That the most dangerous thing in the world is a stupid woman

November 17, 2012 Comments Off on That the most dangerous thing in the world is a stupid woman

In the bizarre Petreus Affair the most powerful nation on earth lost two of her most powerful and talented leaders because two dumb bitches squabbled over popularity on an army base in Florida.  “Oh, how dangerous can it be to screw her”, the Super Commanderl Petreus thought to himself before swinging into action, “she’s too dumb to be dangerous”.  How wrong he was:  clearly, a dumb woman is more dangerous than a whole squad of highly trained and dangerously armed assassins.  Lesson?  Stay away from the dumb.



November 1, 2012 Comments Off on Bluebeard

Bluebeard, on the other hand, is a play about a different kind of misunderstanding:  a younger person (Judith) nosing about the private record of an older one (her new husband’s past):  what she discovers terrifies her.  Rightly or wrongly?  It is hard to say:  some people really do have dark secrets; but often what is a secret only seems dark because the discoverer does not know all the facts, or does not have the personal experience which might allow him or her to be a good judge.  In my personal life, I have always preferred not to open closed doors:  on the theory that if what is behind is really important, my partners will eventually tell me about it, and if it is not important, then I don’t need/care to know.  But this is a kind of wisdom which only comes with age — if at all.  Perhaps also it comes more easily to the self-confident:  fear scurries in search of hidden facts, but contentment is content to let things alone.  A lesson in wisdom, perhaps, but one that cannot really be taught.


October 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

I return to Onegin often.  Not on the strength of the love story, as most of you do, I am sure; but on account of the friendship-story:  Onegin, a man from the capital, befriends a local boy; in conversation he lets slip that he finds the boy provincial; over which the boy challenges him to a duel — and dies shot through the head.  In a way this summarizes my relationship with the world:  here I am, the (sorry to sound stuck up, but this is the unadorned truth, the, as it were, facts of life) man of the world — seven languages, life divided between five countries on three continents, a man of vast reading with experience and expertise in several professions and several sciences — and over there is everyone else, lucky to be bilingual, lucky to have lived in two different countries, lucky to have held more than two jobs.  This, it turns out, is not merely a source of misunderstanding but also a source of deep resentment.  My provincial friends (which is, more or less, everybody) will not only often not understand what I am saying, they will also not be explained to.  (There is a Dale Carnegie lesson in this:  play dumb).

That books are maps

May 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

This isn’t your place is perhaps a better way to translate Pan tu nie stal than the literal You weren’t standing here, I suppose. The title — a rude interruption aimed at correcting a stranger — refers to the several reviews in this collection of essays.  Some are funnily cruel — suggesting via the title that they are rudely inappropriate and uninvited blunts the edge.

The book is intensely funny in places — mainly on account of the language games — the OuLiPo transformations of the first sentence of Proust; the dragon terminology; the brilliant translation of the cheese monger section from a Zola novel.  This can only be done in Polish.  No language affords this kind of pleasure.  The discussion of Lem’s Robot Fairytales proves the point.

The book reviews are very good.

The literary plays — such as when author tries to identify the particular Warsaw Opera singer who may have been the lady mentioned in some Sherlock Holmes story; or proposes that Appolinaire might have been the son of a character from a Prus novel delight me less — they are not funny enough not to feel like a waste of time.  The two essays about the authors’ intense love of books remind me of some people I have met who appear to live the same way.

I do like books myself, but not nearly as much.  Other things have mattered in my life as much, perhaps more:  travel; dance-drama; classical live-music; paintings; textiles.  Though at times I have read as much as 1200 pages a week, books have been more a source of knowledge and an aid to thinking than a matter of unalloyed pleasure.  I do have a reading habit, but it isn’t especially strong:  I can go a week without reading if I am doing something else.

A list of my favorite books, if I had to draw up one, would be headed by Dawkins, Pinker, Popper, Russell, Nietzsche, Castaneda; a certain accounting textbook; a certain book on Jesuits in China; a history of the Sung Dynasty; some books on art and art history, especially those dedicated to technique; three books on textiles; de Zoete on dance in Bali.  In short, facts, rather than fiction.  With a touch of how-to.

