Monday, September 28, 2009

Flaubert's quote, I think

Feeling fragmented and fractured and unfocused of late (books & bees, bees & books, with forays into labels for lip balms, harvesting beets, and the mystery of inedible, decorative gourds) I started thinking about the Flaubert quote.
But what exactly did he say?
This is what I recalled: “Live like a bourgeois so that you can be wild in your fiction.”
But then I found this: “Live like a bourgeois, think like a god.” Which seemed to me very different, and not what I was looking for. So I kept looking.
And found this variation: “One’s existence should be in two parts: one should live like a bourgeois and think like a demigod.”
And also this: “Be violent and original in your art, live like a bourgeois."
Which turns out to be the closest to the French.

Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire comme un bourgeois, afin d’être violent et original dans vos oeuvres.

If you ever crave a dose of Flaubert and cannot read Madame Bovary or Bouvard and Pécuchet one more time, I cannot recommend strongly enough his Selected Letters, edited by Francis Steegmuller. (Who was married to Shirley Hazzard, a writer I admire inordinately; to whom I once wrote a fan letter. And she wrote back.)

Friday, September 25, 2009

The swarm that didn't happen

After a long morning of recovering from the previous night’s book party with Hubert van Toots in the Library at the Hagiographers Club with a relic, (If you don’t get the reference, you obviously haven’t read the book.) I was finally about to sit down & work. When outside my window I espied thousands of bees flying in that apparently random yet purposeful way they have only when they are swarming. My desk window is quite close to the bay window in the living room where the observation hive lives, and as you may recall, the observation hive has been acting strangely of late. (The dearth of brood. Then the hasty and mysterious dispatch of the newly installed marked Queen. Reginicide?)
I looked and indeed the bees were bearding the extended runway from the observation hive. I ran over to check the hive itself, and – this was the strangest part – it was completely empty. There was not a bee anywhere, not even a single lone bee emerging from a single honeycomb cell.

Of course I immediately called CSB. Sit tight, he said. Go back to work. I normally take unmitigated delight in a swarm (something like a Ringhead at Bayreuth) but in this case I had mixed feelings, because the observation hive’s population was so small to begin with and because of the season (autumn has just begin) which is most definitely not swarming season.
There was nothing to be done.
I stood still among the dancing, careening, swooping bees. My eyes are not good enough to discern a direction. I waited for them to alight on a nearby branch and gather.
I waited in vain.
The bees dissipated into the upper regions.
I returned to my desk.

About an hour later I forlornly went to see the observation hive, and …the bees had returned. All of them.
Did they contemplate swarming and then reconsider mid-flight?
Did something scare them from their comfortable home chez nous?
I have no idea.

One of the odder things I have noted about swarms, or swarming, is that this phenomenon, this brilliant divide-and-increase technique of the honeybees, is always used metaphorically in a negative way. A recent cursory search came up with these examples:
Swarming as a terrorist technique in Mumbai (Times Op-Ed, 2/2009);
Swarming lobbyists (Times, 11/08)
Swarming to characterize E-bay’s takeover strategy (Times, 8/07)
Swarming swindlers (Times, 11/07)
Perhaps more significantly, in NO cases were swarms used to describe behavior viewed as positive, or persons or groups regarded as benign.

Segueing in the most arbitrary fashion, from a swarm that did not occur, to a roman à clef that is not:

At the aforementioned lovely book party my dear friend and gracious host, Paco, pointed out that despite our long friendship and history together, he has never found himself as a character in one of my books. And – this is the remarkable part – he lamented this fact!
I know Paco quite well and did not expect to be surprised by his remarks (honored, delighted, mortified, chagrined maybe), but this did surprise me because the truth is that certain people who think they appear in my stories are not pleased. They object to being in the book, and then they object because I got it wrong! And despite all my reassurances that I write fiction and that the characters really are fictional (I’ve even been told they are “all lies” as if that were a problem) the objections continue.

A former relative (how’s that for an awkward epithet?) was fearful that she or my ex would appear in Absent a Miracle and so, long before the book was available for sale, she bought an Advance Review Copy on E-bay.
(Pity the poor reviewer with stacks of ARCs clamoring for shelf space. And then, mirabile dictu, E-Bay) According to my ex I should be flattered because she (former relative) actually finished the book. Was this meant as a comment on the quality of the book or on her reading skill?

