. . . James Thurber

. . .

If I Can't Masturbate in Public, You Can Keep Your Revolution
(part of our Sexual Degradation Special)
I'm all for porn, but I have to admit that this art students dressing slutty stuff seems about as genuinely liberating a revolutionary act as the Andrews Sisters cover of "Rum and Coca-Cola (Working for the Yankee Dollar)."

Which is one of my favorite records.

Schmalhausen trouble
from Is Sex Necessary? by James Thurber and E. B. White

. . .

Why I Am Not a Diary, as explained by James Thurber of Columbus, Ohio:

"The sharp edges of old reticences are softened in the autobiographer by the passing of time -- a man does not pull the pillow over his head when he wakes in the morning because he suddenly remembers some awful thing that happened to him fifteen or twenty years ago [or he doesn't do it oftener than twice a week, anyway - RD], but the confusions and the panics of last year and the year before are too close for contentment. Until a man can quit talking loudly to himself in order to shout down the memories of blunderings and gropings, he is in no shape for the painstaking examination of distress and the careful ordering of event so necessary to a calm and balanced exposition of what, exactly, was the matter."

. . .

Essays We Never Bothered Finishing Dept.

Does anybody read James Thurber anymore? A New Yorker humorist from the first half of the century, he mostly wrote "casuals," short, curious, cranky, occasionally funny nonfiction bits -- literate bathroom reading -- that found a home in the magazine's Talk of the Town section. Collections of these brief, memoir-y things were best-sellers in their day, but like spindrift, they've proved too lightweight to settle and survive. Thurber's reputation rests on the strength of one sturdy little 1947 story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"....
- Taylor Antrim in the Bay Guardian's "Lit" section

It's weird but I actually do seem to remember James Thurber -- it's Taylor Antrim that I'm having trouble placing....

. . .

New Adventures in the Integral Calculus

I've read McLuhan & Fuller & Sontag & Barthes, Bataille & Blanchot, Derrida & Spivak. I've read Benjamin & Adorno & Bakhtin. I've read Cixous & Irigaray & Kristeva & Jardine. I've even tried reading Baudrillard & Althusser & Bloom & Paglia, the Four Assholes of the Apocalypse.

And the most important insight captured by twentieth century thinking still seems to me to be the following definition:

The word "love" is used loosely by writers, and they know it. Furthermore, the word "love" is accepted loosely by readers and they know it. There are many kinds of love, but for the purposes of this article I shall confine my discussion to the usual hazy interpretation: the strange bewilderment which overtakes one person on account of another person. Thus when I say love in this article, you will take it to mean the pleasant confusion which we know exists.
James Thurber & E. B. White, Is Sex Necessary

Optional exercise: From this premise, derive the world.

. . .

Mystery Macintosh, My Darling

(Also at that other world)

"The M'Intosh Murder Mystery" by John Gordon,
Journal of Modern Literature 29.1 (2005) 1

All right-thinking people agree that The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism's most unconscionable omission was James Thurber's "The Macbeth Murder Mystery", and so I'm certain John Gordon is a right-thinking person.

Except in this case.

[For the non-Joyceans in our audience, here's the story so far.

Aside from its status as early science fiction, Ulysses represents advanced evolution of the detective story, with each incident a visible and meaningful clue. Having played so fairly, Joyce could dispense with the handwaving detective hero, and instead left handwaving in the laps of the readers. And a jolly time we've had of it, too!

As early Joyceans gained confidence in their ability to tie every detail to every other detail, the few remaining danglies gained weightiness. (Weightiness to a Joycean, mind you; the centrality such nits assume in the secondary sources can sadly mislead a first-time reader of Ulysses. "When do we get to the word known by all men?")

Some of these puzzles, I think, weren't originally meant as puzzles. The (scanty) evidence suggests that "U.P. Up." delivered a clear message to nineteenth-century English and Irish urbanites but happened to escape documentation, becoming a hapax legomenon of popular culture. Numeric errata seem best explained as Homer nodding. Or shrugging. Come on, you ask Homer "How many fingers am I holding up?" what's he gonna do?

The Man in the Macintosh, however, emphatically riddled from his first appearance:

"Now who is that lankylooking galoot over there in the macintosh? Now who is he I'd like to know? Now, I'd give a trifle to know who he is."

A lot of scholars have tried to earn that trifle over the years, and Gordon deserves an "A" for assurance:]

"I have lived with [the proposed solution] for a while and have come to think of it as a solid and upstanding reading which improves on acquaintance. I believe in it. It can come to dinner; it can date my daughter."

Gordon proposes that M'Intosh is the ghost of Bloom's father, who committed suicide after the death of his young wife. And (so confident is he) this proposed solution is used only as a tee-off from which to approach another, less often asked, riddle: What killed Bloom's mother? (So's not to steal Gordon's thunderclap, I'll just say Joyce may have anticipated the misogynous hard-boiled dick.)

