntings and possessions, namely Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, the self-styled “psychic doctor,” and William Hope Hodgson’s Max Carnacki, the ghost detective.

The stories are, for the most part, available readily and inexpensively now that their copyright protection expired years ago. It may still be difficult to find some Arthur Morrisons such as the Martin Hewitt detective stories and the stories in The Dorrington Deed-Box.

Even G. K. Chesterton got into the act somewhat later with his Father Brown stories, which are in a slightly different vein, but which owe much to Arthur Conan Doyle and his “rivals.”

A good way to start is to find Hugh Greene’s collections on eBay or Amazon.Com and, if you like them, dig around in used book stores, or, if you are on a budget, Amazon Kindle and its “rivals.”

Halloween at the Grier Musser Museum

We Are Welcomed at the Door

We Are Welcomed at the Door

Today, Martine and I visited the Grier Musser Museum near downtown Los Angeles for their annual Halloween display. Susan Tejada, the museum’s curator, has gathered together an incredible collection of memorabilia relating to All Hallows Eve, from paper to dolls to battery-powered moving skeletons. (The most frightening is one in a cage above a toilet in the bathroom screaming that he wanted out.) Almost every inch of the rooms open to view is crammed with Victorian memorabilia (the house on Bonnie Brae Street goes back to the 19th century) and exhibits relating to Halloweens past and present.

In addition, there is a room with television and film exhibits relating to The Wizard of Oz (about to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its release), The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Monster High. If it weren’t for the fact that the tour is guided by Ms. Tejada, one could spend hours among the thousands of items on display.

The late Huell Howser, whose PBS television show visited the Grier Musser Museum twice over the years, had a sure knack for highlighting the very best of California, especially the Los Angeles area. Two visits was a singular mark of recognition.

A Rare Victorian Beauty: The Curator’s Grandmother

A Rare Victorian Beauty: The Curator’s Grandmother

In a room on the second floor, we saw the above photograph of Susan Tejada’s grandmother. I am always stunned when I see a photograph from over a century ago of a young woman who, even today, would be accounted a great beauty.

For some reason, this year we are spending more time getting into the Halloween spirit. In my case, it involves reading several books of spooky stories and visiting the Grier Musser Museum. Unfortunately, children have not come here to trick-or-treat for almost twenty years now. The schools have attempted to replace door-to-door trick-or-treating with school parties—especially in neighborhoods such as mine consisting mostly of multistory apartment buildings. Neighborhoods of posh single family homes still are inundated with lisping ghosts and monsters of short stature.

Charon the Boatman

Back and Forth Across the River Styx

Back and Forth Across the River Styx

I haven’t printed any poems lately, so I paid a visit to the work of America’s Serbian-born poet, Charles Simic.

Charon’s Cosmology
By Charles Simic

With only his dim lantern
To tell him where he is
And every time a mountain
Of fresh corpses to load up

Take them to the other side
Where there are plenty more
I’d say by now he must be confused
As to which side is which

I’d say it doesn’t matter
No one complains he’s got
Their pockets to go through
In one a crust of bread in another a sausage

Once in a long while a mirror
Or a book which he throws
Overboard into the dark river
Swift and cold and deep

Now, why, I wonder, would Charon toss books into the Styx? God knows, if I were one of his fares, I would probably have a book on me. Eternity lasts a long time, and there’s plenty of time to read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and everything else. There exists some doubt, however, that at that point it would do me any earthly good.

Merricat Introduces Herself

The Opening Lines of the Book

The Opening Lines of the Book

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am 18 years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.—Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle