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ARCHIVED ENTRIES FOR SEPTEMBER 2007

September  28,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Far be it from me to stint my well-deserved admiration for the network of sewers which conveyed the sewage of the city into the Tiber.  The sewers of Rome were begun in the sixth century BC and continually extended and improved under the republic and under the empire.  The cloacae were conceived, carried out, and kept up on so grandiose a scale that in certain places a wagon laden with hay could drive through them with ease; and Agrippa, who perhaps did more than any man to increase their efficiency and wholesomeness by diverting the overflow of the aqueducts into them through seven channels, had no difficulty in travelling their entire length by boat.  They were so solidly constructed that the mouth of the largest, as well as the oldest of them, the Colaca Maxima, the central collector for all the others from the Forum to the foot of the Aventine, can still be seen opening into the river at the level of the Ponte Rotto.  Its semicircular arch, five metres in diameter, is as perfect today as in the days of the kings to whom it is attributed.  Its patinated, tufa voussoirs have triumphantly defied the passage of twenty-five hundred years.  It is a masterpiece in which the enterprise and patience of the Roman people collaborated with the long experience won by the Etruscans in the drainage of their marshes; and, such as it it has come down to us, it does honour to antiquity.  But it cannot be denied that the ancients, though they were courageous enough to undertake it, and patient enough to carry it through, were not skilful enough to utilise it as we would have done in their place.  They did not turn it to full account for securing a cleanly town or ensuring the health and decency of the inhabitants.

 

--Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Jerome Carcopino (tr. E.O. Lorimer)

September  27,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

He used the British Council library.  There one day--he wasn't looking for it--he found the mahatma's autobiography, in the English translation by the mahatma's secretary.

 

The sweet, simple narrative swept him along.  He wished to go on and on, to swallow the book whole, short chapter after short chapter; but very soon he was nagged by many things, already only half remembered, already without clear sequence, that he had read with speed; and (as Sarojini had said) he had often to go back, to read the easy words more slowly, to take in the extraordinary things the writer had been saying in his very calm way.  A book (especially in the beginning) about shame, ignorance, incompetence: a whole chain of memories that would have darkened or twisted another life, memories that Willie himself (or Willie's poor father, as Willie thought) would have wished to take to the grave, but which the courage of this simple confession, arrived at by heaven knows what painful ways, made harmless, almost part of folk memory, in which every man of the country might see himself.

 

--Magic Seeds by V.S. Naipaul

 

[N.B.:  It's always dangerous--or, in the case of the discredited New Critics, heretical--to read an author's life into his fiction, but one is more than tempted with respect to this excerpt.]

September  26,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

The origination of medusas is a puzzle to science.  Their place in the evolutionary scale is a mystery.  Their task in the great balance of life is a secret.  For they belong to that weird netherworld of unbiological beings, salient members of which are the chimera, the unicorn, the sphinx, the werewolf, and the hound of the hedges and the sea serpent.  An unbiological order, I call it, because it obeys none of the natural laws of hereditary and environmental change, pays no attention to the survival of the fittest, positively sneers at any attempt on the part of man to work out a rational life cycle, is possibly immortal, unquestionably immoral, evidences anabolism but not katabolism, ruts, spawns, and breeds but does not reproduce, lays no eggs, builds no nests, seeks but does not find, wanders but does not rest.  Nor does it toil or spin.  The members of this order are the animals the Lord of the Hebrews did not create to grace His Eden; they are not among the products of the six days' labor.  These are the sports, the offthrows, of the universe instead of the species; these are the weird children of the lust of the spheres.

 

--The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney

September  25,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Lamar was embarrassed again.  But Jack insisted that yes, Lamar was indeed worthy and must now prepare himself for acceptance into the brotherhood.  Lamar did so.  First came the Night of the Figs, then the Dark Night of Utter Silence.  On the third night, a wintry night, in Room 8 of the Hotel Davos, Lamar Jimmerson folded his arms across his chest and spoke to Jack the ancient words from Atlantis--Tell me, my friend, how is bread made?--and with much trembling became an Initiate in the Gnomon Society.