But I do not think his proposal makes a solid and upstanding tee-off. I do not believe in it; I do not want it to date my daughter. (I am, however, prepared to buy it a drink some time.) Because the character who inspects M'Intosh most closely is Leopold Bloom.

Now I admit it's a wise son that knows his father's ghost. But even a flibbertigibbet like Hamlet was able to recognize Hamlet Senior's form straight off. And clear-sighted Bloom doesn't note a family resemblance? In a graveyard?

No, I'm afraid all the lovely circumstantial evidence Gordon's gathered just shows how irreconcilable the lyric and the narrative finally are, even in Ulysses. Poetically, his argument's airtight. Prosaically, it won't fly.

(And who do I think M'Intosh is? Well, since I ask, personally I think he's the fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush.)

1 I also recommend from this issue "Remembering Race", where Sergio Rizzo documents the dependents of that Red Wheelbarrow, and "Repulsive Modernism: Djuna Barnes' The Book of Repulsive Women" by Melissa Jane Hardie, who so neatly associates revision and repression that I think Freud should take over my dishwashing duties.


A bhikku writes:

Tell you what. Rudolph Virag? Lankylooking? Galoot? Doesn't sound like the Bloom physique, does it? No, Gordon's looking for a counterpart to Stephen's Hamlet thoughts, isn't he.

Apparently JJ used to ask cocky Ulysses readers who they thought the fellow was anyway, go on then.

. . .

Tender and Private
from the back cover

as stuffer or stuffing

The Lovely Horrible Stuff
by Eddie Campbell

Everything goes from grand to paltry. Given long enough the human being can destroy anything, even the planet he lives on. Destroying a system of equitable exchange is child's play.
- Eddie Campbell

The Lovely Horrible Stuff was published in 2012. Following on the full-color mysteries of The Fate of the Artist and the house-museum of Alec: The Years Have Pants, it was odd looking and oddly structured, marketed as a book "about money" but disconcertingly apolitical, and, to reappropriate Jonathan Lethem's phrase, "very quietly received."

That doesn't mean it didn't land an impact here and there. It just meant landing in a soft place.

And now aw shit.

* * *

I have a similar soft spot for 1993's Graffiti Kitchen. After a decade of charming groove, Graffiti Kitchen was a "departure," as the critics say. The King Canute Crowd's scrappy Zip-a-Tone vanished along with grins, pratfalls, and pubbish inconsequence. Instead, Campbell scratched the page till it bled.

The departure was permanent. Starting with his next personal work, Campbell changed "Alec"'s genre, marital status, profession, homeland, and (before long) name. That new groove spooled over the next two decades and there at the end of the spool lies The Lovely Horrible Stuff.

* * *

On the explicit face-and-title-page of it, "Lovely Horrible Stuff" refers to money, but most readers easily spot family squirming under that label, too. Either way,whether enthusiastic or not-so-much, whether amateur or professional, reviewers saw the book as another slice of a familiar cranked sausage. A plurality of Campbell's post-Canute work depicts the unresolvable conflict between

  1. a professional livelihood which can only be sustained by vigilant hunting, scavenging, and hoarding
  2. and

  3. a professional practice which can only be sustained by free-floating reverie and temporary delusions of omnipotent control,
and since at least The Dance of Lifey Death the conflict's been iconized as an obscuring thought balloon. Domestic squabbles and worse, in the grand tradition of newspaper comics and stand-up comedy, were there from the start of "Alec"/"Campbell"'s marriage. Furious dunning letters had been a mainstay gag since Shakespeare started penning them in 1992's The Cheque Mate. Campbell's discursive impulse had already digressed into informal research and documentary across a multitude of single-pagers and one-offs over the years. So, not much new.

In particular, The Lovely Horrible Stuff clearly "builds on" seems inappropriate; let's say led from the gorgeous full-color artwork and interstitial fumetti of The Fate of the Artist. Most bizarrely, Fate's metafictional TV adaptation became a metafactual attempt at something like "My World and Welcome to It" with James Thurber playing the role of William Windom.

The one novelty everyone noted was that Fate's photography and hand-crafting had digitally merged into something well, reactions ranged from masterful to amateurish. My own was, if I had to pick a word, "worrisome." Not the failed reassurance of CGI's uncanny valley; not with that Photoshop-airbrush applied like mascara in a Kuchar movie. Something sadder, more Cronenbergian....

In other ways, too, Stuff seemed to me like a business-as-usual brim shading some sort of breakout, or breakthrough, or breakdown.... Yes, "Campbell" had dunned before, but never so close to home:

Jack, my father-in-law, one of the six or seven truly marvellous individuals I have met in my life
Jack vs. balloons in 1988, The Dead Muse
You have given no thought to our interests in this matter so obsessed are you with
... & in The Lovely Horrible Stuff

Even when The Fate of the Artist's domestic violence drew blood, it was more or less successfully played for laffs. But the staging went awry this time round: Stuff's most physical conflict lacked any hint of slapstick, and Campbell's dash towards the safety of a gag pointedly flopped. The closest thing to nuptial comfort is confined to one page of such nakedly intense nostalgia that I avert my eyes whenever I reach it.

