SALEM, June 15, 1835.–A walk down to the Juniper. The shore of the coves strewn with bunches of sea-weed, driven in by recent winds. Eel-grass, rolled and bundled up, and entangled with it,–large marine vegetables, of an olive-color, with round, slender, snake-like stalks, four or five feet long, and nearly two feet broad: these are the herbage of the deep sea. Shoals of fishes, at a little distance from the shore, discernible by their fins out of water. Among the heaps of sea-weed there were sometimes small pieces of painted wood, bark, and other driftage. On the shore, with pebbles of granite, there were round or oval pieces of brick, which the waves had rolled about till they resembled a natural mineral. Huge stones tossed about, in every variety of confusion, some shagged all over with sea-weed, others only partly covered, others bare. The old ten-gun battery, at the outer angle of the Juniper, very verdant, and besprinkled with white-weed, clover, and buttercups. The juniper-trees are very aged and decayed and moss-grown. The grass about the hospital is rank, being trodden, probably, by nobody but myself. There is a representation of a vessel under sail, cut with a penknife, on the corner of the house.
Returning by the almshouse, I stopped a good while to look at the pigs,–a great herd,–who seemed to be just finishing their suppers. They certainly are types of unmitigated sensuality,–some standing in the trough, in the midst of their own and others’ victuals,–some thrusting their noses deep into the food,–some rubbing their backs against a post,–some huddled together between sleeping and waking, breathing hard,–all wallowing about; a great boar swaggering round, and a big sow waddling along with her huge paunch. Notwithstanding the unspeakable defilement with which these strange sensualists spice all their food, they seem to have a quick and delicate sense of smell. What ridiculous-looking animals! Swift himself could not have imagined anything nastier than what they practise by the mere impulse of natural genius. Yet the Shakers keep their pigs very clean, and with great advantage. The legion of devils in the herd of swine,–what a scene it must have been!
Sunday evening, going by the jail, the setting sun kindled up the windows most cheerfully; as if there were a bright, comfortable light within its darksome stone wall.
Untitled, 2019 by Miki Kim
“A Thin Damnedness”
I, Mary MacLane (1917)
I own Two plain black Dresses and none besides.
And I need no more.
In which two sentences I touch the crux and the keynote and the thin damnedness of my life as it is set: of my life, not of myself, for myself lives naked inside the circle of my life.
But my outer life is spaced by my Two plain Dresses. My Two Dresses measure how far removed I presently am from the wide world of things.
In the world of things a woman is judged not specifically by her morals: not invariably by her reputation: not absolutely by her money: not indubitably by her social prestige: only relatively by her beauty: and as to her brain or lack of it—la-la-la! She is judged in the matter-world simply, completely, entirely by her clothes. It is tacitly so agreed and decreed all over the earth—wherever women are of the female sex and men pursue them.
It is no injustice to any woman. It is the fairest fiat in the unwritten code.
Only a few women, the few specialized breeds, can express the fire or the humanness in them by play-acting or suffragetting or singing or painting or writing or trained-nursing or house-keeping. But there’s not one—from a wandering Romany gypsy, red-blooded and strong-hearted, to an over-guarded overbred British princess—who doesn’t express what she is in the clothes she wears and the way she wears them.
Her clothes conceal and reveal, artfully and contradictorily and endlessly.
It is all a limitless field.
No actor could act Hamlet without that perfect Hamletesque black costume.
A nun’s staid beautiful habit interprets her own meanings within and without.
A woman naked may look markedly pure: the same woman clothed conventionally and demurely may achieve a meanly ghoulishly foul seeming.
One either is made or marred by one’s habiliments.
A woman by her raiment’s make and manner can express more of her wit, her ego, her temper, her humor, her plastic pulsating personality than she could by throwing a bomb, by making a good or bad pudding, by losing her chastity or by traducing her neighbor. The germ and shadow and likelihood of each of those acts is in the fashion and line and detail of her garments.
A jury thinks it tries a woman for a crime. Some of the twelve good and true may admit each to himself that they are trying the color of her eyes or the shape of her chin or the droop of her shoulders. But it’s only her clothes they unwittingly try for murder or theft or forgery, or whatever has tripped her. It may be an alluringly shabby little dress that saves her from the gallows. It may be a hat worn at the wrong angle that is found guilty and sentenced to death. A glove in her lap, a fluttering veil, a little white handkerchief dropped to the floor by her chair—those are what the court tries for life or liberty.—
But it is I I tell about, I and my Two plain Dresses.
