Monday, June 28, 2010

Just back from Starbucks where I was reading a piece in the NYReview of Books about Deborah Eisenberg, whose complete works are just out from Picador, 980 pages! and the reviewer, Claire Messud, quotes a passage that exactly describes what life is like in the mundane daily sense, that "it wasn't really like anything--it was just whatever it was, and there was never a place in your mind of the right size and shape to put it. But afterwards, the thing fit exactly into your memory as if there had always been a place--just right, just waiting for it." And I was trying to think about what history was like, how the mundaneness, the "worn muzzle of the horse," the "wads of paer in the gutter," cannot get into history because history must necessarily be so much more distant from the sense of how life is lived internally, it is all about external relationships; and then I remembered the scene where his brother Joseph walks in on Napoleon in his bath to protest against the sale of Louisiana to the United States, and Napoleon shocks him by standing up, naked, to make his point, which was that he had made up his mind, and Joseph was not going to change it. And we miss this emphaticness for the most part because we don't know what would have shocked his brother in Napoleon's nakedness, for they were, after all, brothers--although I suppose nakedness is always a bit shocking. Anyway the not knowing is precisely the not knowing much about what life was like on a mundane level in France in 1803, and really cannot know, because you literally had to be there, that is how minute life is, a minute-by-minute thing, and therefore why fiction is so much more intimate and revealing and, ultimately, accurate than history. Lorraine has just finished reading Wolf Hall, the recent novel about
Thomas Cromwell, and even though I know the history, grew up with it in grad school, yet I was jealous that she had the time to read this novel, and I don't. But I could make time. I could read the novel instead of reading the NYReview of Books. Except that it would no doubt take me over, and I truly can't afford that.

But what life is like--that's what both historians and fiction writers are obsessed with, that question, getting it into words so we can communicate it; and it changes over time and from place to place. Life in 16th-century England was so definitely not what life is like for us now. We watched a bit of The Tudors recently and that was the disconnect for me. The actor playing Henry VIII just didn't have a clue what was going on in Henry's mind, not really; nor did the scriptwriter really get it. It is so hard to imagine the past. You can get all the details right--world lit only by fire, the heavy clothes against the winter chill inside the house as well as outside, the constant threat of deadly illness against which there were no remedies, the travel by water along the Thames, the absence of seating--and still never get close to the mental furniture. A friend gave me a CD of the music Henry had written, played on period instruments, and I listened to the delicate complexity of it and remembered the mixture of motives that went into its making, a mixture tinged by the growing awareness in England at the time of the accomplishments that men of Henry's class were supposed to be able to toss off, casually; and the music did not include the lyrics of "Greensleeves," which Henry wrote (the tune was traditional), which are exquisite. Most of this is missing from the character as played in The Tudors; that Henry is too much bluster, and thereby too uncertain. The actor misses the king.

The job for the historian is the job of any writer--getting it right. It's the fascination of what's difficult, and Yeats got that right in his poem of the same name. It's all about craft in the end, and the love of craft. I like to tell people the story of Giotto, approached by the Pope, whoever it was, to submit work for a competition, and, in the presence of the Pope's representative, took a brush, dipped it in red paint, and drew a perfect circle. Note that the Pope is a minor character in this anecdote. The tale comes from Vasari and, who knows? it may be apocryphal, but it makes the point. Popes are merely a means to an end. It is the art that matters. The I Ching makes a similar, but even more profound, point in one of its hexagrams. "Let the credit go to another. It is enough that the work be done." And in this respect, I sometimes think I might have given my soul to have written "O western wind," the little quatrain that stands at the beginning of early modern English poetry, whose author is unknown.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

June 23, continued

In any case, in any case...that's what I get for being in a hurry. Too many cases. Now this thing is public, and who will read it? We'll see. Navel gazing. Call it omphalos gazing, and dignify it.



January 27:

I took the bus to New York yesterday and was trying to read TLS on the way, but the two people sitting right behind me were chattering loudly and I found it impossible to shut them out. But it was a pretty day, so I looked at the clouds and—and who can trace the source of this thought?—imagined souls sitting on the edges of the clouds watching the traffic pass by on the LIE. Then I realized how difficult it was to think of them as anything but bodies, souls with actual eyes, yet, if they are what souls would have to be not to occupy space, formless, why would they need to sit on clouds to view a scene? Why would they be confined to single points of view like that, or need eyes? Then, pursuing that thought, I realized how truly impossible it was to imagine seeing things from multiple points of view simultaneously; and in theory even multiple doesn’t cover it, because once you admit the multiple you can stop only at the infinite. This led me to the speculation that the afterlife, the life souls lead once they have died as bodies, must be as limited in many ways as life itself; otherwise we would pass instantly into the totally unimaginable mind of—what to call it? what to call it is highly significant, and forever puzzling—the infinite consciousness that would have to exist to comprehend the universe, or, in some unimaginable sense, be it.

Yesterday afternoon I spent a little time at the Morgan Library looking at the drawings on display associated with Rome after 1600, late Mannerist to early Baroque, including a wonderful large piece by Michelangelo, and a single word suddenly popped up: putti. (Someone must have written a history of putti.) What do putti so often do, in ceiling frescoes especially, but sit on clouds and watch what’s going on, like a dramatic chorus of some sort? So there’s already a pre-existing trope of creatures sitting on clouds (but why are they infants?), indifferent to the physical laws of the universe, and that must be very old, and now I want to investigate it. The putti, that is.

It’s mid-day. This morning at Starbuck’s I was finishing up this issue of TLS and came across a review of a book about Satan, and again my mind followed the forked path of association toward the universe (all those science shows), whose size, forces, violence, etc., permanently astonish me; and I thought, in such a universe life can exist only at the fringes, only in a niche here and there where the conditions conspire (but do not attribute consciousness or intention to conditions; thought must be rigorous) to allow it. The universe is an improbable and impracticable vehicle for life, and if it has been created certainly the creator could have found easier ways to do so. Couldn’t it? Well, who knows? Literally, who knows? But the very existence of the universe in its permanently astounding mass and extent must eventually stagger and shatter any conventional sort of religion that has grown up in human societies over the centuries. For me modern astronomy must destroy the whole lot of them, all bloody and ridiculous, although touching; for any conception of the divine that fails to account for a minimum of 14 billion years of existence and at least a billion galaxies, each with a billion stars, and the hundreds of millions of planets that must exist capable of sustaining life, must fail to generate a sustainable religious belief. Persisting in a belief in Christianity, for example, founded on historical events, would have to mean somehow applying those historical events across those hundreds of millions of planets; and that is patently absurd.

But we need an evolutionary leap, perhaps, to reach a level of awe in the human mind capable of restoring us to our proper place in nature. Certainly to enable us to imagine the infinite in some way that goes well beyond souls sitting on clouds.

The day’s still young, however.