Despite its egocentrism (in the sense of heliocentrism), frets, and blunders, the Alec series never seemed neurotic or despairing. Even at the end of one's rope, you (almost) always reached stabilizing humor. The previous first-person installment kicked that stool aside. In Stuff, it's liable to tip over, and the failures convey self-loathing with more conviction than anything R. Crumb or Joe Matt ever mustered: as comics characters, at least, "Matt" and "Crumb" are mercifully numb to personal responsibility, much less responsibility for three children.

Structurally, The Lovely Horrible Stuff is an odd book out as well, almost two books, scored down the middle for easy snapping:

First a pacing round "Campbell"'s loathings, delusions, and losses, punctuated by brief vocational escapes into Cloudintellectualpropertyland. In this half of the book, we don't see his memorable fancies for ourselves; they're drawn as simple icons or fogbanks. "Campbell" has left the building, and like other characters we're stuck with his blind and deaf husk.

The second half shows one place he went: a continuously engaged topic-and-travel documentary (as opposed to the memoir documentary of How to Be an Artist). "Campbell" looks happiest here, in the inflated non-ego of not-painstakingly-verified research and formal control, semidetached from the ground while remaining firmly of the world, floating/sinking by his clutch of stone balloons....

* * *

I itched to write about The Lovely Horrible Stuff after my first half-dozen readings or so. But even a childless self-serializing essayist must deal with some family and finance concerns, and you see how things have gone around here.

The artist's own blog froze at March 2012. As years went by with no Campbell news other than reprints, illustrations, and, more recently, a scholarly book, the topic started to feel a bit taboo, as if the book's toxicity had leaked into the environment.

Because, like Graffiti Kitchen, it did taste toxic, or (depending on the taster) bracingly medicinal. Graffiti Kitchen put paid to the King Canute sequence; a new sequence began. Apart from the hero's signature look, what made this second, longer, sequence part of "Alec" was Campbell's faith that a world of omnipotent imagination might be built on the unscrupulous details of the real. Unlikely sounding, maybe, but certainly not unheard of.

Aestheticism-and-reality as vocation, meanness-and-dreaminess as motif, material-and-virtual as technique: three knockabout marriages of stubborn antitheses. If it was true that, after a quarter-century, the series had again scorched its own earth, where would it migrate next?

I'd still be wondering if I'd continued to look for word: the aftermath's been described only in audio. Campbell-the-artist killed his series hero off before The Fate of the Artist began. Having resurrected him in good American comic book fashion, what could the artist do for an encore? The solution was straightforward, if not exactly satisfying.

First, and barely able to get a word in edgewise:

EC: I've kind of put my own voice in storage right now. I'm applying myself as a craftsman to someone else's stories. [...] I was very driven. I felt I'd got hold of something important to say about life
FT: Heh-yes!
EC:And I was driven to
FT: To say it!
EC: ... to get it down on paper, and build
FT: Hmm!
EC: — upon it and investigate it in all its nooks and crannies and facets and variations. And I'm not feeling that at the moment
FT: No. [a spew of fucking twittery]

And then a Comics Journal podcast with room to lay down his weary voice:

Q: What's the closest you've come to quitting cartooning?

A: Recently. What I was talking about before, having lost this context. I've spent three years doing this book about the history of cartooning. But the same time I'm not creating new cartoons myself. There's probably a couple of years there where I just hadn't created any new comics work. The last thing I did was the book I did with Neil Gaiman. [...] Recently I've been drawing myself out of this funk. I've been illustrating illustrating the stories of my wife, Audrey Niffenegger. A quick catch-up there: I got divorced four years ago. And this year I married Audrey Niffenegger, the novelist. And for some time I've been working on a book where I'm illustrating her short stories. [...]

The money book, The Lovely Horrible Stuff I think that book took a lot out of me. I think it left me, I think I wrestled with so much realer stuff in there I kind of dislodged myself out of my comfort zone, [indecipherable]. I kind of left myself stranded on the beach of that sandy island in the South Seas, like O'Keefe in the story. I felt a bit wrecked after that one. In fact it was shortly after that book that I got divorced.

Q: I'm obliged to ask how was the

A: I'm kind of playing out in that book the disintegration of my own family life in a metaphorical way. The whole money arguments were really arguments for a disintegration of a harmony in my life.

Q: Was the creation of the pieces about your stepfather, even at the time of the creation, was that more taxing emotionally than the traditional Alec comics?

