The Embroiderer — Neo Rauch

The Embroiderer, 2008 by Neo Rauch (b. 1960)

 

The tale of the enemy padrino | From Cormac McCarthy’s novel Cities of the Plain

Why would a man want an enemy for a padrino?

For the best of reasons. Or the worst. This man of whom we speak was a dying man when his lastborn came into the world. A son. His only son. So what did he do? He called upon that man who once had been a friend to him but now was his sworn enemy and he asked that man to be padrino to his son. The man refused of course. What? Are you mad? He must have been surprised. It had been years since last they spoke and their enemistad was a deep and bitter thing. Perhaps they had become enemies for the same reason they had once been friends. Which often happens in the world. But this man persisted. And he had the–how do you say–el naipe? En su manga.

The ace.

Yes. The ace up his sleeve. He told his enemy that he was dying. There was the naipe. Upon the table. The man could not refuse. All choosing was taken from his hands.

The blind man raised one hand into the smoky air in a thin upward slicing motion. Now comes the talk, he said. No end to it. Some say that the dying man wished to mend their friendship. Others that he had done this man some great injustice and wished to make amends before leaving this world forever. Others said other things. There is more than meets the eye. I say this: This man who was dying was not a man given to sentimentality. He also had lost friends to death. He was not a man given to illusions. He knew that those things we most desire to hold in our hearts are often taken from us while that which we would put away seems often by that very wish to become endowed with unsuspected powers of endurance. He knew how frail is the memory of loved ones. How we close our eyes and speak to them. How we long to hear their voices once again, and how those voices and those memories grow faint and faint until what was flesh and blood is no more than echo and shadow. In the end perhaps not even that.

He knew that our enemies by contrast seem always with us. The greater our hatred the more persistent the memory of them so that a truly terrible enemy becomes deathless. So that the man who has done you great injury or injustice makes himself a guest in your house forever. Perhaps only forgiveness can dislodge him.

Such then was this man’s thinking. If we may believe the best of him. To bind the padrino to his cause with the strongest bonds he knew. And there was more. For in this appointment he also posted the world as his sentinel. The duties of a friend would come under no great scrutiny. But an enemy? You can see how nicely he has caught him in the net he has contrived. For this enemy was in fact a man of conscience. A worthy enemy. And this enemy-padrino now must carry the dying man in his heart forever. Must suffer the eyes of the world eternally on him. Such a man can scarce be said to author any longer his own path.

The father dies as die he must. The enemy become padrino now becomes the father of the child. The world is watching. It stands in for the dead man. Who by his audacity has pressed it into his service. For the world does have a conscience, however men dispute it. And while that conscience may be thought of as the sum of consciences of men there is another view, which is that it may stand alone and each man’s share be but some small imperfect part of it. The man who died favored this view. As I do myself. Men may believe the world to be–what is the word? Voluble.

Fickle.

Fickle? I dont know. Voluble then. But the world is not voluble. The world is always the same. The man appointed the world as his witness that he might secure his enemy to his service. That this enemy would be faithful to his duties. That is what he did. Or that was my belief. At times I believe it yet.

How did it turn out?

Quite strangely.

The blind man reached for his glass. He drank and held the glass before him as if studying it and then he set it on the table before him once again.

Quite strangely. For the circumstance of his appointment came to elevate this man’s padrinazgo to the central role of his life. It brought out what was best in him. More than best. Virtues long neglected began almost at once to blossom forth. He abandoned every vice. He even began to attend Mass. His new office seemed to have called forth from the deepest parts of his character honor and loyalty and courage and devotion. What he gained can scarcely be put into words. Who would have foreseen such a thing?

What happened? said John Grady

The blind man smiled his pained blind smile. You smell the rat, he said.

Yes.

Quite so. It was no happy ending. Perhaps there is a moral to the tale. Perhaps not. I leave it to you.

What happened?

This man whose life was changed forever by the dying request of his enemy was ultimately ruined. The child became his life. More than his life. To say that he doted upon the child says nothing. And yet all turned out badly. Again, I believe that the intentions of the dying man were for the best. But there is another view. It would not be the first time that a father sacrificed a son.