 

--Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis

September  24,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

For kids like myself social life was represented by the shop-front and the gas-lamp.  This was mainly because we could rarely bring other kids home in the evenings; the houses were too small, and after the fathers came home from work, children became a nuisance.  Besides, most families had something to hide; if it wasn't an old grandmother like mine or a father who drank, it was how little they had to eat.  This was always a matter of extreme delicacy, and the ultimate of snobbery was expressed for us by the loud woman up the road who was supposed to call her son in from play with:  "Tommy, come it to your teas, toast and two eggs!"

 

--An Only Child by Frank O'Connor

September  22,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

The multitudes remained plunged in ignorance of the simplest economic facts, and their leaders, seeking their votes, did not dare to undeceive them.  The newspapers, after their fashion, reflected and emphasised the prevailing opinions.  Few voices were raised to explain that payment of reparations can only be made by services or by the physical transportation of goods in wagons across land frontiers or in ships across salt water; or that when these goods arrive in the demanding countries they dislocate the local industry except in very primitive or rigorously-controlled societies.  In practice, as even the Russians have now learned, the only way of pillaging a defeated nation is to cart away any movables which are wanted, and to drive off a portion of its manhood as permanent or temporary slaves.  But the profit gained from such processes bears no relation to the cost of the war.  No one in great authority had the wit, ascendancy, or detachment from public folly to declare these fundamental, brutal facts to the electorates; nor would anyone have been believed in he had.  The triumphant Allies continued to assert that they would squeeze Germany 'till the pips squeaked'.

 

--The Gathering Storm by Winston S. Churchill

 

[N.B.:  The above excerpt concerns the crippling war reparations imposed on a defeated Germany after World War One (then, the Great War, though, fairly early in the Twenties, prescient commentators were already referring to it as the First World War).  Of course, ironically, the crippling of one great power led to the crippling of many others--otherwise known as the Great Depression.  I chose the above excerpt to give a sense of Churchill's felicitous style and powers of concision.   Churchill "wrote" six volumes concerning the Second World War but only the first two are mostly his personal work (as opposed to the mere editing, sometimes heavy, sometimes not, which Churchill did with respect to the subsequent volumes).  He is a singular modern man of letters--a great prose stylist who also commanded the levers of power in his own country of Great Britain.  Certainly, the United States has Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln (not to mention the Founding Fathers) and France, de Gaulle, all of whom are vigorous and valuable writers, but one must cast back all the way to the Roman Empire, and the emperor Tacitus, to find another man of power who was also one of the great, lasting writers of wisdom.  In any event, only someone who is comfortable commanding a country would start a six-volume series with this "moral of the work":

 

In War: Resolution

In Defeat: Defiance

In Victory: Magnanimity

In Peace: Goodwill

 

Oh, and for the curious, Churchill also devised a "theme" for each volume of his monumental study.  For The Gathering Storm he succinctly encapsulates the 600-some-odd pages thus:

 

How the English-Speaking Peoples

Through Their Unwisdom

Carelessness and Good Nature

Allowed the Wicked

To Rearm

 

No beating around the bush there!  And with that introduction, Mr. Churchill launches into one of the best ripping yarns of all time.  In terms of color and veracity, he stands shoulder to shoulder with Herodotus, an apt, although not entirely flattering, comparison.]

September  21,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

It was, as you may suppose, in thoughtful mood that I made my way through London's thoroughfares.  I was reading a novel of suspense the other day in which the heroine, having experienced a sock in the eye or two, was said to be lost in a maze of mumbling thoughts, and that description would have fitted me like the paper on the wall.

 

--Much Obliged, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

September  20,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

I had thought I had shaken off the pelt of my far past yet here was evidence that it would not be entirely sloughed, but was dragging along behind me, still attached by a thread or two of dried slime.

 

--Shroud by John Banville

 

 

Puff the Magic Maslin

 

One trait I admire in book reviewers is reliability.  Janet Maslin has it in spades.  If there's a cliché--like the one in the last sentence--she'll smooth over the shopworn edges that make the turn or phrase memorable and, while still retaining the basic notion, refashion the tired banality into a unique creation of Maslin's own which, while appearing erudite, signifies nothing--just like modern art criticism.  Such skill requires years and years of dedicated labor and one can but gape at Ms. Maslin's mastery.  Today's New York Times offers another of her master classes in gourmet puffery.  The book under review is Ann Patchett's Run.  As is true for most of the books and authors Ms. Maslin extols, I must issue my standard disclaimer that I have not read the book under review, or, indeed, any of the other works of the author being praised.  I am, however, familiar with the type of books Ms. Patchett parturiates and must risk the scorn of reviewers unborn who shall mock me for so brazenly snubbing one of the leading literary lights of our age--or not. 

