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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Stuff on Paper and Stuff in the Air

Can a smoker smell books? Paul's humor at work.
Pretty bottles!

Ah, yes, the smell of books! Real books! How many times have I heard people exclaim over it as they walk through my bookshop door? So isn’t my friend and fellow bookseller Paul Stebleton of Landmark Books in Traverse City clever for having bottled the scent? And that isn’t all he’s done: the labels and seals on the bottles feature more of Paul’s genius, as does the display in which the attractive bottles sit. Paul has generously given me an opportunity to sell “Scent of Book” at Dog Ears Books in Northport. It’s yet another demonstration of how booksellers with open shops generally treat each other as colleagues rather than competitors.

One book recently added to my “Books Read 2014” list came as a gift from my son’s wife. The Tyranny of E-Mail was published back in 2005, so it isn’t up-to-the-minute in terms of communication technology, but it was interesting, and I’m thinking it wouldn’t take a lot of editing to update the book, changing the title, of course, to The Tyranny of Texting. Freeman’s concerns about the number of hours modern Western humans spend checking-e-mail pale in the light of today’s “smart” phones and mobile “apps,” which not only have the ability to “tyrannize” users (who seldom consider themselves as victims in this arena) 24 hours a day but to track user movement in physical space, too, around the clock.

About eight years ago I decided to quit searching for a perfect printer and to do without one altogether. It was an unexpectedly liberating move. Anyone who wants me to post a flier can put it in the mail or drop it by the bookshop, but I don’t print out anything that sent to me by e-mail. I’ll look at it, I’ll read it, but I don’t print out anything. When I want fliers of my own, I go to another business and pay for the printing. Same with photographic prints, and the quality is better than anything I ever achieved trying to do it myself, however highly the photographic quality of a printer was touted, and despite those expensive ink cartridges.

More recently I stopped going online at all from home. Further liberation! Mornings and evenings are now free of Internet, Facebook, and e-mail. Sundays I don’t check into the virtual world at all, and when I have a weekday off, one morning coffeehouse session is sufficient to keep me feeling “connected.”

The pleasure of a peaceful, uninterrupted home life is its own reward. My father used to say, when I was a kid and the phone would ring during dinner, “If it’s important, they’ll call back.” In my adult household, we are artist and bookseller, not surgeon and veterinarian, so any emergency that requires our attention can be easily handled:

Leave a message. We’ll get back to you. Or write me a letter. That works, too.

Stocking stuffer???

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Do You Know What Makes YOU Happy?


A few research findings gleaned from STUMBLING ON HAPPINESS, by Daniel Gilbert (NY: Knopf, 2006):

Absences are difficult to perceive, thus difficult to imagine.

“Distance” in time, like spatial distance, smoothes out and erases details.

What we feel in the present, we expect to feel in the future.

Looking back, we regret inaction more often than action.

We remember highlights more vividly than slogs.

We remember how things ended better than the overall course.

Our imaginations exaggerate differences and overlook similarities.

We think we are much more different from other people than we really are.

It’s hard for us to benefit from the experiences of others because we think our experience will be different.

For all the reasons above (the foregoing is by no means an exhaustive list, but I skimmed over a lot of information in the book that wasn’t new to me), over and over, human beings misjudge how much future happiness or unhappiness a particular event or course of action will bring them. Gilbert is a psychologist, and a lot of what’s in this book is the kind of thing found in behavioral economics, that fascinating intersection of psychology, economics, and philosophy (ethics).

For the stubborn reader who will tend to brush aside research findings, toward the end of the book (following the last three points I’ve put in boldface above) Gilbert provides this kicker:
Because, if you are like most people, then like most people, you don’t know you’re like most people. Science has given us a lot of facts about the average person, and one of the most reliable of these facts is that the average person doesn’t see herself as average. Most students see themselves as more intelligent than the average student, most business managers see themselves as more competent than the average business manager, and most football players see themselves as having better “football sense” than their teammates. Ninety percent of motorists consider themselves to be safer-than-average drivers, and 94 percent of college professors consider themselves to be better-than-average teachers. Ironically, the bias toward seeing ourselves as better than average causes us to see ourselves as less biased than average, too. As one research team concluded, “Most of us appear to believe that we are more athletic, intelligent, organized, ethical, logical, interesting, fair-minded, and healthy—not to mention attractive—than the average person.”  
[BUT!!!} 
This tendency to think of ourselves as better than others is not necessarily a manifestation of our unfettered narcissism but may instead be an instance of a more general tendency to think of ourselves as different from others—often for better but sometimes for worse. When people are asked about generosity, they claim to perform a greater number of generous acts than others do; but when they are asked about selfishness, they claim to perform a greater number of selfish acts than others do. [Etc., etc.]
As a species, then, we are not all suffering from delusions of grandeur. (That’s a relief!) Asked to rate oneself on an easy task, most people say they’re superior to others, but asked how they would perform a difficult task, they generally rate themselves worse than others. As the author says, “We don’t always see ourselves as superior, but we almost always see ourselves as unique.”