A: I didn't think so at the time but I think probably, in retrospect. I think in the end my feeling was that I shouldn't have done a comic about this. I shouldn't be... I think I kind of wrecked my own concept of what I was doing, by thinking "Now, how far can I push that?" Have I pushed this too far? Should I be putting real people in here in such a raw form, where they don't get a chance to give their side of the story? I-I, you know, and so many comics today are maybe going too far and you know Alison Bechdel's another one, Roz Chast's we're treading a fine line of propriety.

Out the window it goes...

. . .


(Attention Conservation Notice: As previously confessed, this three-plus-part series is a grossly distended remake of a more reasonably proportioned essay from 2013.
Some people claim Peli Grietzer's to blame, but I know it's my own damn fault.)

3. Adaptive Manifold Learning

I sometimes feel as if I've never had a single relatable experience. Like, whenever I try to tell a story, it degenerates into a series of explanations and everyone gets this face like they're doing math.

With apologies aforethought

Being the product of a body embedded in history, my writing frequently passes through drizzles of autobiographical asides or illustrative anecdotes. But attempting to narrate "personal life" tout court calls on an internal voice I trust considerably less far than I can throw it. I'm not fond of memoir as a genre, I think "creative nonfiction" was just a way for academic-workshop fiction to become more formulaic, and I'm not so crazy about myself either.1

Moreover, my story-as-told-by is even drabber than existence-as-lived-by: my memory maintains a spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child bias, and my greatest pleasures have been literally unspeakable. Even after trimming to what's most germane to this topic, reserving other polyps of sad-sackery for use in other cans of dogfood, the prospect remains unappetizing.

The last vivid image I retain from my father's deathbed is his reflexive wince-and-glare as I tried to reassure him. I sometimes see that expression of pained disgust on my brother's face, and I sometimes feel it on my own. Much of this draft seems to beg for the editorial query "Well, boo fucking hoo."

Still, meat was promised, and if you're willing, I guess I am. Take a an oxygenated breath from Charles Kerns's posts now and then, though.

1  "A souse divided cannot stand himself." - G. W. T. F. Hegel, attrib.

1959 1964

(After all, the word "infant" means, literally, "unable to speak," and as my efforts to describe them reveal, experiences of love and art are also intrinsically nonverbal.)
- Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began by Ellen Dissanayake 1

This here particular scrap of meat was a mistake incurrable only before abortion became legal and prolongable only after doctors could prescribe effective antibiotics. (One of which permanently darkened my teeth, but hey, you win some you lose some.)

My brother might disagree, but I believe our adoptive parents genuinely (if standoffishly) cared for us. Unlike some of my sissy peers, I wasn't shipped to military school or routinely beaten at home: our mother was too clueless for homophobic panic, and our father was basically a tolerant sort. Aided by progressive taxation, they kept us fed, clothed, sheltered, doctored, and schooled; they bought Christmas and birthday presents after consulting our obsessively curated wishlists.

But despite the lengthy and thoroughly conscious labor required to adopt, neither had much feel for parenthood.

Mom came from a large rural family low on sentimentality and high on feuds. In a movie she would have played the vain sister, unwilling to do chores and coming to an instructively unpleasant end after some terrible romantic decisions. In life, after a failed marriage or two, she escaped to the Navy.

Dad's father died or disappeared early on; his "mother" (or possibly his aunt, it's all very Southern Gothic) was a vicious tobaccy-spitting bible-thumping racist; his stepfather was a physically abusive drunk. Dad ran away several times, dropped out of high school, joined a street gang, and finally lied about his age to enlist.

The Navy was good for both of them, but its training didn't include childcare. They were able to hold things together so long as I remained in the company of books and tolerant adults. Once I was forced to associate with other children, my poor brother first and foremost, they (and we) were quickly swept out of their depth.

Kindergarten was so disastrous as to call for public intervention. Nowadays such a disruptive five-year-old might be arrested or drugged or both. Instead, Mrs. Nickerson, the first of many female saviors, diagnosed my severe myopia and suggested an IQ test.

1  Not sure what to make of this, but I'll note that Dissanayake's "rhythm" and "mode" sound a lot like Grietzer's "groove" and "vibe."

Sit Down

Behind things
or in front of them,
always a goddamn
adamant number stands

up and shouts,
I’m here, I’m here!
— Sit down.

- Hello: A Journal,
February 29–May 3, 1976

by Robert Creeley

The Navy trained my father as an electronics technician and deployed him accordingly: Adak on his own; then, with us, Karamürsel, Bremerhaven, sunny Guantanamo Bay, and, on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp, Northwest Radio Station. A few years before my birth, Dad was on one of the many teams tracking Sputnik's progress and wondering what the hell the Russians were up to this time.

By scaring the bejezus out of everyone, Sputnik successfully initiated what may have been the least anti-intellectual period in American history. Well done, Commies! In 1964, New York City public schools had just decided to drop IQ testing, but interest continued to run high elsewhere. (And in some sad circles of Hell apparently still does.)

