I encountered the following paragraph in Jean-François Duval’s Bukowski and the Beats: A Commentary on the Bet Generation:
It was Jack’[Kerouac’s] matinee idol looks that irritated Hank [Bukowski]. “He was even better looking than Marlon Brando,” Joyce Johnson, one of his girlfriends, said of him. As a good-looking rodeo rider and actor, Jack was too handsome to be “real,” authentic in the Bukowskian perspective (which was ever tinged with humor). Jack was lacking in ugliness that, according to Bukowski, allows a truer contact with the reality of the world more than beauty; ugliness is a safe conduct for hell and, as such, is infinitely closer to the truth. In fact, beauty is not even real to Buk’s eyes, beauty doesn’t make sense at all. As he said to [his friend] Sean Penn, “There is no such thing as beauty … it’s kind of a mirage of generalizations.” In Buk’s opinion, Kerouac seemed like a cheap Roy Rogers whose work gets lost in a swirl of glitter and illusions where the word “wonderful” crops up every three sentences. Jack went wrong in trying to go with “heart’s songs” and the illusions attached: hope of salvation on the road, faith in an idealized America, poetically fantasized, escape into an uncertain mysticism, oscillating between Buddhism and Catholicism. This was not Buk’s cup of tea at all.
To put it simply, Thomas De Quincey was an opium addict. There were times when he wrote like an angel. Other times, reading him could be heavy slogging. Oft times you will find both in the same book, or even in the same essay. I have just finished reading his long essay “On Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” His description of the crimes of serial murderer John Williams is detailed and ghastly. Yet earlier in the essay is the following light touch:
For, if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing, and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begun on this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man has dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time.
The following is one of the short short stories from Barry Gifford’s Sad Stories of the Death of Kings. It was one of the best stories in the book, and I thought at once of sharing it with you. The first paragraph is a scene from the movie Lost Horizon.
The little plane was barely visible through dense night fog as it sat on the ground. Then the engine turned over and the single propeller started to rotate, scattering mist as the plane nudged forward, feeling its way toward the runway. Chinese soldiers suddenly burst out of the airport terminal and began firing their rifles furiously in an attempt to prevent the plane from taking off. Tiny lights from the aircraft’s cabin winked weakly from within its whitish shroud while the plane taxied, desperately attempting to gather speed sufficient for takeoff. The soldiers stood confused, firing blindly and futilely until the aircraft lifted into blackness and escape.
Roy fell asleep after watching this opening scene of the film Lost Horizon. He liked to watch old movies late at night and in the early morning hours, even though he had to be up by 7:00 a.m. in order to be at school by eight. On this particular night, Roy dreamed about four boys his age, fourteen, in Africa, who discover a large crocodile bound by rope to a board hidden in bushes, abandoned by the side of a dusty dirt road. A stout stick was placed vertically in the crocodile’s mouth between its upper and lower jaws in order to keep the mouth open as widely as possible and prevent its jaws from snapping shut.
The crocodile could not move or bite, so the boys decided to drag it by the tail end of the board to a nearby river and release it. As they approached the river’s edge, it began raining hard and the ground suddenly became mushy and very slippery. To free the crocodile, they placed the board so that the croc’s head faced the river. One of the boys tore a long, sinewy vine from a plant and cautiously wound it around the stick. Another boy had a knife and prepared to cut the rope. The other two boys kept a safe distance. The boy with the knife sliced the rope in two at the same time the other boy tugged forcefully at one end of the vine, pulling out the stick. The crocodile did not immediately move or close its enormous mouth. The boys stood well away from it, watching. After a few moments, the crocodile hissed loudly and slowly slithered off the board and wobbled to the water’s edge, slid into the dark river and disappeared from view. The boys ran off as the downpour continued.