And each of us is unique in our own experience, since our own experience is the only experience we ever have! Gilbert believes, however, that if we take scientific findings seriously, we’ll find plenty of reasons to learn from the experience of others, experience we never had or could have. To do so demands only that we recognize how much like other people we are.

On Monday morning, I heard the beginning of a story on NPR about a new smart phone app that would plug the user into an individualized research study on happiness. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, when the alert comes on you are asked to answer a number of questions, including what you’re doing, how you feel, and whether or not you have to be doing what you’re doing. (I forget the other questions. You can probably find this information somewhere online if you want to search for it.) The thing is, I was bustling around the house, getting ready for my day, and those questions alerted me to the fact that the radio voices were goading me into hurrying when I didn’t need to hurry. Summer’s over! Monday is a day off for me now! And I didn’t have to have the radio on, so I turned it—snapped it!—right off and instantly slowed down and felt more relaxed. Do I need an app to guide me to happiness? I don’t think so. Awareness is all that’s needed.

Later that day, when David and I (with Sarah in the backseat) had wandered and meandered our way deep into Benzie County, taking an unplanned, one-day vacation, I couldn’t help thinking about my mother’s report on the autumn trip she and my father took one year to New England. She said it was the most beautiful fall color she’d ever seen, and she never expected to see anything to equal what she saw then and there. Into my thoughts then came the distinction between ‘maximizers’ and ‘satisficers,’ the latter an awkward word that nevertheless captures pretty well my own approach to life, I think. Perhaps if I traveled to New England in the fall, the color there would so far exceed that of Michigan that Michigan would fall on my experiential rating scale from a 10 to a 7 or 8. The thing is, I am so perfectly satisfied with Michigan autumn that I feel no need to go in search of something better.

Similarly, on a trip out West one spring, David and I found ourselves on a winding mountain highway with views that took our breath away. The beautiful, inhuman immensity of the landscape went on and on until our souls were dizzy! We were and are, I guess, fully prepared to believe that the Grand Canyon experience, which we’ve never had, would eclipse that day’s revelations, but we felt more than completely satisfied with the experience we did have.

Then there were last winter’s ice caves out past Gill’s Pier. We didn’t go out on Lake Michigan to see them. Thirteen years before, there were ice caves out at the lighthouse, and we were fortunate enough to stumble out there by chance... to find all of Northport gathered at the shore... to be able to explore, right at the shoreline, caves of blue ice large enough to stand up in.... I know that last year’s caves were larger and more extensive and more varied and lasted longer. They were also much farther out on the frozen lake and harder to get to, and, since news of them had gone national, there were much bigger crowds. Everyone who went out said it was “worth it,” and I’m sure it was. At the same time, I’m satisfied to have had the ice cave experience I had.

And now all of this is reminding me of what so many people have said over the years in books about New York and Paris: “Oh, you should have been here [there] x number of years ago!” My father firmly believed that my Paris experience could never be as wonderful as his, and how many people have told you similar things about all kinds of places? “You should have been there then!” They were there then; you, poor thing, can only go now or in the future, i.e., too late!

Belief in a Golden Age of the past is one of mankind’s dearly held myths, difficult to demolish because it is immune to experience. Gilbert would say it depends on the second of my boldfaced points above. When I imagine myself living in 18th-century America, I focus on those aspects of life that appeal to me, forgetting all the difficult mundane, everyday details I would encounter should I be able to transport myself back in time. Woody Allen captured this belief brilliantly in his film about Paris that has the writer protagonist transported back to the postwar period he so longs to have known, only to find people there longing for the earlier Belle Epoque, and so forth.

In the past year I’ve seen friends lose jobs, lose houses and businesses, go through bankruptcy and divorce and chemotherapy, and the way they’ve met those challenges has been very enlightening. They go on. They find happiness in unexpected places, sometimes from surprising sources. Gilbert’s research confirms this. Imagining future losses, we believe we will be devastated, but the truth is that we human beings are more resilient than we imagine, and that’s a good lesson to take away from this book, from our own experience, and from the experience of others. 

For the record, I'm happy that my parents each had a chance to see Paris (they were there separately, at different times) and that they were able to make a trip together to see fall color in New England.




