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12 February 2021

§ Peace & Quiet
§ Butter on the Train


In the nearly fifteen years since I actively maintained this Web site, I have forgotten almost everything I ever knew about HTML — aside from the few scraps that come in handy for blogging. So my contributions will be rudimentary for a while, at least from the architectural perspective. I expect that broken links will turn up like potholes, but I am not about to try to "start fresh." Instead, I do what Renaissance Romans did: I scour the ruins for what I can use. The old site, of course, is not itself in ruins, but it is something of a historical document.

Since this is not a blog, but a collection of pages, there are important decisions to make about what to preserve and what to overwrite. I've opted for the latter today, and without giving the matter much thought; what I wrote on Monday, when for the first time in all these years I uploaded new texts, had no intrinsic value, but rather was the sort of thing that you write when you wonder if the roof is going to cave in. ("Help! I am trapped in a fortune-cookie factory!") A couple of days later, I feel almost like a man of leisure. ("Take this down, Miss Parkinson.") In fact I am far too at ease to think of anything to say. Deathless paragraphs do not yet loom.

Then there's the vital matter of where to put the new stuff, at the top of the page, or at the bottom? I rather like the results of the experiment that I evolved last year at The Daily Blague, but even that arrangement requires adding new pages from time to time, and sending old ones to some kind of archive. Intimately attached to this issue is the question of what's worth keeping? I think of all the boxes of photographs that I've still got on hand after years of culling, most of which will never mean anything to anybody else. But writing is precisely unlike photography in this regard. I wouldn't want to push this thought too far, but, in a way, writing is nothing but labels and contextual explanations.

I'm beginning to think that this entire passage belongs on the "Housekeeping" page, to which I've as yet contributed nothing. And perhaps that's where it will end up.

§ Peace & Quiet

How quaint these words have come to sound! The state that they connote seems so unfamiliar to younger people that it doesn't occur to them to miss it. What astounds me is their captivation by screens. How can they believe that they'll miss anything if they slip theirr phones into pockets and purses? It is an addiction, surely, as toxic as any other.

In the current Bookforum, Marco Roth reviews a posthumous memoir by Richard Wollheim, an English philosopher whose creative or imaginative life appears to have been nursed by illness and convalescence. Sick children were confined to darkened rooms, sometimes with books, sometimes not, but in either case put at the mercy of their minds. Roth writes,

[Wollheim] leaves it to the reader to state the obvious: that the germs that grew into the freedom-loving, art-loving philosopher began with other literal germs. Without them, he would have beenunable to grow apart from the bewildering conformist world that he begins thinking about at he moment he was forcibly separated from it. The contrast with our own moment of medically mandated inactivity and mutual isolation is stark. Bombarded by stimuli, digital viruses, voices and imaged from all of our screens, we lack the perverse freedom of the convalescent and the late-bourgeois faith in the healing inviolability of the organism left to its privacy. (28 1 37)

Why does Roth sound helpless?

§ Butter on the Train

Joan Didion is a very gifted writer, her sense of rhythm almost perfectly congruent with her façon de penser. She is also, however, a glamorous woman, although this is overlooked partly because Americans still can't believe that an intelligent person would take the time to be chic and partly because Didion's style is severely understated. Didion has always known — or shown in her work that she knows — how to present herself as a little ahead of up-to-date, or in other words, cool.

For all her apparent hauteur, Didion is not an overt belittler. She does not trumpet her achievements. On the contrary, she denies them. Aside from the high quality of her denial, there is nothing original about this tactic. Anglophones have been doing it for centuries, certainly since the reign of George III. We suspect that such modesty is false, but its stylishness wins us over, and we, also Anglophones, are always glad to hear that our betters are no better.

In her review of Joan Didion's new collection of essays, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, Durga Chew-Bose writes,

Her memory of studying Paradise Lost on the commute between Sacramento and Berkeley, where she was an undergraduate, is rerouted by another, more sensory recollection: "I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the Earth at the center of his universe ... a topic about which I wrote 10,000 words that summer, but I casn still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco's dining car."

There are other ways to make it clear that she has forgotten something that was once pretty important to her (if only for temporary, "academic" purposes); she needn't advertise the oblivion quite so pungently. But we find oblivion endearing, and of course her endorsement puts us at ease about our own sloppiness.

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