When Roy woke up, it was a few minutes before seven. He turned off the alarm before it could ring and thought both about the plane fleeing Chungking and the African boys rescuing the crocodile. What was the difference, he wondered, between waking life and dream life? Which, if any, was more valid or real? Roy could not make a clear distinction between the two. He decided then that both were of equal value, two-thirds of human consciousness, the third part being imagination. The last plane from Chungking took off with Roy aboard, bound for the land of dreams. What happened there only he could imagine.
I was reading the last short story in a collection by Marshall N. Klimasewiski entitled Tyrants, when I came upon this quote by an Arctic explorer (via hydrogen balloon) from Sweden named Salomon August Andrée. It struck me right between the eyes.
The conservatives are always more active in their own behalf than liberals. The reason is that the liberals or progressives feel sure of the ultimate triumph of their cause because they know they are supported by the law of evolution, while the conservatives feel themselves constantly threatened and are therefore busy protecting themselves.
If you’re doing the right kind of reading, you can find enlightenment anywhere. The following quote comes from a 2021 book review of Simon Critchley’s Bald, appearing in the July 20, 2021 issue of The Times Literary Supplement:
“To philosophize,” Critchley claims, “is to take your time, even when you have no time, when time is constantly pressing at your back.” It is also why it might seem that philosophy hasn’t advanced in thousands of years: because philosophizing isn’t about knowing the answers, it’s learning how to ask good questions, to keep asking them and to love the chaos.
I am reading a great travel classic written in the 1950s about two Swiss who drove a ratty old Fiat from Yugoslavia to the Khyber Pass on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Nicolas Bouvier’s The Way of the World describes Persian politics in Tabriz in 1953, when Muhammad Musaddeq’s government was overthrown by a Royalist coup. Wonderful stuff!BTW, is this where we’re headed?
The Musaddeq trial, which had just opened in Tehran, led to fears of skirmishes in Tabriz. They didn’t take place because that very morning the Governor demonstrated to the town that he was in full control: five armoured cars, several mortars and twenty trucks, carrying troops whose numbers had been increased for the occasion.
The Governor was a wily old man, a cruel jester, oddly esteemed even by opponents of the government he represented. He was forgiven much because everyone knew he had no political convictions and had entirely devoted his rule to building up his personal fortune, with a skill that had won him many admirers. Tabriz had always been a recalcitrant town, but it recognized ‘fair play’, and well-aimed shots. That unexpected parade, for example, which had the town by the scruff of the neck when it woke up, was absolutely in the style of the man to whom the town referred familiarly by his first name. A despot, of course, whose disappearance would have been welcomed with relief, and who was intently watched in case he should slip up. Meanwhile, informed, bland, pitiless and efficient, he was impressive. The town, familiar with despotism, granted his talent.
I have just finished a collection of short stories by Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) entitled The Wife and Other Stories which has been, by far, the best book I have read so far this year. Even though her translations are being increasingly considered as clunky and slightly archaic, I really enjoyed Constance Garnett. The following discussion on happiness vs. unhappiness is from a story entitled “Gooseberries.”
I saw a happy man whose cherished dream was so obviously fulfilled, who had attained his object in life, who had gained what he wanted, who was satisfied with his fate and himself. There is always, for some reason, an element of sadness mingled with my thoughts of human happiness, and, on this occasion, at the sight of a happy man I was overcome by an oppressive feeling that was close upon despair. It was particularly oppressive at night. A bed was made up for me in the room next to my brother’s bedroom, and I could hear that he was awake, and that he kept getting up and going to the plate of gooseberries and taking one. I reflected how many satisfied, happy people there really are! What a suffocating force it is! You look at life: the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and brutishness of the weak, incredible poverty all about us, overcrowding, degeneration, drunkenness, hypocrisy, lying…. Yet all is calm and stillness in the houses and in the streets; of the fifty thousand living in a town, there is not one who would cry out, who would give vent to his indignation aloud. We see the people going to market for provisions, eating by day, sleeping by night, talking their silly nonsense, getting married, growing old, serenely escorting their dead to the cemetery; but we do not see and we do not hear those who suffer, and what is terrible in life goes on somewhere behind the scenes…. Everything is quiet and peaceful, and nothing protests but mute statistics: so many people gone out of their minds, so many gallons of vodka drunk, so many children dead from malnutrition…. And this order of things is evidently necessary; evidently the happy man only feels at ease because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence, and without that silence happiness would be impossible. It’s a case of general hypnotism. There ought to be behind the door of every happy, contented man some one standing with a hammer continually reminding him with a tap that there are unhappy people; that however happy he may be, life will show him her laws sooner or later, trouble will come for him—disease, poverty, losses, and no one will see or hear, just as now he neither sees nor hears others. But there is no man with a hammer; the happy man lives at his ease, and trivial daily cares faintly agitate him like the wind in the aspen-tree—and all goes well.