Monday, October 27, 2014

Another Fall Week That Was



The last full week in October (we’ll have a partial week leading up to and ending with Halloween) was noteworthy in many ways. Here in Leelanau County – in my part of it, anyway – we had our first hard frost overnight Tuesday-Wednesday and woke to a transformed world. But after that, temperatures did not stay in the 20s, but began to rise, and by Saturday we were well launched into a beautiful Indian summer, with plenty of fall color left for residents and visitors.

Bookstores make for odd bedfellows
Writer and radio host Aaron Stander interviewed two authors who have graced the premises of Dog Ears Books, Benjamin Busch and Lynne Rae Perkins. Both writers gave outstanding interviews, and I was proud to speak and write of them in the possessive. Lynne Rae quoted me on the air, which was an extra kick, and Ben had some very important things to say about Iraq. (Follow that "two authors" link to hear both radio interviews. For an unedited version of Ben's thoughts, see the October 2014 issue of Harper's Magazine.) Meanwhile, at the bookstore, Ice Caves of Leelanau and Nuts to You continued to be bestsellers, and I got the first of Ken Scott’s 2015 Leelanau calendar, something those of us here in the county all anticipate eagerly each year.

On Friday, three members of my family and a friend who’s become part of the family arrived for a weekend visit. In honor of my mother’s and my son’s birthdays earlier in the month (even though my son does not eat sweets, including cake), I gathered up my courage and made the fresh tomato cake from Jayne Robinson’s wonderful book, The Cake Chronicles. My rendition is not the most photographic in the world, but I assure you, Jayne, it tasted great! One person in particular requested a very large piece and then said of the spatula, “You’re not going to throw that in with the dirty dishes, are you? Hand it over!” My sister commented on the fact that we could actually taste the fresh tomatoes – and I must say to anyone who doubts this makes for a good-tasting cake, that it is a delicious cake, very rich with brown sugar, dates and raisins, and of course the cream cheese frosting.

One layer

Frosting

Frosted 2-layer cake

Piece of cake

Left after first night 
My son and I got out early Saturday morning with Sarah on one of the season’s most spectacular days. Really, I’d say Saturday was downright perfect, with balmy temperature and bright sunshine and plenty of fall color all around. That afternoon my mother and sister took a color tour of their own, and we all had a rendez-vous at the farm later on.

Sunday was my day to play with family: breakfast together at the farm, long walk with Sarah and my sister, color tour and visit to Dennos Museum with mother, sister, and son, sandwiches and pie at Shine Cafe at Horizon Books (and complete tour of bookstore, naturally) before another rendez-vous, six strong, to attend the a focus group premiere showing of our friend George Colburn's documentary, "Navajo Code Talkers: In Their Own Words," at downtown Traverse City's State Theatre.



My family wound up our wonderful, event-filled day with a delicious Italian meal around the corner from bookstore and theatre. Cannoli for Monday morning's breakfast? Sybaritic!



On a serious note, I will have another post soon on one of the major topics of conversation, reading, and viewing over the weekend: What do we mean by "warrior"?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

How's Your Hungarian?


All I can tell of this book’s contents by looking into it comes from the photographs and other illustrations. On the title page, for instance, there is the word “Natura,” which is clearly the publisher’s name but also gives a clue to what’s inside the book. And sure enough, in the many pages following there are photographs of forests and trees, mountains and fields, wildflowers and fish, even microscopic aquatic fauna.







Below is a graphic representation I take to show different microclimates at varying altitudes, but there are also photographs of human dwellings and other buildings.






(I'll spare you the maps and other graphs.) Searching online, I find that this Hungarian edition (1981) is available in six libraries around the world, and I can find information on Lake Balaton, claimed to be “Europe’s largest freshwater lake.” That linked site provided hints to more of what I found in the book, e.g., the medieval ruins. Or do these ruins look even older than the Middle Ages? Prehistoric, perhaps? The answer lies open in the text, but I cannot tell what I’m looking at. I see cultivation of grapes, fishing, logging, charming thatched cottages and old-fashioned farm wagons. But how much of this is historical, and how much is current?

It was not myself-as-reader but myself-as-avid bookseller who snatched up this book! Now, to find a bookstore customer who reads Hungarian!

Selling a book in German on -- I’m guessing -- housekeeping will probably be easier. Here it is:



Wouldn’t Neuzeit be “new times," implying modern? I’m sure the maid’s uniform was modern when the book was first published, but the maid and the little table set up for coffee (not tea: this is Germany, not England) look quite early 20th century to me. I would do better picking out a word here and there except that they are all in the old script. Ah, but here’s part of the title illuminated by an online search: Domestic Science!