 

Ms. Maslin begins her puff pastry by asking us to admire Ms. Patchett's "silken agility."   From this, Ms. Patchett, "without apparent effort . . . glides through time."  Then, after stirred thoroughly by "juxtaposing wildly different characters creating volatile chemistry among them" do not make the beginning chef's mistake of confusing Ms. Patchett's creation with that of "the workaday fiction of Ann Packer, with whom Ann Patchett should not be confused."  Ann Packer!  That gives the puff away doesn't it?  Next we'll be told not to confuse Ms. Patchett with Ms. Danielle Steel.  In any event, the puff is cooked to perfection by ending with the observation that Run "still shimmers with its author's rarefied eloquence, and with the deep resonance of her insights."  I don't know about you, but I'm licking my chops (or, in Maslin-speak, shimmering with intellectual anticipation) at the prospect of further ventures into Ms. Maslin's own deep resonance of insights.

September  19,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

AUTHOR'S NOTE:  Not only are all characters and scenes in this book entirely fictitious; most of the technical, medical, and psychological data are too.  My working maxim here has been as follows: I may not know much about science but I know what I like.

 

--Dead Babies by Martin Amis

 

[N.B.:  Take that, Tom Wolfe!  And all the rest of ye squinty-eyed scribblers and pompous pontificators.  The irony is that Amis's latest book, The House of Meetings (which I recommend on the bar to your immediate left) contains a bibliography--just like Norman Mailer's latest attempt to top himself in lowering himself--representing the kind of authorial quasi-scientific, queasy-scholarotic machinations that Dead Babies spurns.  The mind reels at what the young Amis would think of the middle-aged Amis.  Not much, I suspect.]

September  18,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

A warm devotion to l'élocution francaise is easy enough to understand; but Frederick's devotion was much more than warm; it was so absorbing and so intense that if left him no rest until, by hook or by crook, by supplication, or by trickery, or by paying down hard cash, he had obtained the close and constant proximity of--what?--of a man whom he himself described as a 'singe' and a 'scélérat,' a man of base soul and despicable character.  And Frederick appears to see nothing surprising in this.  He takes it quite as a matter of course that he should be, not merely willing, but delighted to run all the risks involved by Voltaire's undoubted roguery, so long as he can be sure of benefiting from Voltaire's no less undoubted mastery of French versification.  This is certainly strange; but the explanation of it lies in the extraordinary vogue--a vogue, indeed, so extraordinary that it is very difficult for the modern reader to realise it--enjoyed throughout Europe by French culture and literature during the middle years of the eighteenth century.  Frederic was merely an extreme instance of a universal fact.  Like all Germans of any education, he habitually wrote and spoke in French; like every lady and gentleman from Naples to Edinburgh, his life was regulated by the social conventions of France; like every amateur of letters from Madrid to St. Petersburg, his whole conception of literary taste, his whole standard of literary values, was French.  To him, as to the vast majority of his contemporaries, the very essence of civilisation was concentrated in French literature, and especially in French poetry; and French poetry meant to him, as to his contemporaries, that particular kind of French poetry which had come into fashion at the court of Louis XIV.  For this curious creed was as narrow as it was all-pervading.  The Grand Siécle was the Church Infallible; and it was heresy to doubt the Gospel of Boileau.

 

--Voltaire and Frederick from Books and Characters by Lytton Strachey

September  17,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

For in a literary career there was one unfailing advantage: no degree whatever of moral or social disgrace could disqualify one from practice--and indeed a bad character, if suitably tricked out for presentation, might win one helpful publicity.  It wouldn't even matter if one went to prison.  The abdication was final: by becoming a writer one bade farewell at once to ethical restraint and to any kind of conventional status in society.

 

--The World of Simon Raven by Simon Raven

September  16,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

With a wild whimsiness, he now used his coffin for a sea-chest; and emptying into it his canvas bag of clothes, set them in order there.  Many spare hours he spent, in carving the lid with all manner of grotesque figures and drawings; and it seemed that hereby he was striving, in his rude way, to copy parts of the twisted tattooing on his body.  Ant this tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last.  And this thought it must have been which suggested to Ahab that wild exclamation of his, when one morning turning away from surveying poor Queequeg--"Oh, devilish tantalization of the gods!"