Books as guides to the world and one’s life within it.  I am not likely to spend much time wondering how Pym relates to Poe; or how fiction interacts with reality.  To me, the relationship of books to reality is straightforward:  books are maps.


Two reflections on Coriolianus

April 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Coriolianus stirs two reflections:  first, on the man’s excessive pride, which ruins his otherwise promising career.

I, too, am a victim of destructive pride:  so many projects and relationships have been crossed out because they offended, because they were judged beneath me.  My  retirement is as much a result of the aesthetic repugnance at the world as of my inability to act in it — a kind of paralysis brought on by pride.

But this is not necessarily a loss:  Coriolianus does not become consul, so what?  I do not miss what I have not achieved in the world because — pride helps me see it — these are worthless, airy things.  To be a consul is to rule over (i.e. receive submission and adulation) of men who are beneath us anyway.  To concern oneself with what others think is to stoop.  The consulship here is a metaphor for all socially recognized achievement.

Such is not the nature of Coriolianus’ pride:  it is, as it were, a cut below: he does worry about what others think; and when he is banished, he takes revenge; in the end he dies because he insists on reminding the Volskis that he had once beaten them.  In short, to Coriolianus, what others think matters — and so he dies.  (If analogy has any power to compel effect, I shall live forever).

Second, the motherhood.  Coriolianus dies as he lives — as many men live, perhaps most — to please his mother.  Why does this feel like a loss?  If one chooses an active life, one will have to please someone — the Roman people, the critics — the object of one’s pleasing might as well be his mother, provided she’s not too old and isn’t going to die early leaving one purposeless halfway.

What puzzles is the mother:  what motivates her?  Social-climbing, perhaps:  she will achieve a higher position in Rome if she can maneuver her son into consulship; failing that, by saving Rome from his wrath.  Yet, when she comes to beg of him to spare the city, she must understand his standing in the Volskian camp and realize that if he relents, the Volskians will kill him.  Does she not care?

On forgiving one’s mother

April 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

My mother has written to me, out of the blue, a flippant, lighthearted message, as if nothing has ever happened, that she was in Poland and did I want the number?

The bronze of it appalled me. How does her mind work? Does she imagine that one may betray someone and then go back and continue the old acquaintance as if nothing has happened? Is it because she thinks that betrayal isn’t a big deal – no more than a lapse in table manners? Or does she think that a mother may do anything and children have no right to take offense?

Would an admission of wrong have changed anything, asked Matilda who has never admitted a wrong in her life, and gave an example of an acquaintance who’d cut off his sister totally, which devastated her but apparently cost him nothing: he had apparently made the simple calculation that his sister was worth more to him gone from his life forever.

Oh, yes, I replied, an admission of guilt would have made a difference.  The Catholic church, which has thought about contrition and forgiveness perhaps longest of all organizations on earth, recommends that a reconciliation have four parts: an admission of guilt, an apology, an atonement, and a promise of improvement. Properly conducted, such an apology places a moral onus on the offended party to accept: not to accept would seem vicious. A properly apologizing person – whether a mother or a total stranger – has the power (right?) to compel forgiveness.

Perhaps to change the uncomfortable topic, Matilda turned her thoughts to the nearby subject of her relationship with her son.

The topic is much on her mind, she has interviewed many men about their relationships with their mothers and she concluded there was reason to hope: none was as close to his mother as her son was to her. Ah, no, I exclaimed, on the contrary!  Precisely therein lies the danger: my relationship with my mother had been very close, too: the closer they are the more dangerous any break.

It is inevitable that your relationship with your son will cool dramatically, I continued.  Soon, he will no longer need you; the laws of nature will require him to move on; any spare time he gives you going forward will come from his good will and nothing else.  What is more:  it will be begrudged him by others. In that calculus all your past sacrifices mean nothing — as a child walker means nothing to an adult.  Hence, god forbid you should ever cross him — we already know you do not understand the importance of apology and I can tell you your son will not accept an argument that you and he are not friends and that your relationship with him exempts you from ordinary decency.  He will expect an apology, an atonement, and a solemn promise of improvement.

At the very least.