In my long ago short novel, Expecting, the narrator had a brother. I have 3 brothers and all three of them objected to the fact that they were not identifiably in the book and that I had lumped all brothers into one generic brother.

What’s a writer to do?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Do you love it?

Sculpture by William Logan.
Photo by David Goldfarb, MD
Question by SQD.

Ungulates abroad

The story of Saint Eustace is of particular interest to hunters and historians. He is the patron saint of hunters. Yet Butler characterizes his story as a "worthless legend." He has no dates. According to the worthless legend, Eustace was a general under the Roman emperor Trajan(AD 53-117. One day while out hunting, Eustace was approached by a stag bearing a crucifix between his antlers. The stag in question had a very large rack. Either the stag or the crucifix spoke to Eustace, who was immediately converted. He then converted his wife and sons, so that quite soon the whole family was martyred together in a rather cruel and creative manner: they were placed inside a bronze bull and roasted to death. Saint Eustace became one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, a group of saints especially invoked in Europe during the Black Plague.
The Catholic church - no stranger to unlikely stories of miraculous appearances - has in this case agreed with Butler's estimation and removed Eustace from the calendar.

But that did not stop me from thinking about Saint Eustace yesterday as we drove north on the Saw Mill Parkway (in the correct direction I am happy to say) and saw a rather large deer lying on the shoulder, peaceful and unbloodied. But for the stiffness of its legs he might have been resting. Having disposed of a few dead raccoons of late I found myself wondering which agency was responsible for the removal of the carcass. State, county or town? Police or Public Works? Health department? Who will get the antlers. Could this have been the same deer who was greedily nibbling our apple trees earlier this summer?

Friday, September 18, 2009

So, is honey kosher?

A couple of days ago I took Let it Bee™ honey to a CSA/Food Co-op (Community Sustainable Agriculture) in White Plains. When the organizer asked me to bring honey to the CSA, she didn't mention that it took place in a Temple, not that it matters, but it did raise the question: Is honey kosher?
So there I was was with our honey, between Adamah (“Young Jewish Farmers Changing the World One Pickle at a Time”) and Kosher Cheese and Kosher Wine. And it was only when I suggested to the cheese vendor that I trade her a jar of honey for a chunk of cheese (frankly – a good deal for her since the honey goes for almost double the price of the cheese, but was I hungry and could only lick honey off my fingers for so long) and she asked if the honey was kosher, that I realized I had no idea. She told me that to be kosher the honey would have to have a rabbinical seal of approval, stating that there have been no cows or pigs touching the honey extractor. A highly unlikely occurrence, I told her. But my assurances were not enough. No cheese for me. Later I asked the CSA organizer if honey was kosher, and she told me that according to a rabbi she asked, honey was exempt from the usual kosher requirements, because it was made entirely by the bees.

I just checked on the web (this is much too easy) and several sites tell me that even though bees themselves are not kosher, honey, according to Maimonides, is kosher because it is not a ‘product’ of their bodies, but only stored in their bodies. The nectar they bring into the hive is mixed with their enzymes & saliva, but because this does not take place in their stomachs, the honey can be kosher.
Now it may be that comb honey is kosher, being that it's only wax and honey, without the step of human intervention, and extracted honey is not. Unless it is.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Nine ways to be embarrassed

Hephaestus, 2008
Gelatin silver print
15 x 13 1/2 inches (38.1 x 34.3 cm)
Ed. of 5

So, on Tuesday we went to the Sally Mann opening and as it has been a while since I have been to a posh uptown art opening I was country-mouse-agog at all the beautiful young women with their long legs and precipitous footwear and uncanny ability to text. And then there were the photographs.
We were there because a very old friend is a very very old friend of Sally Mann’s and had come up from Virginia for the opening, and I was excited to see this friend from way back when. We spent about 20 minutes looking at the light, dark, moving, visceral & abstract photographs of Sally’s husband, naked, in silver gelatin prints. The real Larry Mann, dressed in a suit, was there, circulating. I ran into Keliy, a friend of my daughter who actually understands the process Sally Mann uses and she valiantly undertook to explain it to us. There is a lot of chemistry involved, including toxic and regulated chemicals, and that is all I can tell you.
I was probably too busy wondering what it was like to be in a room full of people looking at exquisite pictures of your naked body… that would include your penis, shapely rear end, back, and so on.
And I wondered if that was more or less unpleasant or weird than listening to stories about your father’s demands for a graduate student (of either sex) to perform nightly fellatio, as occurred the other night when Blake Bailey read from his new biography of John Cheever while Ben Cheever graciously listened, having given this biography his imprimatur.
I still don’t know the answer and I still wonder.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Because it is September 11