 

--Moby Dick by Herman Melville

September  14,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

"We get up in the bloody morning, and we go to bed at night, and there's nothing to do.  We think we're doing things, making the world sit up and take notice.  We give ourselves heartburn, we're so busy running up and down, and all the time, nothing.  And we're sick of ourselves.  Look into your heart, boy, listen to it.  What does it say to you?  What does it show?  Nothing.  And that's what you'll learn is there.  Say it after me.  Nothing.  Say it!"

 

--Birchwood by John Banville

September  13,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

One shell would fall in our wire, the next five hundred yards away, the third on the parados, the fourth somewhere among the gun positions a mile behind.  One shell bursting on Roscommon Road threw a fragment two hundred yards which banged against my shin, cutting the puttee, but doing no other damage.  I'd missed a nice blighty, you might say.  This game went on usually from noon to four o'clock.  It was not dangerous, but there is no more wearying and wearing sound than the distant explosion of a howitzer and the long threatening whine of the shell as it approaches.

 

--A Passionate Prodigality by Guy Chapman

September  12,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

They are sitting at opposite ends of the old horsehair sofa waiting for something to happen.  A rainy summer night, or is it a rainy autumn night, smelling of wet leaves.  A muffled reedy music permeates the room like remembered music in which rhythm is blurred.  One by one enormous soft-winged insects fly toward them, or scuttle above their heads on the ceiling.  Several clocks tick in unison, sounding like a single clock.

 

--One Flesh from The Assignation by Joyce Carol Oates

 

[N.B.:  The above is the entire text of the short story, One Flesh.  When I first read it, I flagged it as an amazing work of compression, a short-story haiku, as it were.  Look, a prose poem!  Now I read it and realize that it exemplifies why Joyce Carol Oates is a too-productive scribbler who more and more appears to have dug a literary grave for herself next to the cold, dead and forgotten body of Hugh Walpole.  So, we have here a description of a dead marriage--two people who are one (rotting) flesh.  To emphasize the two-into-one concept we have the repetition of two words in each sentence of the story (other than the introductory one): rainy, music, one and clock.  How clever.  But cleverness doesn't buy you immortality--just tenure and an endowed chair.  JCO has so much talent to burn and she squandered it in academia.  She may be the great modern example of why there are no great modern American writers: they serve as fuel for the smoking belly of the black god, Scholastica.]

September  11,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

They fought it, in spite of the blood that every war costs, without the French Revolution's abominations.  Without the guillotine's horror, without Toulon's and Lyon's and Bordeaux's massacres, without Vandée's carnages.  They fought it thanks to a piece of paper which along with the need of the soul, the need of Patria, concretized the sublime idea of Liberty married to Equality: the Declaration of Independence.  "We hold these truths to be self-evident... That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights... That among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness... That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men...."  And this paper that from the French Revolution on the whole West has copied, from which each of us has drawn inspiration, still constitutes the backbone of America.  Her vital lymph.  Know why? Because it transforms the subjects into citizens.  Because it turns the plebes into people.  Because it invites, no, it orders the plebes turned into citizens to rebel against tyranny and to govern themselves.  To express their individualities, to search for their own happiness.

 

--The Rage and the Pride by Oriana Fallaci

 

[N.B.:  I thought that on this Tuesday, September 11th, the above might be an appropriate quote.  Ms. Fallaci was a best-selling Italian author and journalist who passed away just about a year ago today.  She insisted on personally translating her Italian prose into English--thus resulting in the odd sentence fragments and locutions displayed above.  This prose style, though, has a compelling quality usually lacking in the too-precise twitterings of native writers.  In spite of her maladroit grammatical formulations, it is Ms. Fallaci's quirkiness in her approach to the English language; her, perhaps unwitting, "keeping it new," which draws in the reader's attention.  One could do much, much worse than to string together such fragments.  One could bore me--a sin I never forgive.]

September  10,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Often I talk to men, of this and that,

Through the long night, and chiefly through my hat,

And they, in turn, through hats of different size,

Build confident assertion on surmise.