January 29:

Friday. Cold and windy, clear blue sky. If it were warmer I would find an excuse to spend some time outside, but it isn’t warmer. So after breakfast at Starbuck’s, where I did the NYTimes crossword puzzle, I drove past the water to take a look at the wind wild upon the face of it (the face of the water: wonderful Biblical image), and now I’m back here puttering on this page, and wishing I could start reading a book. Since finishing Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder in, when? December, I haven’t read a book for sheer pleasure. I’ve read two and a half books on Napoleon in Egypt for a little piece I’m writing, but not for pleasure, although they turned out to tell a great story, and I had fun reading them.

Four books came in the mail yesterday, but none of them caught my attention except the one I ordered for work.

But I cannot just abandon myself to it. The “work” I refer to is my next book project, which is going to require a frightening amount of reading in or relating to American history, and because it’s history and follows a narrative line of sorts, or at least a timeline, it makes most sense to plan the reading according to the chronology covered, although at the same time the acquisition of books and the research involved will sometimes fall out of that chronology. And there’s so much of it to be done that it’s daunting to think of reading spontaneously, reading because you want to let yourself go, forget your responsibilities and indulge in that version of the sin of concupiscence that is intellectual curiosity. Because if you allow yourself to follow your curiosity wherever it leads you, which is the best way to learn anything, inevitably you wind up walking away from your “work,” your project, to start another one, seduced by a story or a moment of clarity or a discovery no one else has thought of. That, in fact, is to some degree the story of my life. Distraction. Hundreds of magazine pieces in a dozen or more fields. I never thought I would be writing about Napoleon in Egypt, for example; but it’s a great story, and I let myself be seduced by it.

Still, I keep the books that look like they might excite me at some future point—like Nina Burleigh’s Mirage, for example, which came in for review a couple of years ago and which I kept out of instinct. It’s about the scholars Napoleon took with him to begin the study of Egypt that eventually became Egyptology. Hmmm—looks like my kind of book. It found its way within a couple of months to a shelf that’s on eye level with my bed, and I would look at the title from time to time when I was setting off to sleep and find myself drawn to it, and then the opportunity came to write something about Napoleon in Egypt and there the book was, to hand. I’ve read the book now and while it’s not a great book like Richard Holmes’s book, it’s pretty good, I learned a lot from it, and I finished it. I don’t finish books that aren’t worth finishing.

What is a great book is J. Christopher Herold’s Napoleon in Egypt, which covers the subject in rich detail, without there being too much of it, and is acutely alert to the numerous ironies inherent in Napoleon’s Egyptian project. I read this book with much pleasure and was glad I had taken the assignment precisely because it led me toward this book. It was published in 1962 and I doubt it’s ever been republished—maybe in trade paperback in the late 1960s, when Harper & Row was still doing Harper Torchbooks—which is a shame. The mechanism by which books stay in print is so chancy. Trollope, for example, was pretty much totally out of print by the early 1900s and was only rescued by the determination of one man—sorry, don’t remember his name, though it could have been Humphrey Milford—who, at Oxford University Press, started republishing his novels in the little Oxford World’s Classics series. This at a time when people thought of Trollope as a mere novel machine, grinding them out like hamburger meat. I read one of the Barchester books on a trip to Florida some years ago. I haven’t been back to him, but he remains a resource; in a certain mood, when you don’t want Dickens’s intensity or Austen’s subject matter, Trollope is just right. Just right.

January 30:

Turmoil in the house. Lorraine seems to be catching a cold and is sleeping right now. Lescek is here, painting the kitchen, or preparing to paint the kitchen; and I am trying to maintain some sense of order in the living room, and now in my office. I paid the last of the major bills this morning. We finally own everything outright, except for the house, which we own most of. We have paid for Paris, and Rome, and all those dinners out. I don’t feel any different.

Publishers continue to send me books, even though National Geographic Adventure is dead and gone, and my book column with it. I suppose they will always send me books; they don’t often edit their lists, and what will they do with all those books anyway? I feel for publishers. As a business it’s impossible. Book review venues continue to shrink, as do the number of independent bookstores, Borders is clearly on the point of disappearing. As always, the intellectual life of the nation is just not commercial enough to survive—or so it would seem. But it’s foolish to prognosticate about this situation. Alexander Pope was making the same complaints three centuries ago.

Two books came in the mail today, one from Yale University Press, the other something I ordered. If books didn’t arrive, and depart, constantly, I might go to the trouble of counting my library someday. My best guess right now would place it at about 7,000 books—close to the number Jefferson had in his library in 1815, when he sold it to the Library of Congress. At the time this must have been one of the largest private libraries in the country. No doubt it’s matched now by any number of scholars and a considerable number of collectors, but few ordinary people have the space for so many books. In, what’s the title? The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, one of Maria Vargas Llosa’s novels, the hero keeps precisely 4,000 books in his house. When he buys a new one, he burns an old—doesn’t sell it, burns it. He considers it an especially rigorous form of literary criticism to do so, and an act of self-discipline.

He ought to dismantle his fireplace.

But I have no compunction getting rid of books, it’s true. I give them away constantly, either because they have no value to me any more, or never really did, or because they have no value. In the last four or five years I’ve sold most of my rare books to a dealer in New Haven—actually, one of the best rare book dealers in the country, Terry Halladay at William Reese & Co.; I once wrote a piece about Reese for Town & Country, which is how I know Terry—because, a, I needed the money, and b, I knew my heirs would not know which of my books were valuable, or who to sell them to, or what to do with them. And it’s been unexpectedly satisfying to see some of my books appear in the Reese catalogues for sale. None of them were really pricey books; I never owned first editions of Melville or The Great Gatsby or anything like that. Still, buying and selling rare books is a wonderful game, all about knowing: knowing who’s in, who’s out, watching the tides of taste rise and fall, picking comers. I bought John Ashbery, for example, early on, signed copies where I could find them at an affordable price, not because I particularly liked his work, although some of it is interesting, but because I knew it was a good investment. You’re not supposed to do that as a collector; you’re supposed to collect what you love. But if you know what you’re doing there’s no reason not to invest, and wait patiently to see if you’re as smart as you think you are, and sell when the time is right. I’ve sold almost all my Ashberys now. Out of necessity, but without pain. Other choices haven’t worked out so well. Robert Coover, whose early short stories, Pricksongs & Descants, I found irresistible, my kind of fiction, has proven to be not all that valuable to collect.

But who will collect books when they’re all electronic? What will become of books as objects? Many of my friends have Kindles or some equivalent thereof. My agent reads manuscripts on a Kindle. If all your books were electronic you would never need a bookshelf; you could take hundreds of books with you wherever you went. The paper industry would go into decline.