In me a smart frock or an unbecoming one makes a surprising difference. I impress my costume with my mixed temperament and it retaliates in kind.
One day I looked a beautiful young creature—one August Saturday in New York it was—in a tailored gown of embroidered linen. With it I wore such a good hat: its color was pale olive: its texture was soft Milan straw: its price was forty dollars. My shoes were gray silk. I so fancied myself that day that I feared lest my writing talent had gone away from me. For God takes away the beer if he gives you the skittles. And in ill-conditioned clothes—some days the weather, the devil, the soddenness of life get into one’s garments and make even fair ones look ill-conditioned—I am plain-faced, plain all over—so plain that the villainies of my nature feel doubtful and I half-think I may be a good woman.
In a life full of people I would own varied delicate beautiful clothes since it is by them one is judged, and since I am quite vain. But no people are in my life. I feel deadlocked. I am caught in a vise made by my own analytic ratiocination. I am not free to live a world-life till I’ve someway expressed Me and learned if not whither I go at least where I stand.
So it’s Two plain Dresses I own and none besides.
It may be I shall not ever again need more.
The Two Dresses are at present of serge and voile. Their identity changes with change of fashion and with wearing out. They are cut well and fit me well. But the Two does not change, nor the plainness. I change only from one Frock to the other and from the other to the one again.
I have various other clothes. A woman—whatever her traits and tempers—garners what she can of handmade under-linens and dainty nightgowns and silk hose and all such private panoply. They are the apparel of her sex rather than her individuality. The uncognizant world is unable to judge her by them. But the woman herself judges and respects herself by the goodness of her intimate garments.
My sex is to me a mystic gift. I marvel over it and clothe it silkenly.
Also I own a healthful-looking percale house-gown or two in which I do housework.
But my passing life, my eerie lonely life, is lived in my Two Dresses and none besides, and I need no more.
Typewriter, 1955 by Konrad Klapheck (b. 1935)
Mist II, 1996 by Paula Rego (b. 1935)
by Jorge Luis Borges
Translated by Andrew Hurley
Let us imagine that a piece of paper with a text in Arabic on it is discovered in Toledo, and that paleographers declare the text to have been written by that same Cede Hamete Benengeli from whom Cervantes derived Don Quixote. In it, we read that the hero (who, as everyone knows, wandered the roads of Spain armed with a lance and sword, challenging anyone for any reason) discovers, after one of his many combats, that he has killed a man. At that point the fragment breaks off; the problem is to guess, or hypothesize, how don Quixote reacts.
So far as I can see, there are three possibilities. The first is a negative one: Nothing
in particular happens, because in the hallucinatory world of don Quixote, death is no
more uncommon than magic, and there is no reason that killing a mere man should disturb one who does battle, or thinks he does battle, with fabled beasts and sorcerers. The second is pathetic: Don Quixote never truly managed to forget that he was a creation, a projection, of Alonso Quijano, reader of fabulous tales. The sight of death, the realization that a delusion has led him to commit the sin of Cain, awakens him from his willful madness, perhaps forever. The third is perhaps the most plausible: Having
killed the man, don Quixote cannot allow himself to think that the terrible act is the work
of a delirium; the reality of the effect makes him assume a like reality of cause, and don Quixote never emerges from his madness.
But there is yet another hypothesis, which is alien to the Spanish mind (even to the Western mind) and which requires a more ancient, more complex, and more timeworn setting. Don Quixote—who is no longer don Quixote but a king of the cycles of Hindustan—senses, as he stands before the body of his enemy, that killing and engendering are acts of God or of magic, which everyone knows transcend the human condition. He knows that death is illusory, as are the bloody sword that lies heavy in his hand, he himself and his entire past life, and the vast gods and the universe.
Portrait of Moerai Matuanui, 2019 by Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977)
The Alchemist, 2015 by Paulina Olowska (b. 1976)
It’s been pretty busy around Biblioklept World Headquarters this week. It’s the first week of my kids’ summer vacation, and they both had birthdays this week, as did I. I managed to read but not write that much—so here’s this lazy post.
