Tag Archives: libraries

Apart From Naughtiness

There are many ways of knowing, there are many sorts of knowledge. But the two ways of knowing, for man, are knowing in terms of apartness, which is mental, rational, scientific, and knowing in terms of togetherness, which is religious and poetic.
—D.H. Lawrence, A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (55)

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It was only once I was walking down the dark empty hallway that an awareness began to percolate back into my brain alerting me that I had left my glasses behind. Before the realization entirely sank in, while I was still merely in an optical haze of confusion, I spun around and ran back hoping to beat the timer I had turned—I didn’t want the light to go off and have to blindly find my way back to the stack among multiple stacks. Not my fault. I had gone there to get one book. Just one. But in my arms were four. I got excited and was dashing off like a thief in the night.

People wallow in emotion: counterfeit emotion. They lap it up: they live in it and on it. They ooze it (18-19).

What began as My Skirmish With Jolly Roger, (which I found in there! in the general stacks—a first edition! —I’m going to have to talk with someone about that.) —a stand-alone limited edition of Lawrence’s forward to the “Paris edition” of Lady Chatterley’s Lover— turned into A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, extending the original essay by some fifty pages. I added both to my check out, naturally.

And with counterfeit emotions there is no real sex at all. Sex is the one thing you cannot really swindle; and it is the centre of the worst swindling of all, emotional swindling. Once come down to sex, and the emotional swindle must collapse. But in all the approaches to sex, the emotional swindle intensifies more and more. Till you get there. then collapse (21).

In the essay, Lawrence seems to be trying to find his reader. Not the one who skips to the dirty words, not the one who is sanctimoniously looking for moral outrage, but his reader–the one who craves something true. It is a delicate and precious thing:

Herein lies the danger of harping only on the counterfeit and the swindle of emotion, as most “advanced” writers do. Though they do it, of course, to counterbalance the hugely greater swindle of the sentimental “sweet” writers (23). 

It is even harder, in this day and age, to resist the cynics and avoid the fools. This week I began my summer internship. I am working in the editorial department of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I spend my lunch hour wandering the sublime halls of the museum. I let myself approach each piece of art instinctually—yes or no. It is simple. I have time. No pressure. It is just me. Is the answer to the multiple choice question yes or no? I wish life were so simple.

Édouard Vuillard, Conversation (1897-98)

Édouard Vuillard, Conversation (1897-98)

This is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilised vase on the table (40).

Poor blossom, indeed. Lawrence advocates passionately, in this essay,  for marriage, which, having been married, forces a sort of reckoning within me. Additionally, as the novel’s plot involves adultery, his stance is interesting. And yet, marriage for marriage’s sake–for stature or security or any other shallow or temporal purpose is exactly what he most vehemently rails against…so,  I do come to see his point. I am not only a dedicated observer of art, I am also an observer of couples, and when I espy the authentic thing—I rejoice with a yes in my heart. Life can be all that.

For an essay that begins, ostensibly, as a warning to the reader of the myriad pirated editions of his work, Lawrence diverges with such fervent passion into the heart of the matter, into our very hearts, that I cannot help adoring him. He is a sane man in a mad world, which may make him appear crazed, but it doesn’t make him wrong.

When the great crusade against sex and the body started in full blast with Plato, it was a crusade for “ideals”, and for this “spiritual” knowledge in apartness. Sex is the great unifier. In its big, slower vibration it is the warmth of heart which makes people happy together, in togetherness. The idealist philosophies and religions set out deliberately to kill this. And they did. Now they have done it. The last great ebullition of friendship and hope was squashed out in mud and blood. Now men are all separate entities. While “kindness” is the glib order of the day—everyone must be “kind”—underneath this “kindness” we find a coldness of heart, a lack of heart, a callousness, that is very dreary (57).

It’s the “dreary” that makes me smile. Yes, it is indeed dreary.