Much of the appeal of books is aesthetic. They feel good in the hand; they have a satisfying weight to them—ordinary books, that is. A book-lined room is almost always handsome, and tends to have a warm, inviting feel to it. You associate books with sitting in a comfortable chair by the fire, reading, lost in a book. Leather-bound books in particular exude an air of old-fashioned knowledge, of a kind of wisdom, something that has lasted a long time. It is for some people just as satisfying to have a great library as it is to own great paintings—not as showy, to be sure, but all the better for it. The greater part of the downstairs walls in my house are covered with bookshelves. We have one wall crowded with prints (Don Rigoberto kept 400 prints, and the same rules applied: if he bought a new one, he burned an old one), but otherwise books prevail. But I am old. When I speak with my friend Bart, who is even more of a bookman than I am, we talk of ourselves as dinosaurs, doomed types, the last of our kind. Bart is a book and manuscript appraiser, one of the best in the country. He has handled extraordinary books. He once handed me—tossed across the room, actually—a first edition of John Keats’s first book, inscribed to William Wordsworth. A book like that has an aura of the sacred about it. After Keats’s death, when the public totally forgot him, you could buy copies of that same book in London bookstalls for four British pence. The price of two loaves of bread.

All books have an aura of the sacred about them, however slight. It took me years to learn how to throw books away. I was afraid for them. Books become rare because most of the copies of them disappear. We have only a small fraction of the Greek drama that was actually written and produced in classical times. In grad school I specialized in 16th-century English literature, and I knew that a great many Elizabethan plays, including probably some of Shakespeare’s (there’s a list of his plays contemporary with him that names plays no copy of which has survived), had vanished from the earth. Almost no one at the time took plays seriously as literature. The word literature did not mean what it means today. Shakespeare, as far as we know, never troubled to preserve his plays in book form, although some of them were pirated; he staked his reputation on his two major poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

Now I do throw books away. I take them to the dump, leave them on a concrete abutment there for anyone to adopt. Most of them are bound galleys, books not yet published. People do take them. Plenty of people read. The question is, will they still read books, long disquisitions on complicated subjects; or will they opt for new kinds of electronic shortcuts, reducing the world to Wikipedia articles, short takes on everything, knowingness, not knowledge. We live at a turning point, and it’s messy and deeply unsettling.

February 19:

We’ve been to Miami Beach and back. The kitchen has been painted, although the back door is not completely installed. The conference at the Sorbonne has been canceled; we won’t be going to Paris in June. Budget cuts. I’m relieved. I’m getting another cold, can’t seem to get rested and healthy. It’s this winter. Miami Beach was great, not quite warm but warm enough, took a walk, went to parties, had long talks with Tom, bought some clothes, saw Avatar in 3-D and at an Imax theater. Loved the 3-D and the beauty of the place, hated the movie, which was made, like most movies these days, for teenage boys. How come when I was a teenage boy they didn’t do that? But a silly movie. Came back, went to the Springs film festival, found it exhausting. We showed Raise the Red Lantern. Movie for adults. Slow, tension building, very beautiful, very claustrophic. They all hated it.
Now I’m reading for the new book. All about Marco Polo. It’s fascinating so far, Marco Polo and the wonders of the East; but because of the social pressures and the kitchen and the film festival, I haven’t had an original thought in what seems like weeks. That’s all right. A lot has to come into it; it’s usually saturation that generates original thoughts. I’m not saturated yet. I’m still making lists of books that have to be read, still wandering around the house seeing what I have. Tired as I am, though, I’m getting excited. When something you’ve wanted to do for fifty years finally becomes possible, when the windows open and the fresh air comes in—it begins to feel good. It’s much more important to me than the book that’s coming out right now. That was just a means to an end.

But it’s scary and intimidating, too. Such a huge subject. Completely unmanageable. I waver between delight and despair.

March 1:

Lingering colds. Lingering chaos in the kitchen, broken washing machine, and book interviews starting. It is difficult to think, difficult to work.

Well, not so difficult to think. This morning apropos of nothing it came to me while drinking tea at Starbuck’s and reading the paper that the only law of history anyone could believe in is the law of unintended consequences. It came to me. It’s the most basic thing that writing THE MAN WHO ATE HIS BOOTS taught me: every historical event or sequence of events, what we call a story, is different, but they all have pretty much the same outcome. They turn out differently from what was expected or meant to happen.

But thoughts, ideas, realizations, insights come in the middle of anything. It’s well-documented; they pop up like Internet ads in the mind, and there you are. Enlightened. But of course you have to have had them on your mind for a while for this to happen. Ideas about the American dream have been coming to me like that for decades. That’s why you keep a notebook, to write them down. Otherwise they are lost. Often it’s the same thoughts, same ideas, appearing again and again. Years apart. It’s one of the things that makes you understand that your mind has a mind of its own. I used to say that it was your body that had a mind of its own. True, perhaps, but so does your mind. “You,” I am beginning to think, what you have imagined as the center of the action, the “you” that signs contracts and gets married, is more or less a false identity, a construct. A necessary illusion.

That was a thought that came to me early this morning, on the toilet.

The snow is melting away. Again. The sun is shining fitfully this morning for the first time in maybe ten days. The hated grackles have returned to hog the feeder. I don’t like feeding grackles. Robins are in the area, later than usual this year. Robins are ground feeders and don’t seem to eat seeds. Jays, like many corvids, will eat almost anything. I’ve seen them snatch bugs out of the air. I’ve sometimes wondered when the bug is swallowed whether it lives for a moment inside the bird’s stomach, just as human heads that have been guillotined are presumed to live for a moment; they have been seen to try to speak. That’s from Camus. If there were a truth about the end of life that we could know, I mean KNOW, would we be happier? Less murderous, or more? Dostoevsky said that if there is no God, everything is permitted. A shallow view of things, in my opinion. If you give up certainty, it does not mean that the resulting uncertainty is necessarily amoral. It means that life is much more of a challenge than we bargained for. But challenge is what we were born to, and the noblest attitude is to face it without knowing, knowing only that we will never know, the outcome. That, basically, is from Keats, a more profound thinker, whose thoughts were deeply original. From his point of view, in any case, knowing is overrated. I would rather not know the outcome.

Well, I’ve done so much today. Showered, had two thoughts, had tea at Starbuck’s, taken the garbage to the dump, made arrangements to reschedule a postponed interview (with Boyd Matson at National Geographic, which evidently has a radio station, too), and written this entry in this recording of my inner life, whatever that is. And it’s not yet noon. It feels like a lot; it feels satisfying.

And it occurs to me now that when we die that “you,” that necessary illusion I mentioned, collapses into the other you we glimpse only occasionally, the permanent you that comes up with thoughts precisely like this one. But that’s only a guess, and I won’t cling to it. I tell people when they ask that yes, I do have beliefs, no doubt too many of them; but I am like a sailor who refuses to come to port, preferring to stay at sea. I actually do tell people that, only friends, of course, when every once in a while we get into conversation about these things and have these sophomore level discussions.

March 4:

I’m beginning to read the four-volume edition put together by Henry Yule, Sir Henry Yule, in the nineteenth century for the Hakluyt Society of medieval accounts of China. It’s a reprint; I don’t have the original. Yule goes into ancient knowledge of, or rather speculation about, China exhaustively, an impressive feat of scholarship that I doubt anybody can or would duplicate today. I like that about these old editions, that they were willing to track down every source, no matter how obscure. Into the 1950s that was still an ideal, something to emulate. It runs through the editions of the papers of Franklin and Jefferson that I’m slowly accumulating for my next book. Doing so is expensive, but these books don’t lose their value. But that kind of work, that exhaustiveness, is expensive; so you don’t mind that the books are expensive.