I finally finished Robert Coover’s 1966 debut novel The Origin of the Brunists this morning, which I had started with a huge wave of enthusiasm way back at the end of February. The novel has one of the finest second chapters I can remember, a long description of a mine’s implosion, and the rest of the book simply never matches its intensity. Coover conjures a mining town called West Condon, and explores the fallout of the disaster and how it affects seemingly every citizen. The central conflict is between a doomsday cult (the Brunists) and the rest of the town. There are some wonderful moments, but there’s a maudlin streak to the novel that Coover’s later work would satirize. The Origin of the Brunists suffers from the strains of First Novel Syndrome—Coover overstuffs the beast, and doesn’t leaven his unwieldy monster with enough humor. It’s a shaggy read, which, like, fine—I love shaggy novels!—but shagginess should correlate with theme, and Coover’s theme is decidedly unshaggy. You could probably cull a dozen short stories from Origin and end up with a finer book. I ended up reading it out of a sense of duty to the author. Maybe the sequel, which came out a few years ago, is a better affair.
I should have a review of Ann Quin’s first novel Berg out next week, but here is a short review: Go read Berg. It’s extraordinary. It’s so extraordinary that upon finishing it I immediately needed more Quin. I’ve been reading the collection of fragments and stories The Unmapped Country slowly, interspersing them with other reads. Good stuff.
I picked up Linda Coverdale’s translation of Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Slave Old Man this Friday as I browsed my favorite bookstore as a birthday treat for myself. I read the first two chapters that afternoon. The language is extraordinary, strange, poetic, bracing. More thoughts to come.
I read Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts over the course of three mornings. I then immediately reread it, finding it even more precise and accomplished than I had realized the first time. Murnane’s “fiction” is a compelling meditation on seeing and trying to see what can’t be seen. It’s about place, memory, image, and color—the colors of marbles, of liveries, of racing flags and stained glass windows. It’s also a strange and ironic exercise in literary criticism—but ultimately, it’s about waiting for the epiphanies our stories promise us, and perhaps waiting in vain. Very highly recommended.
I had hoped to write Something Big on Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland but found myself a bit too exhausted at the end of it to muster anything. I know among Pynchon fans it has a certain cult status, but I’d rather pick up Gravity’s Rainbow or Against the Day or Mason & Dixon again than reread Vineland. The book is a shaggy mess, really, with some excellent bits that never properly cohere. (It is possible that the book doesn’t cohere on purpose—there’s a narratological implication that the entire book is simply a film treatment, or, a few characters riffing over a film treatment.) Vineland features characters from other Pynchon novels, notably the Traverse family from Against the Day, as well as folks from Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49, suggesting that there is of course a Pynchonverse. The book is an indictment on the baby boomers selling out in the seventies and really the eighties, and attack on Nixonia and the rise of Reagan. The indictment could be stronger. Vineland’s also an extended attack on television, but also a love letter to The Tube. (There’s also a motif about cars and driving that I didn’t fully understand.) And there are all the usual Pynchon themes: zeros and ones, preterite and elect, visible and invisible, paranoia, paranoia, paranoia. Probably the weirdest thing about Vineland is that its “B” plot about a ninja and her partner and their strange adventures actually seems to take up way more of the book than the “A” plot (about a daughter and her estranged mother reuniting). I liked the “B” plot a lot better. I’m sure I’ll reread all of Pynchon at some point, but for now, I’d put it at the bottom of this list.
I finally found a copy of Donald Barthelme’s children’s book The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine: Or, the Hithering Thithering Djinn. My kids seem a little too old for it but I dig it, and the collage work (by Barthelme himself) is fun, if not exactly Une Semaine de Bonté.
I actually did muster a review of Jaime Hernandez latest Love & Rockets book, Is This How you See Me? The review is at The Comics Journal.
Not pictured in the stack above (because I have it out as a digital loan from my local library) is Maria Gainza’s novel (is it a novel?) Optic Nerve, in translation by Thomas Bunstead. I’m a little over half way through, and just really digging it. It’s kinda like a life story told through paintings and art history, but it’s also very much about aesthetics and ways of seeing. It reminds me a lot of W.G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño Claire-Louise Bennett, Lucia Berlin, and David Markson, but also really original. Good stuff.
Rescue Party, 2010 by Robin F. Williams (b. 1984)
The Cinema,1920, by William Roberts (1895–1980)
The Art Lover, 2015 by Jansson Stegner (b. 1972)