Because it is September 11 and September 11 can never be just another date, at least not yet in this solipsistic western world, I am trying to re-order a few thoughts.
Eight years ago I woke up on September 11th – a gorgeous late summer day – and thought it was going to be a very rotten day for me, because it would have been my 25th wedding anniversary. If I were still married, which I was not. Then I went to see my therapist.

Not that this day is so much more replete with gruesome tales of martyred saints than any other day, but just because it is today they seem illuminated. And while we are thinking of all the dead in the towers and in the field in Pennsylvania, I have to remind myself: For certain Muslims, the martyrs of 9/11 are the hijackers of the planes that flew into the towers. There are the martyrs who choose their death, and the martyrs whose death is imposed upon them. But couldn’t it be said that they too – the missionaries, the recusants, the defiers – choose their fate? Consider those saints whose feasts are celebrated today, one day among 365.
• The Irish Martyrs of 1649: Blesseds Dominic Dillon, Peter Taaffe, John Bathe, Richard Overton;
• Blessed Charles Spinola, a Jesuit missionary to Japan who spent 4 years in a cage before being slowly burned to death in Nagasaki, 1622. Yes, Nagasaki.
• Bd. Francesco Giovanni Bonifacio, who was killed by Yugoslav communists (Druses) in what is now Croatia, in 1946. His body was never found.
• Sts. Hyacinth and Protus, Romans who were buried alive in 257 AD. Or else they were burned alive.
• St Jean-Gabriel Perboyre (1802-1839), also a missionary, was martyred in China; he was lashed to a cross on “red mountain” and then strangled alongside 5 ‘common’ criminals. Because of what he suffered, in 1842 the British Government inserted a clause into the Treaty of Nanking stating that any foreign missionary arrested should be handed over to the consul of his own nation, and not be dealt with by the Chinese.
• St Vincent of Leon was slaughtered by Aryan Visigoths in 554 AD – the details are not given, but they were not called Visigoths for nothing.

On a more cheerful note, St Sperandia was an Italian mystic who died of natural causes in 1276. Because of all the miracles attributed to her intercession, her body was examined 2 years after her death, and found to be perfectly fresh. Since then, Sperandia has been exhumed no less than 8 times, and every time her body continues to be lovely. The most recent exhumation was in 1952. If you are curious how she is holding up, you can find her tomb in the Benedictine convent of Cingoli, Italy.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

From to Ridiculous to the Sublime and Back again

I am fairly certain that I am not the only person in the continental US who has never before been to a Demolition Derby, because I know that there are others in my immediate family who are equally deprived. But - thanks to the Harmony Free Fair - the situation has been remedied.

Harmony is east of West Athens and seems to have more people in it. Their Labor Day Fair, put on by the Harmony Patriarchs Club, is free & has been for 69 years, because – as was frequently commented – no one would pay for it. The Midway consisted of a 20-foot high inflatable tiger, an inflatable castle and an inflatable rat; and it is my considered opinion that my cucumbers could have snagged the blue ribbon in the Grange Exhibition Hall. (Yes, I can’t stop harping on those cucumbers.)

There was, however, a $5 charge for the Demolition Derby, and everyone was there for the Demolition Derby. As we paid our fee a bald eagle was swooping overhead, prompting the announcer to say: “Look folks, it’s a bald Eagle, that’s for sure, representing the freedom we have to have fun here today at the Harmony Demolition Derby!”
According to CSB, this was not on the grand scale of the Demolition Derby’s he recalls from Skowhegan, in his youth. But wasn’t’ everything grander in our youths?
First we admired the Harmony Fire engine parked next to the pit, and admired the firemen and their gear.