Occasionally I wonder what my library cost. I’ve been putting it together since college. Many, many thousands of dollars, I’m sure; but I’d have to subtract from the cost what I’ve gained by selling books. I haven’t kept track of that, either. Why would I do that, except for tax purposes?

Early accounts of China are full of “wonders,” men with the heads of dogs, men with faces not in their heads, which they did not have, but on their chests, and so on and so on. China was far away; nobody went there; nobody was sure for that matter where it was. A convenient place, therefore, to locate “wonders.” And great riches, fabulous wealth. But it turns out that the same “wonders” permeate Chinese mythology. These “wonders” they located, of course, someplace else. That’s a lovely little piece of irony, don’t you think?

Well, back to it.


We were in New York the last two days, I did an interview for NPR at their studios on Wednesday, it seemed to go reasonably well, then we had dinner with friends that night and on Thursday morning went to the Met. I looked at the show of Bronzino drawings, Lorraine at a photography show called “Surface Tension.”

The drawings were magnificent, and after seeing a number I finally began to understand why drawings appeal to me. It’s the contrast with the paintings they were studies for, in most cases. The curator displayed photographs of some of these paintings and at long last I could see how much fresher the drawings were. This is a cliché of drawings commentary but I hadn’t fully gotten it before. This time I got it. Something about Bronzino, maybe. I’ve always found his paintings overwhelming, very intense, especially the portraits, which stare back at you so that you begin to think you are the portrait, and the sitter the viewer; but the drawings are more intriguing, more revealing, more intimate. You could also see in the drawings of crowded scenes, really crowd scenes, a great many figures human and divine gathered around some event, say, or a figure like Christ or the virgin, what you might call a symphony of curves. In the paintings each figure will pop more, thanks to color and color variation; but in the drawings the number of figures and the tangle of curves leans toward the abstract. After Pollack we can’t help but look at such tangles without thinking of what happened to art in and after Cubism. So that the modern movement seems to have always been latent in older art.

Well, maybe that’s a stretch. I don’t know. Afterwards we found a display, three rooms full, of French deco objets, and discovered that a wine glass we own, given us by Tom and Pace, is Lalique; because the very same glass, a pair of them, was on display in one of the cases. That gave us pause. We’d never known our glass was Lalique and didn’t know what to do with it anyway because it’s so delicate. You were afraid to touch it. Now it’s in storage. I think we’re going to get it out. We went through this exhibition in any case as we like to do and we each picked out one object we could take home. Lorraine chose a large blue glass vase with a polar bear on it. I chose a smaller vase in a vivid red and black design. But we each liked the other’s choice. It was Seymour Knox who taught me to do that when I interviewed him for the story I did on him for Connoisseur all those years ago. It transforms the way you visit a museum or a gallery. You can take one thing home; what will it be? You can’t, of course, but if you pretend you can it really wakes up the way you look at art.

I would like to spend a month at the Met. Then, of course, write a book called A Month at the Met. I very much miss writing about the art world. Michael Fried has a book coming out on Caravaggio; it will be years, probably, before I read it, but I’m going to buy a copy anyway. Michael Fried. Odd how friendships fade away. I wonder if he will react, assuming he sees the review of my book in the Sunday NYTimes Book Review. Will I hear from anybody from Princeton when the story in PAW comes out? That will be interesting. A member of the Class of ’58 emerges from obscurity.

So: Monday I leave on tour. Be interesting to see how well I stand up to all that travel. When the next two weeks are over, in any case, I’ll be able to get back to my new/old project, and bury myself in it.

March 14:

It has stopped raining. We sprang forward last night; I was awake at one fifty-five, watched the digital clock face on the Cable box go from one fifty-nine to three. Odd. We play, not with time, but with numbers. Were there numbers in the Garden of Eden? Did Adam number things, as well as name them? He must have. Numbers are sacred.

I have to pack, but I keep putting it off. I am like that. Half of me doesn’t want to go. The other half is eager to get out of here and see a different ocean. The first time I flew to L.A., I remember, I rented a car and drove all the way to Palos Verdes to look at the Pacific, even though a short drive to Santa Monica would have done it. By tomorrow evening I will be in the presence of real mountains, in Albuquerque; and that will excite me. Whenever I see a mountain I want to climb it. That’s primal. That has always been the case. Mt. Rainier. My best essay, “Running Down Mt. Rainier.” But not quite as good as I remembered it, when I read it over not too long ago.

Leaving is an internal necessity right now. I need a break from life; I need to be alone, even if in a crowd, rewire my brain, and see. Ride the clouds, to find out if there really are putti in the sky. I did not buy the book about putti. (Instead I must buy Michael Fried’s new book about Caravaggio.) A way of getting out of here, out of this horizontal landscape, suitable for drowning.

I must go.

March 28:

To New York tomorrow, another day of interviews—one with Lewis Lapham—and another reading, and I’m almost done with publicity and promotion. The book tour was what it was. I got to like doing the readings as I got better at it. Long-lost people showed up: one of my college roommates, for example, Bob Burr, who had a quadruple bypass last year and whose wife has MS. Interesting story there. His first wife ran off with what I remember was a Japanese grocery boy and she took their two very young children with her. When I saw him last he had never been able to find them, even though he divorced her and was given legal custody. He told me when I saw him in Menlo Park that he had found his kids many years later through her parents and with the help of a private detective. She, it turns out, had died young, at 38, of alcoholism. His daughter by this marriage was in the military and he has a relationship with her. His son, however, is cold and distant, and blames him for what happened. There are people who can’t get over things, whose anger never fades. I also made a point of looking up and having dinner with Owen Edwards, and we had a great time together. A fine time with other old friends in Seattle. Mountains, the Pacific Ocean, excellent hotels, generally good food. I could have spent a week in Powell’s in Portland, OR. The “City of Books,” they call the store, a square block of new and used. Really splendid funky place. That was my tour. Glad I went.

But I had no thoughts. The whole time, no thoughts. I read a book by William Pfaff, not yet out, that confirmed my own ideas about the direction of American life and politics, but these were not new thoughts to me; I already agreed with them, I had had them on my own. I didn’t see any souls sitting among the clouds, mainly because I almost always had aisle seats in the planes. I read various issues of TLS, London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, but nothing generated any thoughts. Maybe it was being tired. Maybe it was the time zone changes. Maybe I’m drying up. In any case, no thoughts; and that was the most disappointing thing about the trip.

April 13:

Just got back from the dermatologist’s office, where he froze three spots on my face, one of them in my beard. I’ve been picking at that one and will miss it. No pleasure quite like having something to pick at around your person.

