By way of divertissement, I am studying daily, at an Armenian monastery, the Armenian language. I found that my mind wanted something craggy to break upon; and this—as the most difficult thing I could discover here for an amusement—I have chosen, to torture me into attention. It is a rich language, however, and would amply repay any one the trouble of learning it. I try, and shall go on;—but I answer for nothing, least of all for my intentions or my success. There are some very curious MSS. in the monastery, as well as books; translations also from Greek originals, now lost, and from Persian and Syriac, etc.; besides works of their own people. Four years ago the French instituted an Armenian professorship. Twenty pupils presented themselves on Monday morning, full of noble ardour, ingenuous youth, and impregnable industry. They persevered, with a courage worthy of the nation and of universal conquest, till Thursday; when fifteen of the twenty succumbed to the six-and-twentieth letter of the alphabet. It is, to be sure, a Waterloo of an Alphabet—that must be said for them.—Lord Byron, Letter to Thomas Moore
I was very impressed by Czeslaw Milosz’s book Milosz’s ABC’s. There, in the form of a brief and alphabetically-ordered personal encyclopedia, was the story of the life of a Nobel Prize winning poet, of the people, places, and things that meant the most to him. Because his origins were so far away (Lithuania and Poland) and so long ago (1920s and 1930s), there were relatively few entries that resonated personally with me. Except it was sad to see so many fascinating people who, unknown today, died during the war under unknown circumstances.
This blog entry is my own humble attempt to imitate a writer whom I have read on and off for thirty years without having sated my curiosity. Consequently, over the next few months, you will see a number of postings under the rubric “Tarnmoor’s ABCs” that will attempt to do for my life what Milosz accomplished for his. I don’t guarantee that I will use up all 26 letters of the alphabet, but I’ll do my best. This is a reprint from a Blog.Com posting from 2009, but I had to give it up at that time. This time, I will try to complete my alphabet.
For starters, here is Milosz’s take on a thing that has also assumed some importance in my life: the automobile:
Surely the automobile was invented in order to make a mockery of those pessimists who predicted that the number of horses would grow exponentially and that cities would choke to death from the stench of horse excrement. From Kiejdany county, in which there was a single automobile (Count Zabiello’s), I was catapulted into California [Milosz taught at Berkeley], where the automobile is just the same as electricity and bathrooms. I am not nostalgic for the good old days. I lived amidst filth and stench without being aware of it. And I belonged to the so-called upper social strata. The Wilno [today’s Vilnius] of my school years had cobblestone streets and only a couple of neighborhoods had sewers. One can imagine the mountains of garbage and excrement in Wilno during the Romantic era. It would be worthwhile to describe the female readers of La Nouvelle Héloïse [an influential work by Rousseau] not from above, but from below: f\rom the perspective of their chamber pots (where were they emptied?), their underpants (they didn’t wear any), and their gymnastic contortions while washing.
Now I rather doubt that most environmentalists would consider some of these factors when they rue the effect of the automobile on our civilization. No doubt, the internal combustion engine is both a boon and a bane to us, as the mercury in our thermometers creeps up from year to year. Here we are, thinking we have broken the Earth—at least until another Krakatoa-style volcanic explosion or major meteor or asteroid strike shows us the real face of catastrophe.
I, on the other hand, would like to talk about the automobile from another point of view. I came to it rather late in my life. As I have written earlier, I had a pituitary tumor in my youth that has had repercussions on my health extending to the present. Starting in the 1970s, I had to take a blood pressure medication called Catapres that resulted in a narcoleptic response every time I traveled in a car or bus. I had to postpone driving for many years, at least until a more efficacious medication was found.
Then, in 1985, at the age of forty, I finally got my drivers license and purchased a four-cylinder Mitsubishi Montero, which lasted for ten years. Then I bought the 1994 Nissan Pathfinder (see photo above) which I am still driving today. I am like Yeats’s Irish airman for whom “a lonely impulse of delight drove to this tumult in the clouds.”
No one loves heavy traffic. Southern California is, unfortunately, a cacopolis with regards to driving. Ah, but then there is nothing like setting off at 4:00 am, before the first hint of sunrise, and dashing through the empty freeways of Los Angeles to the deserts of the Southwest or along the coast to the beauties of the Central Coast and points north. When I can choose my time, driving is sheer pleasure.
That’s why I think that the next step for mankind is not the bus and the bicycle, but another type of vehicle powered by a different source of energy. When it does not become a nightmarish experience, as it so often does, driving could be one of the great pleasures of life.