 

So it continues, hour succeeding hour,

As each small bud of thought bursts into flower,

While, listening in limbo, sit the sages,

The Great Ones of the contemplative ages,

And all the sons of knowledgeable Man

Who ever talked since Time itself began--

Listening now, eager to catch one glow

Of thought not born five thousand years ago,

One little curtain raised, one tiny pelmet,

one word not said through some old Roman helmet.

--Philip Stalker

[N.B.:  This poem serves as the frontispiece of sorts for Basil Boothroyd's hilarious book, Accustomed As I Am: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Speaker.]

September  9,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, a grandeur, and a woe.  But from the same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates, both contemporary and hereditary. 

--Moby Dick by Herman Melville

[N.B.:  Only a great prose stylist could get away with that adverb: "sultanically."  It reminds me of a stray line from Henry Green's Loving:  "And Edith looked out on the morning, the soft bright morning that struck her dazzled dazzling eyes."  Again, only a great master--or a total, unthinking hack--would stick "dazzled dazzling" together along with the repetition of the word "morning" in the same short sentence.  Thank goodness for the creative-writing glue factories which squeeze out such anomalies.]

September  7,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

On Friday morning we were taken round Versailles by the curator, a young man called Van der Kemp, previously arranged by A.  I was so shy about my bad French that I could not converse intelligently.  I feel desperately ashamed because when I left Grenoble University in 1927 I spoke like a bird.  Van der Kemp took us not only into the state rooms but the petits appartements of the Pompadour and du Barry, not seen by the public.  Petits they are, and enchanting.  In Marie Antoinette's boudoir her own clock played tunes for us, little airs specially composed for it by Mozart, Gluck and others.  The pathos of it.  These rooms must be the most exquisite in the world.  In my youth, I used to despise French architecture for being effeminate and effete.  How I dared, contemptible fool that I was.  The prejudices of adolescence make one blush in remembrance.

--Diaries, 1942-1954 by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch), entry for Thursday, 28th April 1949

September  6,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

She also did excellent imitations of Sexton, the Dean in St. Patrick's Church, who gave extraordinary sermons in a thick Cork accent.  Sexton, a big, rough man, did not like talking about matters of doctrine; he preferred to take his text from a new movie or a newspaper, and he leaned over the edge of the pulpit, bawling away in the voice of a market woman.  "Dearly beloved brethren," he cried, "ye all saw it in the paper; the advertisement for the new film at the Coliseum.  Ye all saw that it was supposed to be 'hot stuff,' and there was nothing in it at all.  That is what I call deceiving the public."  I have a vivid recollection of one of his sermons when an episcopal ordinance compelled him to preach on the Commandments, Sunday by Sunday.  He was discussing the Second Commandment, and obviously in agony, because he felt that the Commandments were all out of date and should be scrapped.  "Dearly beloved brethren," he began, "of course we're not supposed to take that seriously.  Sure, we all take the Lord's name in vain.  I do it myself.  If I lose my temper I say 'Ah, God damn it!'  There's no harm in that at all.  What the Commandment means, dearly beloved brethren, is that we shouldn't be using the Holy Name in public, the was a lot of people do.  You can't go along King Street on Saturday night without hearing someone using the Holy Name.  That's very bad.  At the same time, there isn't any harm in that either.  Sure, half the time people don't be thinking of what they're saying.  But, dearly beloved brethren, if you do use it, don't use it in front of children.  A child's mind is a delicate thing.  A child's mind is like that marble pillar there (slapping the column beside him).  It's smooth, and it doesn't hold dust nor dirt.  One rub of a duster is all you need to clean that marble.  A child's mind is like marble.  Don't roughen it."  I thought it the best sermon I had ever heard, and I liked Sexton and his rough-neck oratory, but neither Mother nor Minnie could tolerate it.  Minnie did a first-class imitation of him, preaching on the text that "Not a bird shall fall" and announcing in scandalized tones that it was "all nonsense--my goodness, they're falling by thousands all over the world every minute." 

--An Only Child by Frank O'Connor

September  5,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Honors for a truly imaginative approach to their lugubrious wares must go to the vault men.  An advertisement in the 1957 souvenir edition of Mortuary Management reads:

Deep see fishing off Mexico can't be beat!  When you feel that old tug on your pole and that line goes whistling into the deep, that's it brother!  And, there is nothing quite like the way I feel about Wilbert burial vaults either.  The combination of a 3/8" pre-cast asphalt inner liner plus extra-thick, reinforced concrete provides the essential qualities for a proper burial.  My advice to you is, don't get into "deep water" with burial vaults made of the new lightweight synthetic substitutes.  Just keep "reeling in" extra profits by continuing to recommend WILBERT burial vaults....