I’m very fond of my dermatologist. We’re about the same age, and I think of him as having saved my life, twice, by finding melanomas on my skin before they could metastasize. I went to him years ago when I discovered what I knew was skin cancer, but of the least dangerous kind, on the tip of my left ear; it was a sore that wouldn’t heal and I said basal cell carcinoma and after three months of delay made an appointment. Dr. Bernard W. Berger. He cut off the cancer and then, looking me over, said, “What’s this?” It was a mole on my right arm that looked weird, and I hadn’t noticed it, and he took that off, too, and had it tested, and lo, a melanoma. The lab that tested it was owned by one of my college classmates, somebody I had known slightly. We are a superstitious species and I took that as a sign. A good sign. It was very shallow, and the survival rate for melanomas that shallow, he told me, was 95 percent. After that I went back every six months for a few years. Now I go back every year, more if I find something suspicious on my body. He found a second dark patch, this one on my chin, some years later. It didn’t look like a mole. He said we had to take it off. My second melanoma, it turned out. He sent me to a plastic surgeon in New York because it was on my face and he, Dr. Berger, was a butcher, he said, while this other fellow would keep me looking pretty. It took two visits to get it all, and the result is that my face is unbalanced. Look at me straight on and enough flesh has been taken off the one side that it’s unsettling. So I wear the beard to disguise that fact.

When he did get it all and had it tested and was taking out the stitches, this other doctor said, very cheerfully, “Well, it won’t kill you.” But it did kill my brother. Shortly after I had the first one removed Charles told me he had had a mole that was bleeding dug out of his back. It, too, was a melanoma, a “level three,” he said. “Level three,” as it turned out, was extremely hazardous. It took fifteen years for something to happen, during which he had no symptoms and never went back to a doctor, because he “didn’t believe in doctors,” during which indeed he felt fine; but then he caught a cold he couldn’t get rid of, that only got worse, until finally it became clear that what he was blowing out his nose wasn’t the usual juice, but little bits of his brain. The melanoma had finally metastasized to his brain. He had three operations on his brain to remove tumors, but he was dead within a year. My brother was a smart man in many respects, but in others he was an idiot. “I don’t believe in doctors”? That’s absurd. He told me before he died that his attitude toward doctors had been a mistake. All I could think was, at least he’s learned something from this. A hard thought, I suppose, when your brother is dying. I was angry with him. For someone so smart to be so stupid. In your 60s you’re supposed to be well past magical thinking; but Charles wasn’t. He was one of those people who think they’re never going to die.

We both had dark hair and fair Scandinavian skin, and when we were growing up we spent our summers at the Jersey Shore, where our parents had a little cottage with three tiny bedrooms, a kitchen, and an L-shaped living/dining room; and we lived outside, he and I. But Charles spent more time outside than I did. When he was old enough he started clamming to make money for college and, strong and industrious, he would spend six hours in the waters of Barnegat Bay, three hours each side of low tide, bending over to reach for the clams that he found with his feet treading in the mud. I would go out with him sometimes and add to the total, but never for six hours, and I was never as industrious as he was. For six hours every day, then, Charles endured the sun beating on his back, and it’s a wonder the melanomas didn’t appear earlier. He did make a lot of money, though--$20 a day. We drove the clams to the seafood market in Ship Bottom and they paid him a penny a clam. He could do that—2,000 clams a day. Twenty dollars a day then was a good wage. It was the 1940s. It was a different world.

“The past,” someone wisely said, “is a foreign country.” As an historian, you have to be aware of the strangeness of the past all the time. It will trip you up if you assume too readily that something in it seems familiar.


More rain today.

I have been working hard the past month, since the book rush, the publicity rush, has been over, trying to find my way into the next book, even though it’s a book that has been on my mind for more than forty years. On my mind, yes, but the final structure, and the initial approach, and the actual facts need to be in my mind, anchored there, before I can begin to write or even do an outline. And right now there’s no route across this ocean yet. The other book was easy: tell the story, which had a clear beginning, a clear end, and the matter in between. Here it has to be shown that there is a story to begin with, and it’s not an obvious story at all. I’m trying to write the inner history, the history of the hidden desires of the American people, and it has no plain narrative to it. It changes, it develops, but not as a narrative. It is rather the music that drives the narrative, the thing that sets it going in the direction it takes, the steps it introduces into the dance; and music, with some exceptions (Bolero?), has no narrative drive. So the book has to proceed as episodes, or what might be called “movements,” rather than as an overall story. These episodes will, I hope and believe, reveal the mentalite, the passions, of the period covered; but one episode won’t necessarily drift into the next and this is going to give the book a somewhat jerky quality. The episodes will have to be smoothed over, bridged in the writing, i.e. brilliantly, with apercus, with unexpected insights, if I can produce them. And here is where the originality will lie, if I can be original at all. It’s going to take a lot of that elusive thing, historical imagination. I will be demanding a great deal of myself. Which, after forty years, is only fitting.

The clouds are beginning to break outside. When it’s raining the grey in the sky is often uniform, shapes do not emerge from it. Now shapes, different intensities of grey, are beginning to emerge. Such a sky can be beautiful, not just visually but also for what it promises, something unpleasant, limiting, coming to an end. It impresses me still, incidentally, that Jefferson took walks all around Paris whether it was raining or not, on the theory that water was only water and couldn’t hurt you, it could only make you wet. TJ, ever rational. But he was sick for months after he arrived, as was Hawthorne when he got to Rome. (One more instance of an American becoming ill on arriving in a European city and we’d have an American trait.)

I wish my book were about Jefferson. Jefferson in Paris. There have been books on the subject but none would be as thorough as mine. I would learn French for the occasion, and spend six months in Paris doing research, and, even in my 70s, change my life.


A beautiful morning. Now, cloudy and windy; but still a beautiful morning. I should be out pulling weeds, and might be, but for the allergies. Nothing like a good strong wind to pollinate the nose. Instead I sit inside at this computer waiting for the cleaning girls to finish, so I can go downstairs and read. They come every two weeks. For two hours, controlled chaos. My wife takes the process very seriously. Then they’re gone, and I can work and think. But it’s nice to have the house neat for a little while. There’s a great deal to be said for the bourgeois virtues, which have to be trained into children—into boys, at any rate.

Household things do have their power. I suspect that one reason I live the life I lead as a writer is because I started out with a vision of myself sitting by the fire in a comfortable chair in a comfortable house reading, a very English vision that must have come from reading Dickens in college, or Fielding; I don’t really know. In the house I owned with my first wife in Westchester in the 1970s I realized that vision. We had a fireplace built in the front parlor and I used to light a fire evenings and sit in the Lincoln rocker my mother gave us and read well up to midnight, sometimes sipping Scotch. I think I knew that I was living out a vision of myself, that I was aspiring to be someone I was, perhaps, not, but it felt good for a while, until the marriage collapsed under the weight of its own illusions. Now, in this house, there’s a fireplace, but we never make fires, and I read by it, but only because that’s where the most comfortable chair in the house is to read, and while the house brims with books, there are too many for it ever to be neat and orderly; and orderliness is a big part of that vision. Along with old books, preferably leather bound and rare. And here I’ve sold most of my rare books in order to finance my day-to-day life. Besides, real work has nothing to do with reading by the fire. I sold my rare books without much regret, too. At bottom it’s texts I want, good scholarly texts. Those are the books that most appeal to me. I want to know, and for that one needs the most reliable texts, not the rarest.

