Pointing North

Icebergs Off West Coast of Greenland

Today was a strange day. Around 5 PM, there was a sharp (Richter 3.4) but brief temblor centered in El Segundo. It seems that our part of Southern California is continuing its inexorable millenias-long journey northward. As an odd punctuation to the quake, I noticed two large military helicopters at low altitude heading toward the ocean minutes later.

But my main Northern contribution today was completing Chauncey C. Loomis’s Weird and Tragic Shores: The Story of Charles Francis Hall, Explorer. Chauncey was my favorite English professor at Dartmouth. He, without a doubt, the coolest member of that distinguished faculty. What I did not know at the time was that he was such an adventurous traveler. His bailiwick went far beyond the Eighteenth Century English Novel, to places like Peru and the Arctic.

Chauncey C. Loomis (1930-2009)

Why, despite my admiration for the man, did I wait more than twenty years to seek out and read his book? I knew Chauncey when he was in his thirties (long before the above photo), a young English prof sitting in his office with a hunting dog curcled around his feet. Terminally cool!

I love the conclusion to his book after he discovered that the body of Arctic Explorer Charles Francis Hall was poisoned with arsenic:

Anyway, I didn’t write the book as a murder mystery. In fact, the idea of going to northern Greenland and performing an autopsy occurred to me only late in my research, after I read the transcript of the [Naval] Board of Inquiry’s interrogations. What first had my interest was the Arctic itself (the actual Arctic and the Arctic in the nineteenth-century imagination), the whole saga of nineteenth-century Arctic exploration, and Hall as a characteristic nineteenth-century American of a particular type. The book was intended to be more of a period piece than a murder mystery. Mostly it was meant to be a study of the Arctic conceived as a “challenge” by nineteenth-century western man, a challenge that aroused both the noble and the reprehensible in him: pety and pugnacity, visionary idealism and gross ambition, genuine heroism and macho posturing, self-sacrifice and self-aggrandizement…. I cannot make up my own mind as to whether these nineteenth-century explorers, including Hall, was heroes or fools. My waffling, I suspect, indicates humankind’s general ambivalence about heroism; we yearn for heroes, but we mock them when we have them, and then, having mocked them, we yearn for them again. We know that our world is complex, but heroes often at least seem outwardly simple: they cut through the Gordian knot of complexity with apparent abandon.

Cogitus Interruptus

Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Portrait of Laurence Sterne

He was a Yorkshire Anglican clergyman who just happened to write one of the five greatest novels ever written, Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) gave us The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen (1759-1761), a book that can be read and re-read with pleasure over an entire lifetime. It was in the mid 1960s that I first encountered it in Chauncey C. Loomis’s class on “The Eighteenth Century English Novel.” Loomis was my favorite professor of English, which happened to be my major at Dartmouth. I am still re-living that class and re-reading the books that he assigned. That makes his class one of the best I ever took.

Tristram Shandy revolves around four plot points that would seem to be pretty thin. All the plot points involve either interruptions or “abridgments” of various sorts:

  1. Just as Mr Shandy and his wife are approaching orgasm, the latter asks her husband if he has rewound their clock.
  2. When Tristram is being born, the forceps of Dr Slop, who presides at the birth, crush the little lad’s nose.
  3. As a result of a miscommunication with one of the servants, the new baby is christened Tristram instead of Trismegistus.
  4. Tristram is accidentally circumcised when a window crashes down upon his foreskin.

How these four main plot points are stretched out over some five hundred pages of warmth and hilarity is a major miracle. The plot is positively Ptolemaic, with little epicycles and interruptions that create hilarious interludes.

It has always amazed me that it is the young Tristram Shandy who is narrating the novel. Yet he is not born until midway through the book, after we have been exposed to numerous incidents which the young Shandy could not have experienced as he was still in utero.

I can see myself coming back to Tristram Shandy again and again, paging at random to the beginning of a sequence, and reveling in it again … and again.