Now if anyone is still with me – or has impatiently scrolled down to see if there was going to be a point to all this – that person might be asking, Is she out of her mind? So here is the place where I remind that reader that I have been a bookseller for over 21 years. Surely now you see that your question is rhetorical, don’t you?


Saturday, October 18, 2014

Letter to a Friend in Pennsylvania on the Rewards of Immersion




Dear Ed,

Comment ça va chez vous? Très bien, j’espère! Nous sommes en bonne forme ici. Ed, I know you read “Books in Northport” regularly, and today’s topic is one I thought you would especially appreciate, so I thought directing it to you might help me put it together. Hope you don’t mind?

Our “intrepid Ulysses group” (as I refer to them, because we first got together to discuss, in seven or eight sessions, Joyce’s monumental work) met recently to talk about Voltaire’s Candide and Zadig, and at the end of that meeting we agreed that five of us would get together in November for a session on Proust, and the whole group would reconvene in early December. That tells you that while a few of us really wanted to read (or re-read, as was the case for several of us) Swann’s Way, the others just as adamantly did not want to do so. And I am not casting stones, by the way! When the group voted to read Faulkner, I took a time-out myself....

Anyway, I re-read of Proust back in August, worried that if I put it off until later, I wouldn’t get through the entire work again in time, but now October is here, and our meeting yet a month in the future, so must I re-read it again? This is always the big question: read so far ahead that the book is not fresh in one’s memory when the group gets together, or wait until the last minute and risk not finishing in time? But then I had a lucky brain wave: this time I’d re-read it in French!

Which brings me back to you and your recent purchase of Flirting with French and your concerns and doubts about your ability ever to be able to master the language. I stand by my statement that immersion is a necessary condition for learning to relax into a second language and to develop some feeling for its nuances. Of course, the younger one is when first immersed, the more successfully the bond will be formed. And, alas! Years spent away from any cultural-linguistic milieu, whether that of one’s first or second language, but especially a second, tend to blunt the edge of mastery. (A graduate school friend of mine from Yugoslavia told me that she and her husband were “losing” their Serbo-Croatian, as they only spoke English in the U.S., even at home with each other.) When young, I had high hopes of someday learning Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, and Russian, but now if I can hang onto my English and French and a smattering of Spanish words and phrases as I ease into old age, I’ll be well satisfied.

But now I’m going to go off into what will probably seem at first a digression, i.e., poetry. Many Americans, I’ve noticed, readers of fiction and nonfiction, are downright afraid of poetry. They turn away from it with a shudder, convinced they’ll never be able to comprehend the poet’s words, and this seems a terrible shame, for they are missing so much beauty, so many startling new visions of the world. “Don’t analyze every line for meaning,” I urge those reluctant ones. “Think of it as a warm spring rain, and just let yourself stand out in it and get soaked.” You see what I’m saying, right? Immersion again. The sound and feel and rhythm – before worrying about the meaning. After all, isn’t this how all children first learn language? Definitions and rules come much later. Analysis and explanation come at the end, not the beginning.

So as I’ve already read Swann’s Way in English at least three times and maybe more and once in French, this time in reading the French I am not trying to translate in my head at all but simply immerse myself, swim in it, let it rain down on me. When a word comes along that I don’t recognize, I go blithely on without consulting a dictionary. Certain constructions common in French and never used in English slow me down from time to time, but my goal is always to keep swimming. The story is familiar enough to me that I recognize scenes as they come along, and the words and phrases that are clear to me keep me from drowning.

It is so beautiful! I can hardly believe that for so many years of my life I said to so many people, very self-righteously, as if I’d “seen through” generations of less clear-sighted readers’ passion, “Life is too short to read Proust”! Now I would say that life is too short not to read Proust!

Our past, enchanted, immobilized and imprisoned in material objects unless and until, by chance (le hasard), we encounter it again, in some evanescent taste or smell (l’odeur ou le saveur), those senses which, like some souls (comme des âmes), carry the entire immense edifice of memory. The man sips a spoonful of tea containing crumbs from the cookie he has dunked, and suddenly he is filled with joy. A moment’s reflection makes clear to him that the joy, the truth, is neither in the cookie nor in the tea but in himself. No, it was not in him but was him. ...[C]ette essence n’était pas en moi, elle était moi. ... Il est clair que la vérité que je cherche n’est pas en lui, mais en moi. The past was yet alive, present, in his memories, in images (not limited to visual, bien sur) deep within (au fond de moi).