To know, to know. What is it to know? I was attracted years ago by reading a bit of Sextus Empiricus, that great epistemological skeptic who doubted we could know anything. Then I came across Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and thought, yes, that sounds like reality; then Keats on not knowing, the famous Keatsian negative capability, and I’ve nurtured that. It’s what disturbs me about the news, that it’s always insufficiently reported, no matter what. One reads, say, the London Review of Books or the New York Review of Books, or any number of other increasingly knowledgeable sources, to get beyond the inescapable superficiality of the news, to find out what’s really going on, but the fact is that even history never quite finds out what’s really going on. One is always telling stories and they have too much shape, too much structure to capture the underlying chaos. Truth is liquid, said my friend Jeffrey Potter, and he had it right. You can give it form only by pouring it into a container; and that container must by its very nature exclude the bulk of it. Truth is an ocean with currents and tides and rogue waves, and we cannot encompass it. Look at the Hubble pictures, watch the science channels. It’s all there, in the oceans of space: reality, itself something uncertain and unknowable.

The house is clean, the girls are going. Polish girls, their English uncertain, but excellent at cleaning. Like the Dutch. Bless them.

MAY 3:

More rain today. Rain here on the glacial moraine vanishes into the ground, which is all sand and, underlying that, the broken stone glaciers create. Elsewhere rain has more of a signature; here it is plentiful enough, but no puddles form in our back yard. We were temporarily trapped in Starbuck’s this morning with the papers, waiting for it to ease up. Ultimately we ran for it. It’s only water.

Still working out the basic chapter, the second, of the new book. Part of it is just waiting. You see the problems, you read up on the material, and you wait for your mind, your deeper mind, to generate a solution. Such a mysterious process! Clearly we think more than we think we think. What the Buddhists so aptly call our monkey minds are mere surface; so much of the real work goes on underground. Who we really are lies underground, like that broken stone, like those buried giants of folklore; that’s where the roots of the trees seek the water, it’s where the water abides.

Well, hardly an original metaphor. I have been reading Columbus’s Diario of the first voyage, as transcribed by Las Casas, and it’s both fascinating and boring at the same time. Every new harbor he finds is better, more beautiful, capable of housing larger and larger navies, than the last; the people are more innocent, more docile, the trees more plentiful, more different from the trees in Spain, and so on and so on throughout the day. But he is always looking for gold. He coasts Cuba looking for gold, asks every Indian he meets, “by signs,” where the gold is. He is remarkably single-minded. So I must ask, what does gold signify? Is it more than wealth? I do know that the alchemists had a mystical relationship to it, which Carl Jung mined in paper after paper, volume after volume, to the effect, apparently, that gold was linked symbolically with spiritual purity, so that the acquisition of gold was somehow instrumental to attaining spiritual purity. It was not called the philosopher’s stone without reason. I should know what those reasons were; that’s another way to give depth to texts, by hinting at just such resonant associations. And these mystical explorers with their semi-medieval minds certainly understood things in that way. But, as I say, Columbus’s single-mindedness is dull. Hard reading. I have to vary it with other things, with Peter Martyr’s letters, with some modern scholarship, which comes by the ton. And I’m off to do that now.


Much later in the day, I’ve been reading Hugh Thomas’s Rivers of Gold, in all its remarkable depth of detail, and came across his description of the effect of the weather on the personality of Queen Isabela of Castile, wife of King Fernando, i.e. Ferdinand and Isabella of Columbus fame, and I thought, well, that’s an interesting question. Then I remembered how little real weather there was in Westfield, N. J., and how much in Brant Beach, N. J., where we spent our summers as a family in our little cottage, and I could see the point. Brant Beach with its wind, its thunderstorms, Capt. Brown predicting their course and direction with remarkable accuracy, the wild surf, sailing in high wind, all those things: they marked me. They really did. So I tell people even now that I grew up on the Jersey Shore and that I had my first boat when I was nine years old, or perhaps ten.
When in fact I grew up in Westfield, N. J., attending school, living in a suburban house surrounded by other suburban houses, well protected from wild weather, impressed only by the occasional heavy snow, like the great snow of 1947. Near the water is how to live.

May 6:

It’s becoming interesting to step back and watch a certain degree of clarity begin to emerge in my approach to the new book. And to see as well how much work went into the original effort on the new book, some thirty or more years ago. I’ve been looking through a notebook I kept of things, mostly academic pieces, to be consulted back then and it’s amazing how many of them there were, how much effort I put into finding and reading bibliographies. Probably most of it came from America: History and Life, now defunct. I was searching for a method, spent most of my time indeed trying to figure out precisely what approach to take, how to get into it. I think I know now how to get into it, but it certainly has taken a very long time. It’s as if some version of the mind were a mole, blind but purposeful, tunneling through buried material until it reaches the surface and lets the light in. OK, that’s not a very good metaphor, but I do understand that I couldn’t have written the book then, or if I had, it would have been a very different book, and not a good one. The blind mole had to do what it does and America, both its history and its life, had to change. Had to lose its belief in its own innocence. You can see the agony of this change in the Tea Party people now, one epiphenomenon erupting from the surface, people who feel that they have “lost their country.” It was always better earlier. There was always a golden age, and it’s always been lost.

So I’m sticking with Columbus. That’s the way in, his mind, his example, his belief system. And it’s a great story.

MAY 12:

On the wall facing me, a poem by Zbigniew Herbert: “Why the Classics,” as a reminder. A large map of Mt. Rainier, to remember the day I ran down it, and the piece I wrote about it for GQ. A picture of a fox looking for a way to cross the ice over a melting stream, for the line in the I Ching. In hexagram #64. Various snapshots of Northwest Coast Indian masks. A rusted mask made out of some kind of sheet metal, which I picked up at a yard sale for I think a dollar. Two pictures from the Everglades, by one of its well-known photographers. A Ken Robbins photo of goldfish in a pond, a gift from Ken, framed. A photo of the Earth from outer space, pinned to the wall. A photo of a woman’s perfect breast, and beside it, on the same sheet, a woman’s bare arms and legs stretched out together: remarkable photo. A photo of a lion peering out of tall grass, its tail waving behind it above the grass. And the little drawing by Tom Harris of Molly’s behind, Molly walking away, and this statement: “If you ain’t the lead dog, the view never changes.” Not, I’ve discovered, original with him. All of these things are tokens of something or other. Reminders. This room is very crowded, mostly with books, which are themselves reminders. Sometimes I wonder how I work amidst all the clutter, and it always feels good to straighten it up; but the truth is, I just don’t have enough room, so it rapidly fills up again, and I seem able to work regardless. Because the work is done facing this screen, and that screens everything else out. I can feel the mess behind me, but only when I’m idle. It’s a question maybe of peripheral vision. On the left wall beside me stands Mt. Rainer again, a large framed photograph of it, once again a reminder. Then a little snapshot of the mouth of the Russian River in California, where we stayed that time. Just below it, John Franklin’s autograph, from an envelope sent to somebody in 1828. That was a gift from Tom Harris. He thinks it helps to have a physical token of what you’re writing about nearby, in one’s office. Be interesting to know what of this sort of thing he keeps in his office.