I've never felt like reexamining those early tests, but I take for granted that their makers wouldn't get far comparing five-year-olds on their retention of trivia from AP History or Chemistry. Instead, the "general" aptitude being measured likely coincided with my little pony's forever one-and-only trick.

Besides exaggerating the importance of my signature cognitive strength, such a test would tend to miss my signature cognitive weakness: a near pathological aversion to habituation. Before a single onion is chopped, I'll have veered from sous-chef to Norman Bates; language drills induce increasingly bizarre variations in grammar and vocabulary; any daily exercise regimen will be interrupted by prostration of one sort or another....

To compensate I interject consciousness; what would normally become near-autonomous actions must be continuously re-invented if they're to be kept in place. Hooky phrases fill my noggin with lint and clothe my discourse in flannel, but more "arbitrary" symbols companions' names, historical dates, distances and measurements, the Java runtime library simply vanish because I have no way to reconstruct them from scratch.

By Taylorist notions of efficiency, I'm not so much an Optimizing Function as sand in the gears. And so, once again, the Navy got ripped off.

But back in 1964 neither it nor I had an inkling of all this. For myself, the testing and follow-up discussions and tasks simply kept me happier than I'd been for several years. Reasonable arguments! Interesting conversations! With a lady! What sport!

The one frustration in these prized outings, the one game in which I felt the familiar shadow of a trouncing, was mathematics. The abstraction of quantity, OK; addition, multiplication, exponents, sure. But I sat slack-jawed before the Pythagorean theorem, unable to learn the trick no matter how often I requested a replay. Fractions were a mean-spirited practical joke and the irrationals?

Between intuitive verbal logic and unfathomable geometry was a gulf I couldn't imagine crossing.

[Once we give up] the myth according to which certainty relies only on sequence matching and formal induction, then any work based on the ordered structure of numbers, on the geometric judgment lying at the core of mathematics, can go smoothly. Incompleteness shows that this judgment is elementary (it cannot be further reduced), but it is still a (very) complex judgment. [...] A mathematician understands and communicates to the student what the continuum is by gesture, since behind the gesture both share this ancient act of life experience: the eye saccade, the movement of the hand. [...] What is lacking in formal mechanisms, or in other words their provable incompleteness, is a consequence of this hand gesture which structures space and measures time by using well order. This gesture originates and fixes in action the linguistic construction of mathematics, indeed deduction, and completes its signification.
- Mathematics & the Natural Sciences by Giuseppe Longo & Daniel Bailey

Or, as revealed to a brat more precocious than myself:

Eternity was not an infinitely great quantity that was worn down, but eternity was succession.

Then Joana suddenly understood that the utmost beauty was to be found in succession, that movement explained form it was so high and pure to cry: movement explains form! and pain was also to be found in succession because the body was slower than the movement of uninterrupted continuity.

Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector,
translated by Alison Entrekin

1964 1969

And this speech the goddesses first of all spoke to me
The Olympian Muses, daughters of Aegis-bearing Zeus:
"Shepherds of the field, base, shameful things, mere bellies:
We know how to speak many falsehoods which are like verities,
And we know, whenever we wish, how to utter truths."
- Theogony by Hesiod, as translated by Shaul Tor
in Mortal and Divine in Early Greek Epistemology

A book is a projection of higher-dimensional structures onto a three-dimensional sheaf of two-dimensional planes. A handily compact thing, but decompressing that projection requires some sense of those higher dimensions.

I spontaneously began to read at age three. Unlike many hyperlexics, I also seem to have been an early talker; like most, however, I was comfortable with a certain level of incomprehension, and that level increased after I learned that the very best people were expected to speed-read.1

Like Mowgli was raised by wolves, like Estella was raised by Miss Havisham, I was raised by books. Being a Dickens character, Miss Havisham stays reliably on model; say what you want about wolfishness, at least it's an ethos. The intention of books en masse is harder to read. Sometimes I'd be convicted for not living up to the instructions laid out by Dennis the Menace 2 or Boy's Life or Robert Heinlein; other times for failing the tests of Hans Christian Andersen or Madeline L'Engle or Lloyd Alexander. And if I was so smart, why wasn't I solving crimes? Or the Four-Color Theorem? Or finding some way to not get beaten up all the time?

Why, the Bible alone provided an inexhaustible spring of fresh accusations. Should all else succeed, I could always be convicted of pride, that most pernicious of weeds.

If Doctor Aquinas had treated me to his Explanation of Everything, I would have made fine priesthood fodder. If I'd been raised Calvinist, I could at least be certain of my fate. As was well, consider Nietzsche's normative:

The spirit's power to appropriate the foreign stands revealed in its inclination to assimilate the new to the old, to simplify the manifold, and to overlook or repulse whatever is totally contradictory just as it involuntarily emphasizes certain feature and lines in what is foreign, in every piece of the "external world," retouching and falsifying the whole to suit itself. Its intent in all this is to incorporate new "experiences," to file new things in old files growth, in a word or, more precisely, the feeling of growth, the feeling of increased power.