In Chapter 9 of his book about Australia entitled In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson writes about an encounter with New South Wales’s Australian Flies, called in Australia “March Flies,” because that’s when they manifest themselves.
I had gone no more than a dozen feet when I was joined by a fly—smaller and blacker than a housefly. It buzzed around in front of my face and tried to settle on my upper lip. I swatted it away, but it returned at once, always to the same spot. A moment later it was joined by another that wished to go up my nose. It also would not go away. Within a minute or so, I had perhaps twenty of these active spots all around my head and I was swiftly sinking into the state of abject wretchedness that comes with a prolonged encounter with the Australian fly.
Flies are of course always irksome, but the Australian variety distinguishes itself with its very particular persistence. If an Australian fly wants to be up your nose or in your ear, there is no discouraging him. Flick at him as you will and each time he will jump out of range and come straight back. It is simply not possible to deter him. Somewhere on an exposed portion of your body is a spot, about the size of a shirt button, that the fly wants to lick and tickle and turn delirious circles upon. It isn’t simply their persistence, but the things they go for. An Australian fly will try to suck the moisture off your eyeball. He will, if not constantly turned back, go into parts of your ears that a Q-tip can only dream about. He will happily die for the glory of taking a tiny dump on your tongue. Get thirty or forty of them dancing around you in the same way and madness will shortly follow.
And so I proceeded into the park, lost inside my own little buzzing cloud of woe, waving at my head in an increasingly hopeless and desultory manner—it is called the bush salute—blowing constantly out of my mouth and nose, shaking my head in a kind of furious dementia, occasionally slapping myself with startling violence on the cheek or forehead. Eventually, as the flies knew all along, I gave up and they fell upon me as on a corpse.
I am currently reading Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because she was not only an ace war correspondent, but also the third wife of Ernest Hemingway. In the middle of a trip across Africa, she writes the following:
On the face of it, missionaries here are a doomed lot. They have been in Africa for over a hundred years and even if conversion to Christianity is merely a head count, I doubt they are a roaring success. I wouldn’t preach anything to the blacks, not anything at all. If they want our kind of medical care, it should be given to them, but ideally by trained black doctors, though that may disturb the Darwinian balance of their world and their lives. A child is born each year; the hardiest live. The survivors have to be strong enough to endure this appalling climate and land. Much better to teach the women birth control. But I think nothing will be taught or learned for a very long time, and I do not consider this a disaster by any means. Who are we to teach? Leave them alone is my cry; let them find their own answers. We cannot understand them and the answers er have found haven’t been anything to cheer about, for look at us….
The following passage appears in the Res Gestae (The Later Roman Empire A.D. 354-378) of the 4th century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus. This appears in a chapter about the Emperor Constantius’s attempts to head off a powerful Persian invasion. I cannot help but think that eagles don’t exactly key on their prey’s screams of fear.
When wild geese, in their migration from east to west [?] to escape the heat, approach the Taurus mountains, where eagles are common, their fear of these formidable birds leads them to stop up their beaks with small stones, to prevent a cry from escaping them, however hard-pressed But when they have passed over these hills in rapid flight they let the stones fall, and so pursue their way free from fear.