*title from pg. 32

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Mazarine, Luteus, Vermilion

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The other day at work in the library while prying apart two colossal artbooks- my left hand pushing the row as far over as it would budge, while holding between right thumb and forefinger another sizable tome, the remaining three fingers were left with thrusting the opposing mountain of books to the opposite side when Lo! a small book revealed itself recessed in the deep shadows of the imposing giants surrounding it. With all of my fingers engaged, I let out an exasperated sigh. With reluctance, I released the hard earned space I had created. I  deftly (more likely, spasmodically) slipped my left hand in before the hidden entrance snapped shut in the jungle of books squeezed onto the shelf. If it hadn’t been a high shelf I might have engaged my foot to keep that damn space, but alas, I do try to maintain a professional demeanor.

My wearied fingers just managed to coax the little book out. I had only intended to help it reclaim its allotted space, but when I read the title, The Primary Colors by Alexander Theroux, I had to take a look. That very morning I had finished reading The Manticore by Robertson Davies, so when his back-of-the-book-two-cents blurb promising essays of “prodigal and vagarious adventure” as oppose to the “terse and apophthegmatic” sort, well, I ask you – how could leave it on the shelf?

The word sings. You pout pronouncing it, form a kiss, moue slightly, blowing gracefully from the lips as if before candles on a birthday cake (3).

Blue. It can only be blue, of course. Theroux’s discursive, plaited, and enigmatic exaltation of the primary color is a crazy delight to read. In equal parts: laundry list, rapturous praise, historical, poetical, and literary- azure my love, and blue, blau, bleu…some 50 pages into the thicket of illusive, expensive, pensive, doleful, blithe, yet blissful blue, Theroux insouciantly begins a new paragraph by saying, “Speaking of blue…”

Georgiana Peacher in Mary Stuart’s Ravishment Descending Time may well have given us the greatest passage on yellow eyes ever written, which I include here for, among other things, the edification of those undermedicated hacks, shameless book-a-year novelists, and jug-headed commercialists yahoos whose predictable prose comes cranking out of the trafila of their heads like streams of common pasta (104).

Yellow seems the perfect color to evince such a vitriolic run of the pen. At once sickly and weak it just as easily turns to exuberant luster. The sultry and louche lemonade pucker in no way disturbs the energetic primordial yellow, “I was going into the yellow” as Theroux quotes Marlow looking at a map of the Belgian Congo, “I was going into the yellow” (157).

As to barbaric richness of color, Francis Bacon, who wanted, among other things, to make the human scream into something “which would have the intensity and beauty of a Monet sunset,” like the color of blood, whether Antioch-red or paintbox bright or cherry: “It’s nothing to do with mortality, but it’s to do with the great beauty of the color of meat” (193).

Indeed, it is not accidental, I think, that  “there is no red Necco wafer” (172). Of all the names for red: cochineal, carmine, rubious, crimson, scarlet, a seemingly endless array of nuance and aspects. The copse of all that red denotes, connotes or promotes seems to tangle Theroux a bit in the final essay. As if there is too much to feel in this – the true primary color (no matter the language, “red” is always the first color named after black and white). Love and death, fervor, pain, a blush, the saucy and tart – my heart! my heart! Cranberry that it is, bursting with bitterness, but ever awaiting the sweet start.

 

*luteous (from lutum, mud) one of those perfectly good English words completely ignored nowadays as pretentious and arch, except by literate people like Virgil, who in his day used the word “luteus” as a synonym for yellow (73).

** Print by Dana Jennings Rohn

 

WITHDRAWN

System 1 is gullible and biased to believe, System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving, but System 2 is sometimes busy, and often lazy. 
– Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (81)

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I spent the greater part of my working hours this past week removing books from the library shelves and stamping them “withdrawn.” Feeling something of the executioner, I began to muse on the psychological effect it might have on me to stamp the word, “withdrawn” “withdrawn” “WITHDRAWN” over and over again.