David can be transported back to childhood by crisp bacon. Dried apricots do that trick for me, as does the sharp perfume of a small, nondescript weed that takes me back to driveway make-believe, at my parents’ home and my grandmother’s little place in the country. For Proust, it was the petite madeleine that was the key to an entire era of his life, his summers in Combray. I read his detailed memories of the stained glass windows of the church at Combray and remember enduring long sermons in my mother’s church by imagining myself a tiny creature with wings (not an angel, mind you, or I would be too big in scale), flying among the intricate Gothic spires of the altarpiece carved by German immigrants. However grey the sky, it was always beautiful in the church, Proust wrote.

The church, his old great-aunt’s eccentricities and those of her maid, the shopping and the meals, his longing for the theatre, an unplanned visit the boy makes to his uncle with no idea in the world that it will be their last meeting.... Immersion! You immerse yourself—in poetry, in another language—and then will come, with poetry some personally salient metaphor, with French some strikingly beautiful word, with either a phrase that goes straight to your heart, and that metaphor or word or phrase is a door leading into another world. Proust describes the theatre posters he saw in the street as a child in terms of their colors. How do you see in your mind the color called lie de vin? Maybe it isn’t even the words but only the music (to me, listening to French is like listening to music), as in the musical phrase le roucoulement du colombe. You hear the dove when you murmur the words aloud.



Yesterday when I began writing this letter, Ed, it was a quiet, dreary, rainy Friday afternoon. I’d had several sales earlier in the day, but somehow when the woman was buying the children’s reader from 1930 and I was writing the date on the sales slip, for the first time it registered with me that the next day (now today) would be (now is) the birthday of my #1 favorite philosopher, Henri Bergson, né à Paris, 1859, the last of the great metaphysical dualists.

Bergson argued so brilliantly against materialism that William James thought there was no longer a need to read Kant: “Bergson,” he wrote, “has resolved all the antinomies.” Bergson’s chief contribution was to bring the attention of philosophy to what the phenomenologists after him called “lived time,” as distinguished from the uniformly measured time of clocks. His own term was ‘duration’ (la durée), and he insisted that duration was real. “Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances,” such that “the past in its entirety is prolonged into the present and abides there actual and acting.” Past images living as memories; consciousness enlarged by an increasing field of choice which in its turn enlarges consciousness; the living being as a center of action, a focus of redirected force, a center of “creative evolution” – all this Bergson proposed over and against the deterministic materialism still, oddly, in vogue today.

Today the 155th birthday of Henri Bergson, and Bergson was married to a cousin of Marcel Proust, and I love seeing the thoughts of each in the work of the other. I’m inexplicably glad that Bergson’s birthday did not slip by me unnoticed this year.

Alors, heureuse anniversaire, Henri -- et bon courage, Edouard! We’re here now. Cette petite tranche de maintenant (hold it in your hand!) est à nous d’en profiter!


A la prochaine,

toujours amicalement,

Pamela





Friday, October 17, 2014

Even Stones Are Not Forever


The moving of stones is the course of history, and of rubble and forgetting.
 – W. S. Merwin, The Mays of Ventadorn (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2002)
Friends of ours were in Scotland recently. As always when visiting the U.K., they spent quite a bit of time searching for megalithic sites, ruined abbeys, ancient churches, and especially for stone circles. Kilmore Stone Circle, thousands of years old, they had found years ago, hidden away in a dark pine forest, within its own clearing in the forest. On this trip several such destinations eluded them (one obviously fallen victim to the clear-cutting of a pine forest), but they did at last succeed in reaching hidden-away Loch Buie Circle and felt more than repaid for all their efforts.

Stone “ruins” in my neighborhood are not ancient by European time measure, but an old farmhouse fallen into its foundation in the 1960s and overgrown since with vegetation gives me some feeling of communing with those who came before us here. Here is one I saw for the first time last Monday, on a walk with a friend. It is very difficult to photograph, overgrown as it is with vegetation. Photograph at left is close-up of one side wall; those below I tried with fish-eye mode to get in more of the walls.



The trail at the new Clay Cliffs Natural Area north of Leland winds back and forth with long switchbacks up a gentle grade, with only short steep portions, and it comes out at a platform over Lake Michigan, giving onto an almost aerial view. The beach is a long way down, and you don't get there from here.




In my memory of that day, my first on the Clay Cliffs trail, however, the most vivid image will be one not captured by my camera. Beyond the undercut edge of the clay bluff, a closely curled leaf caught my eye. Its erratic jerking and twisting could not be accounted for by breezes, as other leaves nearby were still or, at most, gently drifting through the air, and so, abandoning our survey of the vast surface of Lake Michigan before us, my friend and I watched the dancing leaf, just beyond our reach. We were spellbound, entranced, mesmerized, and I convinced my friend that there must be a caterpillar wrapped up in the leaf, spinning a coccoon. “But it’s hanging in midair!” “No, it must have spun a filament to hang its coccoon from.” My friend called this my ‘hypothesis,’ so we looked as closely as we could but the filament I had ‘hypothesized’ remained invisible to our eyes.