The godchild grew up wild and restless. He became a criminal. A petty thief. A gambler. And other things. Finally, in the winter of nineteen and seven, in the town of Ojinaga, he killed a man. He was nineteen years of age. Close to your own, perhaps.

The same.

Yes. Perhaps this was his destiny. Perhaps no padrino could have saved him from himself. No father. The padrino squandered all he owned in bribes and fees. To no avail. Such a road once undertaken has no end and he died alone and poor. He was never bitter. He scarcely seemed even to consider whether he had been betrayed. He once had been a strong and even a ruthless man, but love makes men foolish. I speak as a victim myself. We are taken out of our own care and it then remains to be seen only if fate will show to us some share of mercy. Or little. Or none.

Men speak of blind destiny, a thing without scheme or purpose. But what sort of destiny is that? Each act in this world from which there can be no turning back has before it another, and it another yet. In a vast and endless net. Men imagine that the choices before them are theirs to make. But we are free to act only upon what is given. Choice is lost in the maze of generations and each act in that maze is itself an enslavement for it voids every alternative and binds one ever more tightly into the constraints that make a life. If the dead man could have forgiven his enemy for whatever wrong was done to him all would have been otherwise. Did the son set out to avenge his father? Did the dead man sacrifice his son? Our plans are predicated upon a future unknown to us. The world takes its form hourly by a weighing of things at hand, and while we may seek to puzzle out that form we have no way to do so. We have only God’s law, and the wisdom to follow it if we will.

The maestro leaned forward and composed his hands before him. The wineglass stood empty and he took it up. Those who cannot see, he said, must rely upon what has gone before. If I do not wish to appear so foolish as to drink from an empty glass I must remember whether I have drained it or not. This man who became padrino. I speak of him as if he died old but he did not. He was younger than I am now. I speak as if his conscience or the world’s eyes or both led him to such rigor in his duties. But those considerations quickly fell to nothing. It was for love of the child that he came to grief, if grief it was. What do you make of that?

I dont know.

Nor I. I only know that every act which has no heart will be found out in the end. Every gesture.

From Cormac McCarthy’s novel Cities of the Plain.

Blog about some weekend book browsing and book buying, other stuff

I took a box of books to trade in at my local used bookstore on Saturday. I was hoping to find a short history of Mexico City, or maybe some travel writing about Mexico City, but I didn’t find anything like that, although I rarely look through the history section or travel writing section when I browse there so was perhaps a bit overwhelmed. .

did come across a book published by something called Rosicrucian Press in the 1930s–W.S. Cerve’s Lemuria: The Lost Continent of the Pacific. Lost Lemuria hangs over a few Pynchon novels (and is touched on in Charles Portis masterful and zany Masters of Atlantis)—so of course I picked up Cerve’s book. Chapters include “The First Races of Man in America,” “Mysterious Forces in the Universe,” and “Present Day Mystic Lemurians in California.” There are also diagrams, charts, and maps, like this one:

This bookstore, Chamblin’s Bookmine, also featured a display of books removed from classrooms and school libraries in our city as a result of the current Florida Governor’s efforts to suppress critical thinking, whitewash American history, and generally turn Florida’s soul into a puddle of tepid piss. University of North Florida English Professor Laura Heffernan documented the display in the following tweet (notice a common thread?):

Today I stopped by Chamblin’s second, downtown location, Chamblin’s Uptown, mostly because I was dropping my daughter off at a birthday party about five minutes away. I go there only a few times a year, so it was nice to browse for a spare hour.

I snapped up two Stanley Elkins, The Magic Kingdon and The Living End, in Janet Halverson-designed editions that match my copy of Elkin’s The Dick Gibson Show. I listened to an audiobook of The Living End this summer and loved it–it made me want to get into more Elkin.

Going from the Es to the Fs, I spotted a nice used copy of Ann Goldstein’s translation of The Lost Daughter. I’ve been wanting to read it for a while, but picked it out for my wife to read first (I don’t think she really likes reading Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, which I gave her a few weeks ago. And now that I type this out, I see that I may have picked a weird substitute).

I also snagged a pristine used copy of Richard McGuire’s graphic novel Here. I checked it out from the library a few years ago when new copies seemed prohibitively expensive.