One further limitation of System 1 is that it can not be turned off. If you are shown a word on the screen in a language you know, you will read it (25)

Daniel Kahneman’s fascinating book, Thinking Fast and Slow names the differing ways of thinking, respectively, System 1 and System 2. The part we know and believe to be firmly in control is System 2, all activity that requires conscious thought lives in this system. The unfortunate news that Kahneman shares in his book is the overwhelming evidence that System 1 is in fact (smugly, no doubt) running the show. System 1 is so firmly in control of our reactions, impressions, and judgements, that it hardly need deign to acknowledge its domination.

The technical definition of heuristics is a simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions. The word comes from the same root as eureka (98).

Admittedly heuristics is a good thing. We are not after all computers and lack the ability to algorithmically function in real time. Lord knows I’m all for split second, heuristics. Or so I thought. I don’t want to make an enemy of my own brain, but the fact that System 1’s default attitude is to believe, always to believe, concerns me.

declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true (212).

Halo effect, illusions of validity, hindsight effect, coherence, over confidence, context dependency- the list of pit falls, oversights, blind spots and standard issue mental sloth is depressing me. Standing in the back of the stacks with my red stamp – withdrawn, withdrawn, withdrawn, the frame of my life takes on a rather pathetic hue. What might I be feeling if the word was “discard?” I shudder to think. But never mind “discard,” the depressing point, according to Kahneman is that if the word had been “keep” or “valued” I probably would not have even noticed. It doesn’t fit into my story.

A single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches (302).

As the acidic paper of the books I remove from the shelves flake and fall, strewing my hair and the floor with brittle specks of lonely confetti, I force System 2 to step it up. How we frame events, the tension between our remembering selves and our experiencing selves  makes a real difference to the actual quality of our lives. Kahneman mentions movements and policies, at the end of the book, that aim to help us help ourselves when dealing with all of our innate (and not always negative) judgment disabilities. And that is some cause for celebration. For hope.

Unless there is an obvious reason to do otherwise, most of us passively accept decision problems as they are framed and therefore rarely have an opportunity to discover the extent to which our preferences are frame-bound rather than reality-bound (367).

An admission that we know nothing,  yet relentlessly protect our belief systems against reality, is a healthy thing to keep in mind – I’m talking to you System 1! Understanding how profound our mental biases and tendencies are leaves me feeling that much more like useless confetti helplessly blowing about- it’s no use! but, never fear- my optimism bias kicks in and I just KNOW that acceptance is the first step! All is well, all goes well, all goes as well as it possibly could – oh dear, I must confess my cynicism bias can kick my optimism bias’s ass any day of the week…..In the meantime I take some solace in the ineluctable certainly that, it is not just me. My predictable predilection of perception fallibility is matched only by yours. Solidarity, my fellow humans!

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it (402)

Mirror

“Passing life’s halfway mark, I lost my way in a dark wood”
– Andrei Tarkovsky, The Mirror (film)

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One of my jobs is in a library. I always like to shelve the books first. I’m hidden deep in the stacks, focused intensely on tiny sometimes obscured sequences of numbers, letters, dots and slashes.  I work in the arts and music section, the books are all lovely and tempting…but last Tuesday when I came in I could see there was a DVD shelving emergency underway, so I gave the books a longing look, and got right to work on the towers of DVDs. Still, I have preferences. I always start with the foreign films, then documentaries, and only then attack the regular collection. I find the foreign films more interesting, plus there is a stool on wheels that I can skate around on while running through the alphabet in my head over and over again, which makes it more fun.

Sometimes I don’t shelve them. I put them aside, and when I have a minute I go downstairs and check them out. That’s how I came to watch Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror.

The paradoxical thing about a task like shelving books is that it requires deep but meaningless focus. It’s just numbers and letters. But then there is the actual object in my hand, which can trigger thoughts, memories, and feelings. My shift is two and half hours and it feels very like to what watching The Mirror feels like: somewhat stream of conscious, deep in thought, with memories, words and images coming from all directions creating a quiet, sometimes profound emotional rhythm.