The leaf continued to gyrate in the air, sometimes spinning, sometimes jerking up and down. I was sure the gyrations could only be caused by something inside the leaf, a creature that had pulled the leaf around itself like a cloak and was now at work spinning a winter home, its spinning movements causing the entire leaf to swing. That original silken thread must be very strong, my friend and I marveled. We were so caught up in the drama that had we brought chairs along with us we might have stayed an hour or more, watching this real-life nature documentary. We spoke of coming back in a few days to check up on the creature’s progress but at last started on the return leg of the path.









Most of the trees on this land have grown up since it was originally cleared, perhaps only since it’s no longer farmed, but one field remains open, cut for hay each year by a farmer on the other side of north Lake Leelanau. From that hayfield, one can see across clear to St. Wenceslaus Church. During the winter, did the original farm family take a horse and wagon across the ice and up the hill to attend mass?



As it happened, the day I met my friend to walk the trail I’d just that morning finished reading Merwin’s book about medieval troubador poets and his own life and explorations in rural southcentral France. He writes of finding an old farmhouse, buried in vegetation, such as was the farmhouse I was to see only a few hours after reading his description:
The thicket of brambles had grown over the path to the front door, which faced south toward the road, and had made its way up onto the roof, into the tiles. To the left of the parched front door buried in its thorny tangle, another, older doorway, like a barn entrance, had been bricked up.... I peered through the hole into the half-dark of an empty, ruined room.
He writes also of the neighborhood chateau (something my northern Michigan neighborhood definitely lacks), built and rebuilt over the centuries, its stones at times sold and carted off to pay the taxes, finding their way here and there in other buildings of the region -- here part of a barn, elsewhere adorning a house, etc. Trees and stones: we tend to think of mountains and stone buildings as fixtures, but Merwin tells us differently; like forests, like orchards, they rise up and are taken town, either by man or by nature.
Stones lie wherever they are as though they had always been there. Our awareness of our own pace in time keeps us from recognizing that the motions of stones are akin to those of snowflakes and molecules, and to us the moment in which they lie seems like an unchanging condition, and they come to exemplify permanence. So the Venus de Milo looks to us as tough she had never had arms at all, and the ruin appears to have been the truth of the chateau from the beginning.
Merwin was only in his 20s, a young poet just setting out in life, when, thanks to a bequest from a relative and his own frugality in investing it and leaving the principal untouched, he managed to buy an old farmhouse in this magic, troubador-haunted region. He tells us that, for him,
...the awareness of the deep past was inseparable from the lure of the land, which soon held me there, and the structures themselves appeared to me as palimpsests of unsounded age....
This, I think, is what it means to love a place. One loves its history as much as the trees and wildflowers and hills of one’s own lifetime. To live in a place, truly, means living with its past as well as its present. And isn't that a lovely idea, the structures as palimpsests?

I was particularly happy with Merwin’s observation that the “crumpled” landscape of the Quercy was yet farmed, when first he came there, by the practice of ‘polyculture,’ or what we in the midwestern United States know as diversified agriculture. Isolated as the communities were, it made sense for them to be self-sufficient. Besides, their land was in no way suited to large fields and heavy machinery. Here in Leelanau Township, as well, farms here tend to be very human in scale, and recently there has been a turnaround across the entire country, with more and more small farms coming into production under the hands of a young generation. This is not “turning back the clock.” It is working with rather than against nature – and living as a human being rather than as a slave to mechanical industry – and preparing a happy, healthy future for generations to come, as well as enjoying our present good fortune.

Stones may move or be moved, over the course of the earth’s long history, by nature or by man, but we are here for only a short time, and while here, “we must cultivate our garden.” 


Thursday, October 16, 2014

“We Must Cultivate Our Garden”


The latest self-assigned reading project for our intrepid Ulysses group was a double-header: Candide and Zadig, by François-Marie Arouet, known to the world as Voltaire. Comparing notes when we met to discuss Voltaire, we learned that all of us had read Candide first. It is, after all, Voltaire’s most famous work, and in the Signet Classic paperback edition we read (translated by Daniel M. Frame, with introduction by John Iverson and afterword by Thaisa Frank), Candide gets top billing on the cover and is the first work in the book, Zadig and Selected Stories trailing after.