A two-page spread in a recent issue of the same magazine presents the reader with this startling thought: "DISINTERMENTS--RARE BUT REWARDING.  It needn't be a problem.  It can lead to repeat business. . . . Prove your wisdom in recommending the trusted protection of a Clark Metal Grave Vault."

Is a new folklore being created--a specifically twentieth-century American form of funeral rite which may seem as outlandish to the rest of the world as the strange burial customs of the past revealed by anthropological studies?

--St. Peter, Don't You Call Me from Poison Penmanship by Jessica Mitford

September  4,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

'I haven't much advice for you, boy.  Always try to play fair.  Nobody likes a sneak, you know the kind of chap I mean, a bit of a mama's boy, a cissy, always mooning around the place, always....'  He stopped, perhaps realising it was precisely my type he had described.  'Well anyway, be a man, learn what life is about.  Do the right thing!  That's what I mean.  And you won't go wrong.'  He lifted a clinched fist between us and grinned again.  I knew what was coming.  'Grip,' he said softly.  'It's your only man.'

--Birchwood by John Banville

[N.B.:  This comic soliloquy makes Polonius look positively Solomonic.  Don't forget the grip, young fellers.]

September  3,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Poem

He lying spilt like water from a bowl

     himself the shadow of his own passion

probes with his secret fingers my terrible

     need and sees it is beyond reason.

 

The dark head laid like the dreams on a bare pillow

     once was dreams only but now stirs

under my kiss and slowly slowly

     he wakes and remembers.

 

O gifts his hands are on my happy breasts;

     he is all warmth and kindness--

in his long arms I sleep at last,

     and peace is in his kiss.

--by Alison Boodson (March 1946: for J. N.)

[N.B.:  See my remarks from yesterday.  This, by the bye, is also why I love old movies--they are actually much more disturbing and transgressive than modern fare.]

September  2,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Had you stepped on board the Pequod at a certain juncture of this post-mortemizing of the whale; and had you strolled forward nigh the windlass, pretty sure am I that you would have scanned with no small curiosity a very strange, enigmatical object, which you would have seen there, lying along lengthwise in the lee scuppers.  Not the wondrous cistern in the whale's huge head; not the prodigy of his unhinged lower jaw; not the miracle of his symmetrical tail; none of these would so surprise you, as half a glimpse of that unaccountable cone,--longer than a Kentuckian is tall, nigh a foot in diameter at the base, and jet black as Yojo, the ebony idol of Queequeg. And an idol, indeed, it is; or rather, in old times, its likeness was.  Such an idol as that found in the secret groves of Queen Maachah in Judea; and for worshipping which, King Asa, her son, did depose her, and destroyed the idol, and burnt it for an abomination at the brook Kedron, as darkly set forth in the 15th chapter of the First Book of Kings.

--Moby Dick by Herman Melville

[N.B.:  Here's an example of the problem of explicitness in modern fiction.  Can any contemporary writer, no matter how lubricious, come close to this foulness of this episode and its heretical implications?  You can't be truly obscene unless you are pushing against something.  Transgression craves taboo.  The elimination of one drains the other of its incantatory power--just so sin cannot exist except as a blot.  Take away sin, and you've taken away most of what fuels a novel.  And that, my friends, is why most modern fiction is so dull and dreary with the exception of the religious novelists, usually Catholic, such as Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, etc., etc., etc.]

 

Puff the Magic Maslin

As a continuing, irregular feature named after one of the premier puffers of our time, Janet Maslin, I offer one in an unlimited series of bald-faced puffery.  Here's the introductory sentence to the cover review on today's New York Times Book Review:  "Good morning and please listen to me: Denis Johnson is a true American artist, and 'Tree of Smoke' is a tremendous book, a strange entertainment, very long but very fast, a great whirly ride that starts out sad and gets sadder and sadder, loops unpredictably out and around, and then lurches down so suddenly at the very end that it will make your stomach flop."  Only the likes of Raymond Chandler have a license to write such purple prose.  Great whirly ride, indeed.  Thanks for the tip mister.  Anyone who writes that badly doesn't know a spinnaker from a sphincter.