At the checkout I picked up a pamphlet describing strategies for undoing the book banning here in Jacksonville (and Florida in general). This whole fucking thing has had me so mad and sad, and I have friends who are checking out of Florida, but I feel like we shouldn’t have to cede territory to these dull monsters—and it feels good to see other people who feel the same.

A succinct summary from the pamphlet:

 

Some people found the balloon “interesting” | Donald Barthelme

There were reactions. Some people found the balloon “interesting.” As a response this seemed inadequate to the immensity of the balloon, the suddenness of its appearance over the city, on the other hand, in the absence of hysteria or other societally induced anxiety, it must be judged a calm, “mature” one. There was a certain amount of initial argumentation about the “meaning” of the balloon, this subsided, because we have learned not to insist on meanings, and they are rarely even looked for now, except in cases involving the simplest, safest phenomena. It was agreed that since the meaning of the balloon could never be known absolutely, extended discussion was pointless, or at least less purposeful than the activities of those who, for example, hung green and blue paper lanterns from the warm gray underside, in certain streets, or seized the occasion to write messages on the surface, announcing their availability for the performance of unnatural acts, or the availability of acquaintances.

Daring children jumped, especially at those points where the balloon hovered close to a building, so that the gap between balloon and building was a matter of a few inches, or points where the balloon actually made contact, exerting an ever-so-slight pressure against the side of a building, so that balloon and building seemed a unity. The upper surface was so structured that a “landscape” was presented, small valleys as well as slight knolls, or mounds, once atop the balloon, a stroll was possible, or even a trip, from one place to another. There was pleasure in being able to run down an incline, then up the opposing slope, both gently graded, or in making a leap from one side to the other. Bouncing was possible, because of the pneumaticity of the surface, and even falling, if that was your wish. That all these varied motions, as well as others, were within one’s possibilities, in experiencing the “up” side of the balloon, was extremely exciting for children, accustomed to the city’s flat, hard skin. But the purpose of the balloon was not to amuse children.

Read “The Balloon” by Donald Barthelme.

Kitty Pearson — Alice Neel

Kitty Pearson, 1973 by Alice Neel (1900-1984)

Seated Woman with Small Dog — Meraud Guevara

Seated Woman with Small Dog, c.1939 by Meraud Guevara (1904-1993)

“The Duel That Was Not Fought” — Stephen Crane

“The Duel That Was Not Fought”

by

Stephen Crane


Patsy Tulligan was not as wise as seven owls, but his courage could throw a shadow as long as the steeple of a cathedral. There were men on Cherry Street who had whipped him five times, but they all knew that Patsy would be as ready for the sixth time as if nothing had happened.

Once he and two friends had been away up on Eighth Avenue, far out of their country, and upon their return journey that evening they stopped frequently in saloons until they were as independent of their surroundings as eagles, and cared much less about thirty days on Blackwell’s.

On Lower Sixth Avenue they paused in a saloon where there was a good deal of lamp-glare and polished wood to be seen from the outside, and within, the mellow light shone on much furbished brass and more polished wood. It was a better saloon than they were in the habit of seeing, but they did not mind it. They sat down at one of the little tables that were in a row parallel to the bar and ordered beer. They blinked stolidly at the decorations, the bar-tender, and the other customers. When anything transpired they discussed it with dazzling frankness, and what they said of it was as free as air to the other people in the place.

At midnight there were few people in the saloon. Patsy and his friends still sat drinking. Two well-dressed men were at another table, smoking cigars slowly and swinging back in their chairs. They occupied themselves with themselves in the usual manner, never betraying by a wink of an eyelid that they knew that other folk existed. At another table directly behind Patsy and his companions was a slim little Cuban, with miraculously small feet and hands, and with a youthful touch of down upon his lip. As he lifted his cigarette from time to time his little finger was bended in dainty fashion, and there was a green flash when a huge emerald ring caught the light. The bar-tender came often with his little brass tray. Occasionally Patsy and his two friends quarrelled. Continue reading ““The Duel That Was Not Fought” — Stephen Crane”

Doomed! (Peanuts)

Aug Stone’s The Ballad of Buttery Cake Ass (Book acquired, January 2023)

Aug Stone’s novel The Ballad of Buttery Cake Ass publishes this week. Blurb form Stone’s website:

Two music obsessives embark on a hilarious quest to track down Buttery Cake Ass’ Live In Hungaria, an album as legendary as it is obscure. Their pursuit of one of the greatest bands ever unknown takes them down many a bizarre path teeming with grand ideas and grander egos in this ode to record shopping and what it’s like to be in your first band.