On top of the computer, a small Makah basket, the one I bought from the old woman on the Makah reservation in the state of Washington. In the basket, an eagle feather. Picked it up off the ground on that island in Willapa Bay. I’m not supposed to own an eagle feather, but here it is. It’s not as if I plucked it off the eagle. A golden eagle, I suspect. I could, if I were that kind of person, attribute all my success to the eagle feather; but I’m not that kind of person, except when I am. One should not seek to be too consistent. If you entertain all the possibilities, you’re only wrong some of the time, not all of it.

MAY 14:

Charles’s birthday tomorrow. He would have been 77. I cannot say I miss him because he was never part of my conversation; but I am who I am at least in part in opposition to him, in an almost conscious determination not to be like him. I really did leave my family behind after Princeton, only to discover that they were all very much a part of me, an island in that river Heraclitus made the image of constant change. I had internalized them. I tell people now what wonderful parents I had, and it’s true, they were wonderful people, kind, generous, incredibly supportive. Nobody wants the memoir I was trying to write last fall but I’m going to write it anyway. In a way I think it’s to make up for the stupid attitudes I harbored toward them because they didn’t, couldn’t, understand me. Well, who can? I can barely understand myself. The narcissist never sees his narcissism for what it is. I’m reminded of the story about Socrates and the physiognomist who told him that, reading his face (that’s what physiognomists do, they read faces), it was obvious that he was a bad person, with a nasty heart, and Socrates replied that it was true, that all the qualities that people admired in him had been qualities he cultivated, knowing that he was nasty. Know thyself, said the inscription at Delphi. Not an easy task.

Too bad America doesn’t have that inscription carved over the doors of the Supreme Court.

The day started off cool and damp and is now warm and damp, and close to sunny; only a few high clouds stand in the way. A front came through. Another will come through tonight, and tomorrow promises to be cool and breezy and very sunny. I’m going to devote the day to weeds. I went downtown earlier, then drove to Canio’s and bought a few books in American history, peripheral books, but with books you never know. If there were only central books, books that told your story, who would write? It hasn’t all been said. As long as there are archives, sources, there will be books. Bob Caro told me once with a real gleam in his eye how much he loved working in archives, and I can remember doing the same in the Fairchild archive I put together, going through the files looking for the story to tell, the narrative thread that counted, the one that, pulled, would uncover the truth. I remember the excitement I felt when I discovered that Fairchild himself was not responsible for the discovery that led to his signature invention, the between-the-lens shutter for his aerial camera. It was a Swedish machinist who invented it, who figured out how to solve the problem inherent in building a large shutter in which thin metal leaves would travel very short distances at huge accelerations, which tended to twist the leaves and jam the shutter and make it unworkable. When I asked Fairchild about it he said that it didn’t matter to him who invented it, only that it worked. But his name was on the patent.

Well, it was naïve of me to think the machinist’s name would have been on the patent. Business is business. In most collective enterprises, indeed, it’s the boss who gets the credit.

It’s getting on toward five o’clock. Couldn’t do much work today—I’m worked out; the week was intense. I’m writing the outline for the book, and, while I can’t say much about any given chapter as I go along, it has to have its own sort of narrative line and its own appeal. It’s a document designed to raise money, to get people to invest—in me, in my book. And enable us to live, to keep the house, to finance food, clothes, a little travel now and then, trips to the museums. Pressure? Heavy pressure. This is my life’s work I’m looking at. I’m 73; I’d like to take it easy for a month or two. Can’t be done. What I do is a calling, like a priesthood. I knew at sixteen this was what I wanted to do. Wanted to write. Seemed to have a gift for it. Looked like the best way to know thyself. Short of sitting zazen all my days, it is.

Time to take a walk.

MAY 16:

Driving to Greenport today to have lunch with Lynn and Jerry. Should be fun. Yesterday I worked outside a few hours, pulled dandelions out of portions of the lawn, cut down the junk growing under and entwined around the two arbor vitae by the corner of the house, still more trees that sprang up here that we let grow. L wants to get rid of them, I want to keep at least one. We’ll see who wins. But the maples spring up everywhere. This would be a maple forest if it were allowed to revert to nature. Or a forest of red cedars, which are everywhere in the lawn as tiny seedlings that the lawnmower redistributes to the soil. The birds must eat the berries—red cedars are really juniper trees—and do their own redistribution of the seeds.

Someday I hope to write an ode to the birds. Their cold, hard eyes, their fears, their single-mindedness. I’ve seen birds do a great many fascinating things. And the goldfinches—what a yellow! I’ve come to hate cats as a result. I used to keep them, Siamese, mostly, but they are such killers, of birds and chipmunks, I want them gone. And it’s not as if they’re hungry.

It’s lovely out, but the allergens are a problem. I remember distinctly the day I became allergic to some sort of spring pollen. My first wife, her parents, and I were in Swarthmore, PA, watching my first wife’s brother either get married or receive his degree, can’t recall which, and it was a beautiful day like today and I had an intense and utterly unexpected reaction, my nose running, eyes itching, coughing, and it came on without warning. Since then, every spring, a pollen of some species hits me early in May, about the time our bridal veil shrub in the front yard blooms. I don’t know that it’s the bridal veil; yesterday when I was near the wegelia bush, also in bloom, that affected me; away from it I was okay. I’ve never had myself tested because I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it anyway, and besides, it’s not so bad; as a curse, it’s minor. I’m that way. When an internist told me after a colostomy that my bowel was twisted, but he could operate and fix it, I declined the offer. Why would I go through an operation to fix something that’s been only a minor inconvenience to me through my life? You learn to live with things. Swedish stoicism, I suppose. My father was the same, and it certainly feels temperamental. Stoicism from my point of view saves you a lot of trouble. You count yourself lucky that it’s not so bad.

MAY 17:

This morning that same twisted bowel is inflamed, hurts, and is giving me cramps. Anxiety. It’s one thing to practice stoicism, something else to deal with the anxiety attendant on living on one’s wits. And it’s all anxiety. We are embodied, and our bodies act out our mental condition. This is why Indian mystics beg for their livings. It’s a lesson in the control of the body, and in trust. Trust to what? you ask. Trust in destiny. That’s another way of saying, trust in who you are. Trust that it is all meaningful, no matter what you think.