There is no story, really. Not in our minds, and not in The Mirror. But the engrossing drama of  (presumably) Tarkovsky’s childhood memories,  twisted up with his mother’s history; the sequences of Tarkovsky’s father’s poetry, read by the narrator (A. Tarkovsky);  the beautiful cinematography: by random turns, black and white, and then color; the dreams and nightmares, anxieties, regret and hope all converge to express, I think, a visual representation of the deep recesses of our minds in which our foundations, if examined, can be all revealing. Just a glimpse, maybe. But a flickering light in between the letters and numbers of our lives.

*photograph taken by Augustus Accardi

 

 

Blindfold Art

I leaned me forward to find her lips,
And claim her utterly in a kiss

– D.H. Lawrence, from Lightning

IMG_1030After renewing my copy of Everybody’s Plutarch, one, possibly two, times more than the officially allowable amount, I reluctantly returned it. I thought I’d be tricky by getting another copy at a different library. Instead, I ended up with the book,  An Uninhibited Treasury of Erotic Poetry. I know, I love the title too.

Catullus, you’re a fool. I said,
What’s lost is lost, what’s dead is dead.
The game is over, that you know;
So let the little strumpet go.

Catullus, from Catullus Talks to Himself

I wasn’t even going to be picky, I know there are many editions of Noble Lives,  but just you try to search for a single book in a library that is many stories tall with all the ordinances accounted for. Let me save you some trouble by saying, it ain’t easy. First stop: the computer catalogue. I came away from that aspect ratio of small proportion’ s labyrinth with a piece of paper on which I had scrawled as many call numbers as I could fit. Next: pitstop at the circulation desk to pick up a copy of the floorplan. Third stop: level A, west wing.

In the secrets of your flesh
I make myself words
to be read by you alone

– Eve Merriam, from The Moment Before Conception

A partial but useless success- Plutarch in Latin. But why dwell on thoughts that serve as cruel metaphors for life? Moving on: level three, north wing, where I find a trove of books about Plutarch. Down a level: no luck at all. Back up a couple levels: berating myself for not organizing my list geographically,  looking for the 900 section, wait, no- the 800s, focus, Jessica!…disoriented, the low lights and lack of humans among the rows of books are so comforting as to begin to disconcert me. I put my bag on the floor and crouch down, sitting upon my heels for a moment’s respite.

Love Poem

Oh, your thighs
are numbered:

Two

But they are
as poles of the earth

And all
that there is

Is

Between them

-Judson Crews

Up a level, down, south, was it west? …my memory fades…A Modern Plutarch sits on the shelf. In fact it now sits on the desk next to me. But a comparison of, for example,  Mark Twain and Anatole French, while a good idea, was neither well executed nor the thing I was after.

Teach me, only teach, Love!
As I ought
I will speak thy speech, Love
Think thy thought-

– Robert Browning, from A Woman’s Last Word

Next to A Modern Plutarch, sat An Uninhibited Treasury of Erotic Poetry, which I did not attempt to resist. I opened to a random page – two lines that I know well. I don’t need much more encouragement than that.

Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove

Marlowe, The Passionate Shepard to His Love. I read an article once regarding pronunciation which suggested that “love” would have rhymed, back then, with “prove.” Love and prove, I find much pleasure in making the words sound alike in various combinations in my head (I think the article describe how it had been pronounced and rhymed, but I can’t recall).  Later in the poem “love” is rhymed with “move,” consequently I now relish saying Louvre whenever I see the word love. Love, prove….There is something that pulls those words to each other, love: tested, withstood, evidenced. They seem to belong together.

* Title from Lawrence’s Lightning-
“Repeating with tightened arms, and the hot blood’s
blindfold art.”

** The Uninhibited Treasury of Erotic Poetry (“edited and with a running commentary by”) Louis Untermeyer. He makes clear in his introduction that by “erotic,” a more classic sense, by way of Eros (love), is meant.

Back to Plutarch- Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

You Are Here

It was eerie to have stepped into this silence of the desert, and I wished to get clear away. Yet, since there did not seem to be an adequate reason for absconding, I took a place at the table and resigned myself to the inevitable.
Stefan Zweig, Moonbeam Alley (139)

IMG_0506A green paperback. Four words. The title: Kaleidiscope One, and the author: Stefan Zweig.