An apparently opposite drive serves this same will: a sudden erupting decision in favor of ignorance, of deliberate exclusion, a shutting of one's windows....

[It is explicitly no coincidence that placed immediately after this are several sections devoted to misogyny.]

- Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche,
translated Walter Kaufmann

Disgraceful though that sounds, what would the alternative look like? Whatever you choose to call it, "the feeling of growth, the feeling of increased power" would not be prominent features. Presuming the coherence of my authorities, "studying them as if cramming for a test on how to be the most lovable child in the world," I diagnosed incoherence in myself, and prescribed the traditional course of repentance and purgation, followed by inevitable backslide.

1  My tolerance for incomprehension decreased during puberty's Great Slow-Down, and finally became a strategically managed resource, enabling straight-through structural runthroughs to support "real" re-readings.

Peanuts provided the relief of confirmation but lacked attainable role models. Isaac Asimov's Susan Calvin was attractively relatable but the relation I desired was not precisely identity.

Although this art of logic has manifold utility, still, if one is learned only in it, and ignorant of aught else, he is actually retarded, rather than helped to progress in philosophy, since he becomes a victim of verbosity and overconfidence. By itself, logic is practically useless. Only when it is associated with other studies does logic shine, and then by a virtue that is communicated by them. Considerable indulgence should, however, be shown to the young, in whom verbosity should be temporarily tolerated, so that they may thus acquire an abundance of eloquence.
- "Chapter 28. How logic should be employed"
from The Metalogicon of John of Salisbury

When caged with my brother, I bullied him without mercy and he just as mercilessly tormented me. When alone with my mother, she'd ask advice on clothes, finances, and reading,1 which was pleasant if sometimes a bit nervous-making. My father preferred to note my frauds and outrage my primness, although once, after one of Mom's elaborately sadistic jokes pitched my anxiety to the point of boycotting my own seventh-birthday party, he entered our bedroom, removed his belt, and announced, "I know you're smarter than me, but" (a hot roar flooded my ears) that's not true!
how had I broken so much?

In classrooms, I strove to reach my imagined potential until halted by overreach and collapse, a cycle which helped convince my parents to keep me on the standard academic track rather than pushing graduation forward a few years. (Given how weirdly underaged I looked, this may have been the healthiest course available at the time. When I consider high school, though, I'm tempted to second-guess.) And I remained "bad at math," which is to say better than average but not ridiculously better than average. Not a good look for a Young Scientist, and at odds with my enthusiasm for puzzle collections, One Two Three... Infinity, and Martin Gardner's columns.

From kindergarten through elementary school, fear and loathing occupied waking hours at school, home, and "playing outside" (i.e., evading my peers), and my sleep was broken by guilt-laden nightmares (I fail to save my family from fire, flood, famine, or freezing; I fail to save my family from a volcano; I fail to save my family from The Bomb). Yet life in the lap o' luxury was not complete misery.

In television-free Bremerhaven especially, the dark brown cobblestones and dark green foliage soothed eyes and mind, as did my father's copies of Playboy (watercolor cartoons! ladies with fascinatingly varied interests!). And there were Saturday movie serials, my favorites being the circus melodramas (ladies in tights! horses!), and matinee features, my favorites being the colonialist/wildlife adventures (elephants! but not enough ladies 2). One morning I opened our door and faced a precisely vertical wall of snow stretching far above my head; I was equally awestruck by the orchestra and lit scrims on my class's field trip to the opera house, and by the forest where my Cub Scout troop camped until I was demobbed by mumps, painfully reminding me (and my weary parents) of the strep throat which had curtailed the family's attempt to visit Istanbul.

More reliably, in Germany, in Cuba, and then in Virginia, there was the comfort of books books were fine; I was a mess but books were fine from the library, of course, and from our monthly trip to the dump (where with luck I might garner a textbook reeking of garbage-smoke), and within strict limits the twice-yearly-authorized Scholastic sale (soon replaced by careful gaming of the Science Fiction Book Club's loss-leaders, followed in my teens by gaming of the Book of the Month Club and the Quality Paperback Book Club).

Just as reliably but less explicably, there was, serially, one adult friend. By some mechanism which remains mysterious to me, the universe contrived that on each military base there reside one bookish, pleasantly disputatious Navy Wife who would be willing to host a peculiar little boy and converse for hours. Did my parents post a classified ad? Did there just happen to be that many bookish Navy Wives starved for company?