Voltaire was no stodgy writer. When one member of our group observed, a trifle disparagingly, “He’s no Proust,” another agreed enthusiastically and gratefully. (Only five of the nine of us will meet in November to discuss Swann’s Way, the others begging off.) Voltaire’s outlandish adventure tales move right along, calamities and reversals of fortune piling up so fast it makes a reader’s head spin. This is not ‘realism,’ magic or otherwise, but sharp satire.

So, like the others in the group, I read Candide first, and when I reached the last page and the final words, I was overcome with deep satisfaction. Candide’s teacher, Pangloss, having learned nothing from all his experiences, is still holding forth with his metaphysics of optimism:
“All events are linked together in the best of all possible worlds; for after all, if you had not been expelled from a fine castle with great kicks in the backside for love of Mademoiselle Cunégonde, if you had not been subjected to the Inquisition, if you had not traveled about America on foot, if you had not given the Baron a great blow with your sword, if you had not lost all your sheep from the good country of Eldorado, you would not be here eating candied citrons and pistachios.”  
“That is very well said,” replied Candide, “but we must cultivate our garden.”
I loved that, and the morning I finished Candide, I posted a line or two on Facebook about how satisfying I found the protagonist’s final words. One of my friends objected. He felt the end of the book counseled withdrawal from the world and a retreat from action. (What is the word I’m forgetting here? The entire Fb exchange appears to have vanished into thin air, including the message I sent my friend.) I hadn’t read it that way at all! Metaphorical, yes, but meaning -- ???

Set that aside for a moment. I'll come back to it.

Turning to Zadig felt like coming down a few steps on the literary-historical ladder. The character Zadig was nearly perfect in the beginning – not only handsome and rich but also wise, generous, etc., etc., etc. – and rewarded in the end. He had a hero’s challenges (ho-hum) but not much to learn. Well, he did have a little something to learn, not in how to behave or how to live or how to counsel others but how to view the world. The most intriguing and bothersome passage to me in all of Zadig was his conversation with the hermit who transformed into an angel, come to enlighten him.

Immediately before the following exchange, the old hermit threw a widow’s nephew into the river, where he drowned. When Zadig protested, the hermit said that the young man “whose neck Providence has wrung would have murdered his aunt in a year and you in two.” The hermit then sprouts wings, Zadig falls reverentially to the ground, and the following conversation takes place.
“Men,” said the angel Jesrad, “pass judgment on everything without knowing anything; of all men you were the one who most deserved to be enlightened.” 
Zadig asked his permission to speak. “I mistrust myself,” he said, “but may I venture to ask you to clear up one doubt for me? Would it not have been better to have corrected that child and made him virtuous than to drown him?”  
Jesrad replied, “If he had been virtuous and if he had lived, his destiny was to be assassinated himself, together with the wife he was to marry and the child that was to be born to them.”  
“But,” said Zadig, “what? Then it is necessary that there be crimes and misfortunes? And the misfortunes fall on the good!”  
“The wicked,” replied Jesrad, “are always unhappy. They serve to test a small number of just men scattered over the earth, and there is no evil out of which some good is not born.”  
“But,” said Zadig, “what if there were nothing but good, and no evil?” 
“Then,” replied Jesrad, “this earth would be another earth, the chain of events would be another order of wisdom; and that other order, which would be perfect, can exist only in the eternal abode of the Supreme Being, whom evil cannot approach. He has created millions of worlds, not one of which can resemble another. This immense variety is an attribute of his immense power. There are not two leaves of a tree on earth, or two globes in the infinite fields of the heavens, that are alike; and everything you see on the little atom on which you were born had to be, in its appointed place and time, according to the immutable orders of him who embraces all. Men think that this child who has just perished fell into the water by chance, that it was by a similar chance that that house burned down; but there is no chance; all is test, or punishment, or reward, or foreseeing."
Is the angel Jesrad a precursor of Pangloss? All that is, must be? But Pangloss, for all his contorted reasoning, did not go so far as to see reward and punishment in necessity! Pangloss told Candide, “...private misfortunes make up the general good, so that the more private misfortunes there are, the more all is well.” It is not that those visited by misfortune have been punished. Besides, pointed out a sharp-eyed group member, the angel goes on to say that Zadig has been sent to change the fisherman’s destiny! Change it? Change destiny? Is it destiny, or isn’t it?

John Iverson writes that Voltaire was troubled by the philosophical system of Leibniz, “who reasoned that if God was perfect then He must have created a perfect world.” My French edition of Candide has an introduction (in English) by Julian Eugene White, who claims that Voltaire was better acquainted with Alexander Pope’s “perversion” of the Liebnizian philosophy reconciling the existence of evil with God’s perfect goodness. The general view, at any rate, still assumed everything in nature to have a purpose, or what Aristotle called a “final cause.” This is not ‘cause’ as we understand it today, coming before the effect and bringing it about, but one serving as a goal, a reason “in order to” rather than a reason “because of,” if you will.