Then there were competitions for the Ugliest Car, and for the Prettiest Car (Wild Willy, Freedom Isn’t Free, Katie’s Bar & Grill, and Batman Returns –the winner) and there was the Ladies’ Competition (won by Miss Linklettter). Then (the bald eagle having gone on to quieter skies) the announcer repeated his warning to interlopers that they must stand back from the far end of the pit because rocks would be flying about, and anyway they should pay their $5 and sit in the stands.
The cars entered the pit, lined up in two rows, and when the kazoo blew, they started banging into each other. And that was that, crash, Kaboom, dust flies, put the car into reverse, and do it again. When it was all over the bulldozer lumbered in and removed the cars, now ready for the crusher. Or maybe not. CSB posited that they could be hammered back into their former glory, and run again to demolish yet more cars.
I learned what happens to all those derelict cars that decorate front yards through the Northern Woods, and it seems good that they are put to use and provide us with this entertainment.

Our appetite for all-American thrills apparently unsated, the following day we went to Orgonon. In Rangeley, Maine (a distinctly more prosperous area than Bingham and environs) there is the final home of Wilhelm Reich and his Orgone Energy Observatory.

In the 1920’s Reich (1897-1957) was a colleague of Freud’s, but when Freud backed away from his extreme theories of the libido, Reich just moved ahead towards his work with “orgastic potency”. He discovered a form of biological energy he called “orgone”. He built a device called the Orgone Accumulator to gather this energy; he even made one large enough for a person to sit in, and absorb orgone. We saw this device, which looked rather claustrophobic. But I couldn’t take pictures because the devotées who look after this legacy are fearful of distortions and mockers. And wisely so: in 1957 Reich was arrested, all his Orgone Accumulators and all his books were seized and destroyed, and 8 months later he died in a Pennsylvania prison. It does seem odd that – per the Bald Eagle – we are free to enjoy the spectacle of dented cars with painted flames bashing into each other, but an Austrian psychoanalyst is arrested for promulgating his Orgasm Theory* and an energy called Orgone.

You see below the CLOUDBUSTER. It functions on the basis of "reversed orgonic potential" and can either make clouds through the increase of Orgone-Potential, or destroy clouds through the decrease of Orgone-Potential. According to an old newspaper clipping from a Maine paper in the early 50's, the Cloudbuster is credited with bringing rain to a drought stricken area around Bethel. I did not make up any of this.

*He discovered that the function of the orgasm is to maintain an energy equilibrium by discharging excess biological energy that builds up naturally in the body. If that discharge function is disturbed—as it proved to be in all of his patients—this energy continues to build up without adequate release, stagnating and fueling neurotic disorders. Reich also discovered that in psychic disturbances, this biological energy is bound up not only in symptoms, but more importantly, in the individual’s characterological and muscular rigidities—what he called “armor.”
Reich’s orgasm theory set him apart from his colleagues, because it indicated that the libido was a real physical energy that possibly might be measured quantitatively. Reich’s clinical work also led him to develop new therapeutic techniques to eliminate the patient’s character and muscular armor and allow for the flow and discharge of this bio-energy to achieve what he called “orgastic potency,” the capacity for total discharge of sexual excitation in the genital embrace.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

On loons and cucumbers (yes, again)

Dare I say it? The weather at Pleasant Pond is lovely. Last night - though not a full moon, that is tomorrow - the moon was exceedingly bright and large, and the loons were in excellent form, calling to each other from every corner of the pond, beckoning, teasing, coaxing; it was a noisy orgy of loons out there. It would be a challenge to even the finest loon-call-imitator out there (you know who you are) to replicate the audacity of the love songs last night on the pond.

And if you have not heard enough about cucumbers this summer, and who could ever hear enough about the versatile cucumbers?
While making corn fritters on the vast wood burning stove I noted that right after the recipe for corn fritters in the 1967 edition of The Joy of Cooking is the section of cucumbers, which begins thus:

“How often the Japanese draw these decorative plants! That their formal values were missed when the cold weather came was poignantly noted by Isaiah when he said, “As desolate as a cottage in a cucumber garden abandoned in winter.””

More tidbits like that, and my book on cucumbers comes nearer and nearer to a reality.

(Lest you think we suddenly have acquired Internet at the pond, never fear, we have not. I am just now ensconced in a leather sofa at Northern Outdoors, a lodge for rafters, hunters and beer drinkers, not necessarily in that order, where there are no less than 8 stuffed deer heads, one huge moose head (2 of us could comfortably sit in the hollows of his antlers)over the stone fireplace, 1 stuffed wolf (the whole thing), 1 stuffed beaver (ditto whole) and one creature I can't identify. They also have Wi-Fi.)