MAY 19:

Today I bought an Iacono (locally raised free-range chicken; we’re feeding another couple) and remembered the time I had been there years ago and they butchered the creature right on the spot, shoving its body down this stainless steel funnel so that its head emerged from it at the bottom, then cutting off the head. The funnel contained the body so that it couldn’t struggle free out of the hands and run around the shop, headless. When I was a child the man next door kept chickens and used to chop off the head on a chopping block, then let the chicken run all over his yard. I’ve never forgotten. I was a child, and curious, and he explained to me that the bird’s brain is only a small part of its nervous system and the ganglia in the spine continued to function even when the head was gone, at least for a few seconds, and thus the running about in a panic, always, of course, too late. Too late the panic of cattle in their slaughterhouse chutes.

Was it Krishna who said in the Bhavagad Gita that one should not fear to go into battle and to kill, because every creature has its appointed time.

So it was an aspect of myself that I was not surprised by when I discovered at college, after I joined ROTC and was trained at Ft. Sill as an artillery officer, that, a, I was quite good at directing artillery fire on targets, and, b, I enjoyed it very much and would have enjoyed it in battle, which, thankfully, I never had to endure; and it is also the case that I feel few compunctions about killing animals, and over the course of one summer years ago killed six skunks who had taken up residence in the crawl space under the house my first wife and I owned in Westchester. I shot them with a .22. And the killing of chickens to eat is something I can watch without regret, or even compassion.

Previous generations, I believe, would have accepted this as a matter of course. But a good many of my friends think of all killing as barbaric, and would abolish war. I do not think war will ever be abolished, and if you have to fight one, you should fight it as well, as honorably as you possibly can. I have stood behind a 105-mm. howitzer and watched the shell climb into the sky in a graceful arc, then disappear into the haze, and my reaction? How beautiful. I was very proud of my record as a forward observer. I could look at the landscape and feel it in my eyes; I had an instinct for how far away things were, for reading maps, for the puffs of smoke and dust that told you where the first shells had landed. I think it came from racing small boats at the Jersey Shore, and looking over the water for buoys, puffs of wind, channel markers; but maybe not. Maybe it was all just instinct. But I remember how pleased I was when I first met Philippe de Montebello and discovered he, too, had been an artillery officer, and at about the same time I was. Dostoevski went to a military school. I loved firing howitzers. I think I might have loved battle, too.

All this from watching a chicken butchered? Well, why not.

MAY 20:

A day largely wasted. These days happen; you reach an impasse in your work, you have to say something, do something, write something and you don’t know what to say or do or write. I spent much of the day looking for books in my library that would help me out of this closet, and found most of what I needed. But the getting on with it, well, that didn’t happen. And now I’m writing this confession, talking to the priest or the analyst who sits behind this screen, in judgment. Well, as Rimbaud said, je suis un autre—and stopped writing forever.

And what would that be like? Unimaginable. I write, therefore I am. Perhaps I would garden full time, or stare out to sea, waiting to die. But the little pains would get to me all too soon, the twinges, cramps, the disturbing cough, the thousand cuts by which we know that we are mortal. Keep writing and you don’t notice them, live with a purpose, do what you are driven to do, and you just keep on going and trust to luck that you’ll finish before you die. Or, better yet, that you don’t finish, that you die at your desk, as the astrologer once told me was my fate. The astrologer. Yes, Leor, sweet man that he was. It is very hard to explain to people about astrology. I don’t believe in it, in the sense that I regard it as an accurate predictor of the future, either personal or otherwise; nor do I think that actual physical influences emanate from stars and planets that affect our lives. Yet, like Carl Jung, I can see its value as an emblem of fate; and Jung cast people’s charts when he analyzed them and used the charts as a kind of template of their personalities, and what Leor told me about my personality was dead on. Leor was also somewhat psychic and would see things about his clients that had little to do with their charts. Astrology is, furthermore, very old, and I think it wise to suspend judgment on something people have believed in for thousands of years. However rational we think we may be, we don’t know everything. The uncanny nature of coincidence reminds us that more is going on than we know. I have been surrounded by coincidences, some of them quite strange. I’ll write that piece someday soon, I hope. If I don’t die writing something else first.

Tomorrow, then, after I mow the lawn, perhaps I’ll get some serious work done.

JUNE 21:

A full month since the last entry. A full month since I shut my rapidly failing computer down, in order not to lose data. Now I'm capable of working again, new computer, new printer, everything transferred, including the 985 documents from my old hard drive, which sits on the table behind me. Was it only two decades ago that I was writing on the IBM Selectric I stole from the Fairchild office? I think it was. Remarkable. Witnesses to a technological revolution, we all learned to adapt. Some more quickly than others. Myself, slower than most.

I spent most of the month reading, and very fruitfully, for the book. Paul Veyne's book is the one that I found most exciting. Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? is the title, and it's a short book but takes a lot of attention. I'm still not done with it. What he shows is that yes, they did, and no, they didn't, all at once and depending pretty much on the context. They were quite capable of placing the myth in its own time, apart from the real time of the present, while simultaneously living very practically, in the political sense, in the present. For example, because this isn't a very clear explanation yet, Greek city states had founding myths about the heroes and gods who founded the city in the distant past, when heroes lived and gods interfered in the affairs of men, and these founding myths were honored as if they were true, both on ceremonial occasions and in negotiations with other city states; but when it came to running the city, when it came to practical matters, they acted as if these myths had nothing to do with their primary concerns. "They believe in them," he writes, "but they use them and cease believing at the point where their interest in believing ends...." At that point myth became little more than a superstition in the minds of the half-literate or completely illiterate, and not worthy of educated minds. But then he adds, "The coexistence of contradictory truths in the same mind is nonetheless a universal fact."

This relates, I think, to the coexistence in the minds of so many people of a "belief" in astrology, and a more or less complete awareness that the stars have no influence whatsoever on human life. Jung got closer to it than any other significant mind; he cast the horoscopes of his patients, looking for clues to their behavior, and found it useful to do so, but he saw astrology not as an influence on lives but as establishing or suggesting patterns in lives; and for him the patterns did not explain so much as synchronize with the lives he was dealing with. And it is with synchronicity, the uncanny coincidences that rattle our simple faith in reason, that the life of pure reason begins to collapse. So--if I could get my book proposal done, I could write that piece on coincidence. Clearly it's much on my mind.

And Americans? Do they believe in the American dream? Yes, and no. "The coexistence of contradictory truths in the same mind is ... a universal fact." On this Veyne is absolutely correct. I think it's reasonable to say that as Americans we tend to dream the dream even though we may not think we do. George Carlin said they call it the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it, but the fact is, a good part of the time we are asleep--as citizens, as economic beings, as thinkers, and as hopers. Hope is always the last thing to die.

It's good to get back to this. Without writing, no continuity.

JUNE 23:

Tried to set up a blog today. I want to post this as a blog with limited access so that invited people can read it if they wish. But the technology has temporarily defeated me. And I wonder whether I will be able to continue it without sometimes posing for the cameras. That would ruin it. In the meantime, a large black ant has been running around the desk, clearly alarmed at my presence. There's no food here, so what is he after? Perhaps he's just the explorer ant, the scout for his tribe; in any case he's proving too quick for me to kill.

In any case I can't help wondering what my purpose is in going semi-public.