The main motive is dread of solitude, of the terrible feeling of aloofness which severs us one from another -Transfiguration (202)

I was trying to navigate a new library, all of the books had call numbers that I could not make sense of. YF? Was I in the Youth Fiction section? I am stereotypically male-like in my reticence to ask for directions, but I was flummoxed and the awkwardness of looking so obviously lost clinched it- I would ask the pony-tailed librarian brimming with helpful alacrity for assistance. I was of course deeply impressed with his enthusiastic explanation of their filing system- Cutter Seventh Classification.

I rejoiced to know that my feelings had merely been paralysed, and were not utterly dead; that somewhere beneath the smooth surface of my indifference volcanic passion must still be raging. -Transfiguration (189)

Earnestly and nearly embarrassedly fascinated, I listened, raptly, while he extolled the difference. This guy Cutter (an actual librarian at the library in question 1894-1903, Forbes Library) developed a system for organizing books, but somehow , over time Mr Dewey Decimal gained popularity, meanwhile the Library of Congress knew a good thing when they saw it and based their system after Cutter’s, except they, cruelly, added in decimals which is the bane of the Liberian’s assistant (or maybe just mine) shelving existence, although it seemed also to be the reason why this young man was singing the praises of Cutter Seventh Classification to me- why, I think we almost had a connection….

…behind me I heard the laughter of a woman, the bright and somewhat agitated laughter I so dearly love in women-laughter that issues from the burning bush of voluptuousness. – Transfiguration (171)

But no, I had to face the stacks alone, and while I now had an appreciation for the system, I still didn’t quite grasp it, and I so when I saw this plain green book, with the familiar name-I just grabbed it. When I got home I realized it was a series of short stories, most of which I have already read. But, that’s okay there were a few new ones in there.

Touching, too, was the eagerness with which she would scan the shabby books in the hotel library… – The Fowler Snared (270)

I skipped to Moonbeam Alley in which I was able to assemble the most comprehensive list of words to describe a wanton women I’ve ever made (strumpet- love it, harlot- a favorite, vixen, weak-minded wench, slatternly, blowzy…blowzy?) Let me quickly add that Zweig has an innate sympathy for women, despite his creative use of synonyms, the subtle and not so subtle subjugating conditions of the female were repeating themes in his work.

But as I went along, I began to understand something about Zweig and my interest in his writing. Transfiguration is a long one, but it perfectly exemplifies what it is I felt. In all of his stories there is an urgency, a burning desire for something, even if it is simply to tell the tale. The fever of his characters is palatable. His passions awaken the reader, and are well suited to the short story format he favored. Whether resolved tragically or happily (yes there are a few) his heated breathless pace warms the soul by its cautionary or sympathetic call to those that open their hearts to sense and human passion: it’s our very humanity and Zweig’s writing is a spark.

Indeed, I now realize what was still hidden from me when I took up my pen ten minutes ago, that my sole object in writing this account of the incidents is that I may hold them fast, may have them so to speak concretized before me, may enjoy their rehearsal at once emotionally and intellectually. – Transfiguration (159)

It occurred to me, as I’m currently reading Sartre’s Existentialism and Human Emotions (found in my college’s L of C system- they use the DD as well depending on the book), that literature speaks directly to essence, while libraries speak to existence. The conditions are the same for book or person- we are here, and so…what’s the essence of the pages or our hours? That burning ember within us, that the books lack, is the freedom to choose (or not choose) how to live our lives. But the books, the books can give oxygen- their whispers remind, plead, scold or extol. It is their essence that fuels our fire.