February – Evelyn Dunbar

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February, 1938 by Evelyn Dunbar (1906-1960)

We were in a pub and the guy just said, Why not call the band My Bloody Valentine? and we thought it would sound really silly, stupid

Lovers — Nancy Spero

Lovers, 1962 by Nancy Spero (1926-2009)

No Sunday School — Eric Fischl

No Sunday School, 2021 by Eric Fischl (b. 1948)

Blog about some recent reading

I finished A. V. Marraccini’s We the Parasites very very early Friday morning and then sneaked in two hours of sleep before a nine a.m. alarm. We the Parasites is a discursive  ekphrasis, its finest moments concentrated on Cy Twombly (and his historical painting The Age of Alexander in particular). Marraccini turns her lens also to John Updike’s novel The Centaur, Jean Genet, and pomegranates and wasps. 2020 and Covid-19 hang over the book, inverting its would-be-flânerie: It’s flânerie for silent nights, cybernights, flânerie for necessary introversion.

I’m about 100 pages into Cities of the Plain, the final book of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. I read it maybe fifteen years ago and recall almost nothing about it other than McCarthy uniting the two heroes of the first two books, John Grady Cole and Billy Parham. So far, the novel is a far quicker read than the first two Border novels—more direct, more cinematic, less adolescent, its intensities tamped by experience. About thirty pages in, McCarthy devotes two entire pages to a description of changing a tire. It’s beautiful.

Nest in the Bones collects a career-spanning selection of Antonio Di Benedetto short stories (in translation by Martina Broner). I’ve been trying to read one or two a day. Many of the early stories are quite short, and Di Benedetto perhaps shows a bit too much debt to Kafka here, but the oddity of it all is wonderful.

It is true that William S. Burroughs was fond of dinners with famous and interesting people, and was totally fine with having a young, perhaps good looking Victor Bockris serve as a nexus and recorder for such events, events that have nothing to do with big-ell Literature. But my favorite thing here (as was the case with Allen Ginsberg’s nineties jaunt with Burroughs in the same vein, Don’t Hide the Madness), my favorite thing here is how Burroughs undercuts any pretension or redirects conversation to his own strange obsessions.

Moonlight web, goodbye arms, so long head

RIP Tom Verlaine, 1949-2023

The Trees have Ears and the Field has Eyes — Hieronymus Bosch

The Trees have Ears and the Field has Eyes, c. 1500 by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516)

Martin Riker’s The Guest Lecture (Book acquired, early January 2023)

Martin Riker’s The Guest Lecture is out now from Grove Atlantic. Their blurb–

In a hotel room in the middle of the night, Abby, a young feminist economist, lies awake next to her sleeping husband and daughter. Anxious that she is grossly underprepared for a talk she is presenting tomorrow on optimism and John Maynard Keynes, she has resolved to practice by using an ancient rhetorical method of assigning parts of her speech to different rooms in her house and has brought along a comforting albeit imaginary companion to keep her on track—Keynes himself.

Yet as she wanders with increasing alarm through the rooms of her own consciousness, Abby finds herself straying from her prepared remarks on economic history, utopia, and Keynes’s pragmatic optimism. A lapsed optimist herself, she has been struggling under the burden of supporting a family in an increasingly hostile America after being denied tenure at the university where she teaches. Confronting her own future at a time of global darkness, Abby undertakes a quest through her memories to ideas hidden in the corners of her mind—a piecemeal intellectual history from Cicero to Lewis Carroll to Queen Latifah—as she asks what a better world would look like if we told our stories with more honest and more hopeful imaginations.

With warm intellect, playful curiosity, and an infectious voice, Martin Riker acutely animates the novel of ideas with a beating heart and turns one woman’s midnight crisis into the performance of a lifetime.