Aside from incidental bits of knowledge, these dates taught me:

  1. Social interactions could provide something better than terror, hatred, or intense boredom.
  2. Much as dodgeball justified terror and hatred or card games justified intense boredom, books could serve to justify these better interactions.
  3. Intelligent, interesting, and trustworthy people were most likely to be female. (I presumed, based on the evidence of author names, that some worthwhile men or, to be slightly less snotty, men who seemed worth emulating must exist somewhere, but it wasn't until age seventeen and a brief audience with pixilated Wilson "Bob" Tucker that I encountered one.)

The most ardent and formative of these friendships was the first, with Mrs.— I remember her eyes and her smile (and her relentlessly friendly Siamese cat) but her name I've lost... Mrs. Kubelik? Or am I thinking of Shirley MacLaine? Mrs. K (to give her for the nonce her new misnomer) collected and lent paperbacks of science fiction and pop-science (on which ground we met), and also parapsychology, reincarnation, astrology, and UFOlogy, on which ground we debated.

I took Con, under the unwieldy banner of rationalism, scientific positivism, religious orthodoxy (insofar as the military's deistic Protestantism could sustain such a concept), law-and-order, and patriotic tolerance: Truth, Justice, & the American Way. Although I hadn't checked those terms for completeness and consistency, they carried a full load of conviction, in both senses of the word.

1  This stopped at age ten after she asked whether Portnoy's Complaint was worthwhile and, based on reviews, I said "Sure."

2  At age twelve, this long-standing debt would be settled with interest by the miraculously not-for-mature-audiences-only rating granted Walkabout.

Elevenses : 1970 1973

JOHN FREEMAN: Can I take you back to your own childhood? Do you remember the occasion when you first felt consciousness of your own individual self?

CARL JUNG: That was in my eleventh year. There I suddenly, on my way to school, I stepped out of a mist. It was just as if I had been in a mist, walking in a mist, and then I stepped out of it and then I knew, I am. I am what I am. And then I thought, But what have I been before? And then I found that I had been in a mist, not knowing to differentiate myself from things. I was just one thing among many things.

- Face to Face, BBC, 1959

After seven years overseas, in 1970 we left Gitmo and landed stateside. Virginian high spring was so verdant my eyes watered.

One day that summer, doing nothing much, probably while sitting on the porch of our base housing, I felt something happen to me, in me, between me and not-me. My surroundings suddenly (it was quite sudden) snapped into focus and into depth, and I awoke, as if all I'd known until then had been a twilit coma and I'd become fully conscious. There was no other immediate revelation: only the pure sensation itself. And then I started to move and perceive.

Very slowly over the next few years I came to understand that my spirit's nosebleeds and broken toes and assflops weren't exclusively the product of clumsiness that I'd sometimes been walking into plate-glass windows or funhouse mirrors or at any rate prison walls not strictly of my own making.1

For example, it seemed as if I might not be the only sinner so tainted as to be shunned by the Voice of God. To an alarming extent, what most adults and children professed was faith in hearsay rather than replicated experiment. Even more alarmingly, few of them felt shunned. (Ten years later, the personal touch of Jayzus would become epidemic among my people. We were better off with hearsay.)

Somewhere in there I also began to notice that the demand for truth was asymmetrical: it could be safely made by those in power but not safely reciprocated by the powerless. Which seemed, against my grain, to lend the powerless (my brother, for example; or myself, as I ventured into less approved adolescent waters) some strictly limited moral justification to prevaricate.2

Somewhere in there I also became obsessed with mid-century American depressive celebrity-wits Oscar Levant, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber...— my introduction to our native species of Romantic Irony.3 "Teacher's Pet," Thurber's clumsy thrash against a riptide of resentful self-loathing, pushed Shock of Recognition into Sublimity of Terror. It didn't cure anything, but it surely counted as a treatment.

Somewhere in there I also learned why reading Playboy interfered with urination.

I entered sixth grade that fall. Because the Chesapeake public school was much larger than overseas base schools, or maybe because my cohort was older, for the first time I made some (three, to be precise) friends my own age. Bullying maintained its accustomed level but at least there was someone with whom to play chess and commiserate.

Also that fall, the local library received Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare, placing me in an awkward position. An Asimov completist, I'd easily downed the big-gulps of his Guide to the Bible as a summit meeting between authoritative voices. But in conversations with teachers, librarians, and Navy Wives, I'd already staked a claim that Asimov was indubitably better than Shakespeare insofar as Shakespeare had small physics and less biochemistry. Asimov's introductory tribute clarified nothing. The Little Leather Library's Tempest and Midsummer Night's Dream had always baffled me. Where was the appeal?

I used King John as the test case (why King John? beats me; I don't think my presumed bastardy played a part), refusing to move past it until I cracked the secret. And after increasingly brake-pumped re-readings, I more or less did. It turns out (stop me if you've heard this already) that patterns of sound and mouth-feel are more than disposable cartons of discovery; as portals they could be revisited, and replenish with fresh discovery.4 Moreover, this seemingly crazy, previously unsuspected reading technique could open other closed volumes, particularly volumes of poetry, and support thrift by extending their lifespans.

