Serendipity: “A Mighty, Harmonious Beauty”

Isak Dinesen (1885-1962) in Her Youth

The following is from a chapter entitled “On Mottoes in My Life” from her book Daguerrotypes and Other Essays. I decided to find a picture of Danish Baroness Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) when she was young and beautiful. It is sad that so many great authors are only photographed when they are old, which presents us with an odd and somewhat misleading view of their life. Anyhow, here goes:

An old Chinese mandarin, during the minority of the young Emperor, had been governing the country for him. When the Emperor came of age the old man gave him back the ring which had served as an emblem of his vicariate, and said to his young sovereign:

“In this ring I have had set  an inscription which your dear Majesty may found useful. It is to be read in times of danger, doubt and defeat. It is to be read, as well, in times of conquest, triumph and glory.”

The inscription in the ring read: “This, too, will pass.”

The sentence is not to be taken to mean that, in their passing, tears and laughter, hopes and disappointments disappear into a void. But it tells you that all will be absorbed into a unity. Soon we shall see them as integral parts of the full picture of the man or woman.

Upon the lips of the great poet the passing takes the form of a mighty, harmonious beauty:

Nothing of him that doth fade,
but doth suffer sea-change
into something rich and strange.

We may make use of the words—even when we are speaking about ourselves—without vainglory. Each one among us will feel in his heart the inherent richness and strangeness of this one thing: his life.

 

Serendipity: The Broken Prism

The Blessed Virgin Mary

You could be a million miles away when, quite suddenly, you can be confronted with what you believe—and what you don’t believe. Today, I was sitting in the Santa Monica Library reading Tim Cahill’s Hold the Enlightenment: More Travel, Less Bliss, ostensibly a book of adventure travel essays, when the following paragraph hit me smack between the eyes:

My own background is Catholic. I suppose my current status in that Church can best be described as long-lapsed. Even so, no one who has suffered a Catholic education is ever entirely free of the belief, or at least the discipline. Quaint notions, punitive and medieval, color my perception of the physical world. I tend to see the wilderness through the broken prism of my faith.

That holds true for me as much as it does for Tim Cahill, one of the founders of Outside magazine. The only change I would make is that I never “suffered” a Catholic education: I merely “experienced” it, and not unwillingly. My grade school, Saint Henry in Cleveland, Ohio, was staffed by Dominican sisters; and my high school, St. Peter Chanel in Bedford, Ohio, was taught by Marist priests. At Dartmouth College, I was an active participant in Catholic services at the Newman Club under Monsignor William Nolan.

When asked whether I believe in God, my answer is always, Yes. I quickly add that I have no idea what God is like or what He/She/It wants. I only know that the Godhead manifests itself in some very curious ways to the peoples of this planet. I cannot pretend to be an atheist with any degree of certitude, nor do I wish to. There is enough left of the shards of my faith to see me through the day.

What will I believe a year from now? I don’t know. It’s all subject to change.

Serendipity: The Allegory of the Lamp Post

Lamp Post at Hotel Jardines de Nivaria in Tenerife

I am currently reading Simone Weil’s essay “On the Abolition of All Political Parties”—a subject to which I will return in a few days. In the introduction by Simon Leys, I found this splendid long quote from G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics:

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

Serendipity: The Sachem Passaconaway

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

I am slowly reading Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), which he wrote after the fact about a canoe trip with his late brother John, who got tetanus seven years earlier when he cut himself shaving. It is a leisurely book full of philosophizing, local history, and poetry. In it I ran into this description of a former Indian chief who had lived in New England in earlier times:

In these parts dwelt the famous Sachem Pasaconaway, who was seen by Gookin “at Pawtucket, when he was about one hundred and twenty years old.” He was reputed a wise man and a powwow, and restrained his people from going to war with the English. They believed “that he could make water burn, rocks move, and trees dance, and metamorphose himself into a flaming man; that in winter he could raise a green leaf out of the ashes of a dry one, and produce a living snake from the skin of a dead one, and many similar miracles.” In 1660, according to Gookin, at a great feast and dance, he made his farewell speech to his people, in which he said, that as he was not likely to see them met together again, he would leave them this word of advice, to take heed how they quarrelled with their English neighbors, for though they might do them much mischief at first, it would prove the means of their own destruction. He himself, he said, had been as much an enemy to the English at their first coming as any, and had used all his arts to destroy them, or at least to prevent their settlement, but could by no means effect it. Gookin thought that he “possibly might have such a kind of spirit upon him as was upon Balaam, who in xxiii. Numbers, 23, said ‘Surely, there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel.’ His son Wannalancet carefully followed his advice, and when Philip’s War broke out, he withdrew his followers to Penacook, now Concord in New Hampshire, from the scene of the war. On his return afterwards, he visited the minister of Chelmsford, and, as is stated in the history of that town, “wished to know whether Chelmsford had suffered much during the war; and being informed that it had not, and that God should be thanked for it, Wannalancet replied, ‘Me next.´”