But one who understands will not judge, and will have no pride. -Transfiguration (218)

* Kaleidoscope One translated from German by Eden and Cedar Paul, Hallam Edition

An Inexplicable But Pelagic Hope

This is what I know: people’s hopes go on forever
– Junot Díaz, This is How You Lose Her (72)

45817_10151542606933132_1238016564_n-1This book stared at me for weeks as it sat on the Featured Book wall-display across from the circulation desk I sit behind. I would always stare back at it whenever I walked by. Once or twice I even picked it up, held the spanking new volume wrapped in snapping clear polyester and contemplated reading it. I was already reading a few books, had promised a few others I would read them next, then there’s homework, and jobs, children, applications with their punishing piles of forms to fill that are covered front and back with questions that I cannot answer- I take that back,  I can always at least manage question number one: name. After that, my life simply does not fit into the square boxes. So no, Junot Díaz, I don’t have time to read your pretty little book with deckle edged paper. Stop looking at me. Mercifully, one day the display was changed.

This novel wouldn’t let it go however. I was asked to gather a list of books off the stacks the other day, and there it was again, in the New Reads section. Damn it. I picked it up. For the first time I actually opened it. All of my will power was undone in a page – this is how you read a book in one day. I read the first chapter standing, facing the shelves. Then I got a hold of myself went back to my desk to finish my studying, eat an orange, read a long, interesting article about Jane Austen a friend sent me, and then I read the book, drove home, and read it to the end.

The story is devastating, smart, and tender. The idiosyncrasies of Dominican culture mixed with the peculiar regularity with which people, in this case- Yunior, fuck up their lives is told with verve and nerve. The book is funny, heartbreaking, bleak, but buoyant.

It takes discipline and perhaps the confidence from growing up in a loving home to avoid the urge to insecurely fling oneself heedlessly into what looks like Love, or my favorite non-love description: Camus’ vanity and boredom. One of the fascinating things about the life of Jane Austen was that she knew the requirements of her own heart, and just because she never realized (at least publicly) a true love, she was content to be alone and pour her passion into her art rather than forfeit her need to Love truly. Possibly her heart was set on one man in particular, turning it cold to anyone else—that’s a bit of speculation, but there was that Irish fellow…not enough money, family expectations, blah blah blah, we know the story—in fact we know it well because of Austen’s smart, tender books.  Funny though, how in both cases—Jane and Díaz’s Yunior—they end up alone. Do the reasons matter?

Like Yunior, Elinor in Sense and Sensibility acts recklessly in her love life. The idiosyncrasies of the English class system mix painfully with Elinor’s sensuality. Elinor is rescued from that cowardly rake Willoughby’s renunciation by Colonel Brandon’s adoration—which is so kind of Austen, but still  Elinor, again like Yunior, is a bit wrecked, body and soul, by the experience.

A few years back I resignedly  concluded that there is no reason why I should be hopeful. No reason to assume “things will look up.” No reason, certainly, to think Miss Austen had a firm grasp of real life with her wrenchingly wonderful happy endings. This is How You Lose Her is a story that I love for its full frontal look at reality. Yunior is what one might  call a “dog,” and yet you feel for him. He can’t love because he wasn’t loved at those critical stages of youth: the plasticity of the heart must have an expiration date.  Years go by, and we can’t all have a Captain Wentworth, who has that rare Love that can never bring itself to forsake the lovely object of his ardor: Anne Elliot in Persuasion—my favorite Austen book. I tend to think Persuasion represented Austen’s rewrite of her life, (the article suggested P&P née First Impressions, maybe they all were to some extent, but Persuasion was her last novel…).

Yunior and I would like a rewrite. Instead we get reality, Yunior’s body starts to break under the pressure until the only thing that’s left is his poor calcified heart. Save me! It cries out. save me. 

His heartbreak is long, intense, and perhaps permanent. Maybe the most some can hope for is to get over the disappointment of their own shortcomings. It is enough I suppose to try not to make it worse. At a certain point you stop worrying about going up and simply become determined not go down. Jane Austen found her rather brilliant way to not make it worse and yet, her body too failed her long before it should have— desuetude of the heart devastates too. That, is life. Both Austen and Díaz give the gift of hope and humor against despair and cynicism. Laugh or cry, it’s the battle we wage everyday.

The half-life of love is forever.  – Junot Díaz, This Is How You Lose Her (213)

*Painting by my daughter,  Victoria Accardi, oil and embroidery thread (the tattoos are embroidered onto the canvas).