Also that fall, Miz Johnson made me good at math. She was the sort of teacher who transforms lives (and I do not fucking want to hear a whisper about Jean Brodie): charismatic, clear-sighted, articulate, and inexhaustible, at least by us. After a few observant weeks, Miz Johnson shifted me and one of my friends to a far back corner of the room, gave us new textbooks which included some basic proofs, and somehow contrived to guide us through high school algebra while simultaneously managing the rest of the sixth-grade class.

In the vocabulary favored by this current narrative, she demonstrated how one might approach mathematics as the exchange and extension of abstract verbal models of social reality. I was enthralled; I was absorbed. I was triumphant.

For example, if one be bird-witted, that is, easily distracted and unable to keep his attention as long as he should, Mathematics provides a remedy; for in them if the mind be caught away but a moment, the demonstration has to be commenced anew.
- The Advancement of Learning by Francis Bacon

Later that year, Miz Johnson improvised an equally powerful lesson in American political science when some kid's remark triggered an account of her path to the front of our classroom: the bribes, threats, and extortionate debts her grandparents and parents faced to retain a bit of land and a restaurant business; the extended family's decades of extended labor, waking when farmers did and reaching bed when bars closed; how their place became favored by the white elite at the cost of shucking and jiving and, when all else failed, a nails-spitting grovel only partly repaid by petty revenge served hot from the kitchen all to grant her and her siblings a chance to work their asses off with at least a shred of dignity.5

Seventh grade brought a follow-up lesson when one of my three friends announced he could no longer associate with us: accused of acting white, he needed to spend time with his own people. Another one, my fellow algebra student, the smallest and most eccentric of us when I first watched Rebel Without a Cause, Sal Mineo brought him to mind vanished between semesters; military school, I heard.

By eighth grade I'd negotiated a truce with base-housing bullies through neighborhood football: although I couldn't pass or receive, and never learned the rules, I made a fearlessly tenacious tackle. Harassment stayed the norm among my academic cohort but paused for a daily bus ride to high school, where I took trig and sub-pre-introductory French. In English class I had my first lesson in writing down to an audience; in social studies, I discussed McCarthyism with my equally-Republican teacher, eventually retaining respect for him but not for the Republicans.

Then my father retired from the Navy and decided to move us to my mother's home town, Braymer, Missouri, population 880, SAAH-LUTE!

1  It would take a few more years and a few ruined friendships for me to further understand that my prison staff shouldn't prop rifles beside them on their commute or bring their truncheons to the dinner table.

2  Which didn't train me to tell convincing lies any more than recognizing the moral justifiability of surgery made me a competent surgeon: I've only gone unbusted when functionaries lacked incentive to press the issue. Another reason to keep me out of your revolutionary cell.

3  In maturity I came to prefer the more abstractly lyrical defeatism of Robert Benchley.

4  From last night's insomniac reading:

Schopenhauer employs the laterna magica as a metaphor [...]:

“We can know everything only successively, and are conscious of only one thing at a time.... In this our thinking consciousness is like a magic lantern, in the focus of which only one picture can appear at a time.”

[...] Proust’s famous discussion of the metaphor in Le Temps retrouvé may be read as an answer to this contention. This passage on metaphors starts with the sentence, “Une heure n’est pas qu’une heure” [An hour is not merely an hour]. Genetic research shows that originally this sentence was slightly different: “Une lueur [shine, light] n’est pas qu’une lueur”, which is more than merely a textual curiosity since the form of time is compared to the projection of a magic lantern. This minor, yet remarkable, change illustrates how the internal rhymes analyzed by Jean Milly and Adam Piette not only figure within one version, but also between versions, so that they serve as a reminder that it is not so much the projected image that interested Marcel Proust, but rather the act of development. [...] In this Cahier 57, the paragraph ends as follows:

“Truth can be attained only when the writer takes two different objects, states the connection between them, and encloses them indestructibly in an indestructible link [lien], an alliance of words. The connection may be of little interest, the objects mediocre, the style bad, but as long as that is missing, there is nothing [rien].”

- Textual awareness: a genetic study of late manuscripts by Joyce, Proust, and Mann
by Dirk Van Hulle

(Earlier that evening I had read some similarly illustrative Swinburne, but Swinburne may be an embarrassment of portals.)

5  The US Navy was unforgivably late, even if relatively early, to re-integrate during the long death of Jim Crow, but enforced such a don't-ask-don't-tell approach that until we came stateside I truly believed such distinctions had been erased. Along similar lines, although my family had Jewish friends and I was deeply impressed by their reverence toward the Book, it wasn't until I was in college that my mother discovered that Judaism was not, technically speaking, a Christian sect.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.