The Sachem Passaconaway

Serendipity: A Glimpse of Rasputin

 

Gregory Rasputin in Color

Gregory Rasputin in Color

The following beguiling sketch comes from Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya—perhaps better known as Teffi—whose essay on the Siberian “holy man” is reprinted in her Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others and Me: The Best of Teffi, published by New York Review:

I had glimpsed Rasputin once before. In a train. He must have been on his way east, to visit his home village in Siberia. He was in a first-class compartment. With his entourage: a little man ho was something like a secretary to him, a woman of a certain age with her daughter, and Madame V—, a lady-in-waiting to the Tsaritsa.

It was very hot and the compartment doors were wide open. Rasputin was presiding over tea—with a tin teapot, dried bread rings and lumps of sugar on the side. He was wearing a pink calico smock over his trousers, wiping his forehead and neck with an embroidered towel and talking rather peevishly, with a broad Siberian accent.

“Dearie! Go and fetch us some more hot water! Hot water, I said, go and get us some. The tea’s right stewed, but they didn’t even give us any hot water. And where is the strainer? Annushka! The strainer—where is it? Oh, what a muddler you are!”

I love the picture of the demonic starets wearing a pink smock.

The photograph above was published by The Daily Mail, along with other interesting color pictures of Rasputin and the Tsar.

Teffi’s essay on Rasputin made me think, and you shall find out later this week exactly what it made me think about.

Serendipity: The Winds of Change

The Book Is the Same, Only the Reader Has Changed

The Book Is the Same, Only the Reader Has Changed

The thing about re-reading books you first encountered decades ago is to feel the winds of change in your life. When I first read J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, I was a high school student looking forward to leaving Cleveland to go to college. The book was a revelation to me, and re-reading it at this late stage in my life shows me sitting on the porch of our house at 3989 East 176th Street, turning the pages and marveling at a book written for kids like me. It’s a good feeling: I accept that 16-year-old kid. He was all right.

Following is a quote that pretty much describes my feeling at re-reading The Catcher in the Rye:

The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that exactly. You’d just be different, that’s all. You’d have an overcoat on this time. Or that kid that was your partner in line last time had got scarlet fever and you’d have a new partner. Or you’d have a substitute taking the class, instead of Miss Aigletinger. Or you’d heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you’d just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you’d be different in some way – I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.

Well, unlike Holden, I am in fact much older; but that’s okay. Better, in fact, than the alternative.

 

Serendipity: The Rain in Mexico

Thoughts in a Dry Season...

Thoughts in a Dry Season…

I am now reading Eve Babitz’s second book—Slow Days, Fast Company: The World the Flesh, and L.A.—and loving it as much as her first, Eve’s Hollywood. Having been so many moons without rain, I was entranced by the following paragraph:

The rain in Mexico, that humid rain-jungle kind of rain with flashy colors and limes and the idea that if you got jungle rot, the tentacles of the carnivorous vines would cover you up, dead—that Mexican rain, I have to think twice about. I have tried to love all rain, but I don’t know about jungle rain. The tropics are not for me. Birds with flaming plumage and fruits with neon-pink centers in the rain—I bet if I had to have even two unbroken days of that, I’d slip right out of my mind the way that missionary did over Sadie Thompson. I’d rather just be Sadie Thompson and get it over with, but I’m afraid I’d turn into a Calvinist in hot rain, with transparent underlying motives and a worm-eaten, jungle-rotted Bible as my brain’s downfall.

Last year, I saw two incredible jungle storms. The first was while I was waiting to change planes at Sao Paolo, Brazil: I saw this huge front coming fast from the northwest, dumping rain in buckets. By the time my plane arrived, it was all over. The second one was in Puerto Iguazu. I sat under a colonnade by the pool as the storm hit quite suddenly, dumping large amounts of rain and hail. I just sat there sipping a bottle of Quilmes while the hotel staff ran around frantically to bring in the chairs. That, too, lasted about an hour. While it was storming, the air was deliciously cool … but once it stopped, then ….