At this point, one group member took off after Aristotle, blaming him for centuries of convoluted rationalizations on the part of the Roman Catholic Church, but I’m not going to take up that fight. Instead I’ve looked up birth and death dates for Voltaire, the three giants of European rationalism, and the triumvirate of European empiricists.

Rene Descartes, 1596-1650
Baruch Spinoza, 1632-77
John Locke, 1632-1704
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, 1646-1716
Francois-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, 1694-1778
David Hume, 1711-1835
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-78

Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz are the rationalists, and to understand the world, they simply reasoned about it. No telescopes or microscopes needed – an armchair would do. Descartes, by means of a famous thought experiment, demonstrated to his own satisfaction that he could always trust his own God-given mind to lead him to the truth. Cartesian confidence was clearly at work in the reasonings of Voltaire’s Doctor Pangloss.

But John Locke, the first of the empiricists, was born ahead of Voltaire, and David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were of Voltaire’s generation. Voltaire, then, is on the cusp. The authority of the rationalists is waning, and scientific experiment and the authority of experience are coming to the fore. Candide, malgré lui, is an empiricist: although his only goal was to be reunited with his beloved Cunégonde, he learns from his travels and his experiences. Interestingly, one of the things he learns is to judge and think for himself, which was a very Cartesian proposition, but let’s not think too much about that....

Here’s something I found myself wondering: How optimistic, really, was the philosophy of Doctor Pangloss or Alexander Pope or Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz? It was not, surely, the optimism of a happy modern individual, sure that things will always go right in his or her life. The optimism, if one wants to continue calling it that, was instead a faith that the clockwork of the world was running on some rational basis. Thus, early in the story, when Pangloss reappears exhibiting all the ravages of venereal disease, he reasons that his personal sufferings are all necessary to go into making up the general good. Punishment? No, simple necessity! – So what I wonder is, why could we not call this fatalism?

And now, looking back at Zadig (1748), don’t the angel’s pronouncements – pronouncements the author seemed to endorse at the time of writing that work – seem only ever so slightly improved upon in the philosophy of Pangloss, the latter philosophy one that the author at the time of writing Candide (1759) clearly rejected? Pangloss may have thought it “not fitting” for a philosopher to recant an earlier opinion, but the philosophe Voltaire, it seems, was not ashamed to learn and move forward.

The group member who noted the inconsistency in the angel’s lesson on destiny was concerned with Voltaire’s opinion of his imaginary Eldorado, the land where all goods were freely shared, no courts of law needed, and God only thanked, never petitioned. This was the only place Candide visited, she observed, that the author never seemed to mock. Was this, then, his Utopia, his ideal society? Was it a possible society? I asked. Wouldn’t it get boring? a couple others wondered. We left the question unresolved.

But now, let's come back to our sheep. For me, the most burning question was the meaning of “Il faut cultiver notre jardin,” or, “We must cultivate our garden.” Admitting the phrase to be ambiguous, White nevertheless chooses what he calls “the more optimistic interpretation” (!), which he articulates in the following proposition: “Practical action should be substituted for ... vain speculation.” White argues passionately that in the latter part of Voltaire’s life, “cultivating his garden” took the form of unremitting battle for humanitarian causes, unceasingly writing pamphlets against all manner of intolerance and injustice. Écrasons l’infâme (“Let us crush infamy!”) is hardly the slogan of a man who has retreated from the world to live complacently behind his garden walls! Thus the author’s life supports the pragmatist interpretation.

Il faut cultiver notre jardin.
Écrasons l’infâme!

If not identical, the two phrases are certainly compatible, n'est-ce pas? I would even say quite compatible.

Voltaire’s garden was the world. It was not that of Eden, where no work was necessary. And as for Voltaire, so for us: our garden is the world we have, it admits of improvement, and it is up to us to do the work. At least, that is the lesson I take from Candide. And to my mind, he could not have chosen a happier metaphor.

This past year I have cultivated my bookstore garden very well, I think. Dog Ears Books hosted fewer events, but every single one of them was a roaring success. I have used this blog, at least from time to time, as a platform for important social and environmental causes. My vegetable garden, on the other hand, the literal garden in my life, was the victim of shameful neglect. I’m not happy about that. I can’t do everything, but I hope to have a real garden again next year -- even with the realization that, for my bookstore customers and guest authors, the metaphorical garden of my bookstore is undoubtedly the more important ground to be worked.