Poisonous relationships

November 1, 2011 § 14 Comments

A wistful longing for a good book — why not a learned epic? (oh, cry for the lost Thebais of Antimachus!) — led me to The Rings of Saturn, said by reviewers to be learnedly digressive; alas, I came to it with over-expectation.  Sebald’s digressions are almost all on subjects I already know — indeed, know well enough to spot mistakes in (e.g. black dresses in Poland did not become de rigeur until after 1863, etc.); and they add almost nothing to what is already in the public domain, neither reflection nor, for the most part, beauty.

The one exception seems to be the last two pages of Chapter I, written in beautiful baroque style (“the winter sun shows how soon the light fades from the ash” etc.) — its beauty well attested by its frequent quotation in the blogosphere — but only seems:  it turns out not to be Sebald’s but Thomas Browne’s — the topic of the digression — and is, rather embarrassingly, quoted without credit.

I should have known to continue avoiding the book — for I have avoided it for years on the basis of who had recommended it to me years ago: a mousy under-read girl with a hopeless literary ambition; I had never heard her say anything original, or noble, or interesting: her recommendation had to miss, no matter who favorably reviewed the newly filmed version.  (The Economist, Patience).


Reading The Rings is only somewhat like playing the far more delightful game of “flip the encyclopedia” (so agreeably played in a panoramic window on cold, bright Sundays) in which one entry leads to another; for the game let’s you take any direction you fancy and does not oblige you to read twice anything you already know.  (It’s all the easier done with hyperlinks and Wikipedia does well on many topics: some entries — like Operation Vijay — amounting to veritable academic treatises).

A college acquaintance played this game with The Oxford Dictionary:  a well-read pianist, deep and sensitive, delicate and polite, full of good conversation — his game had made him delightfully eloquent and, to give vent to his eloquence, though we lived but two stone-throws apart, we exchanged frequent handwritten letters.  But, like many pianists, he was a broken soul, partly for his struggle with desperately covered-up homosexuality, but mainly for his insistent deathwish:  at the time when I knew him he imagined — and let it be known — that he was suffering from terminal melanoma which his Christian Science forbade him to seek to remedy.

It drained me emotionally to struggle with his struggles, his frequent depressions, his fear of death; and having been tricked once already into a similar relationship some years earlier, at the tender age of sixteen — a relationship in which the other party — a barely older aunt, as it happened — by feigning disease or tragedy bleeds us of empathy like a spider sucks a fly — I was by then too knowing to let that sort of thing linger; and shook off his friendship without explanation; no doubt confirming in him thereby the tragic misperception that I left him on account of his sexual, not his emotional, deviancy.

How convenient homosexuality can be in helping its owners avoid true self-knowledge!

Years later I heard he had managed to make his death wish at last:  a lover had (apparently intentionally) infected him with the wasting sickness.  The deathwish is the easiest of all to fulfill.

Years later yet another person like this, also an aunt, latched onto me; a person whose entire life was but an uninterrupted series of tragedies and failures, many, one suspects, perhaps (subconsciously?) intentional, for she artfully used them to generate pity.  Such people, like lampreys, suck you but do not kill you; like insinuative poison, they waste you but not unto death.  And, as no amount of tenderness will make them better because being bad is their source of living, the healthy party’s only sensible course of action is — to flee.

Which is what I had done with my eloquent friend.  I have often missed his eloquence:  such like is almost nowhere to be found.


I wonder about Sebald:  is there perhaps not enough epic here?  It isn’t clear what linkages exist between one digression and the next, the plot, such as it is, does not support them;  as a result of which it all seems haphazard — as well as dull.

He’s well liked, for all this.  I wonder why.  Are all his lovers mousy girls with literary ambition and nothing interesting or noble to say?  (Apparently not).


I put the book away and fell asleep with the night-light on.  I must have slept an instant, no more, because the dream, when I woke, seemed but a shapeless fragment and I had to carve it out from that part of memory which borders on imagination.  In it, I had been walking down a narrow corridor on the second floor of an old house somewhere in the northern climes; as I passed, a room opened on my left, sunk in the blue-grey light typical of north-facing rooms in the temperate zone; its shadow framed an open window in which a autumnal ash tree — a mass of trembling, sparkling golden leaves — shone in a bright, cold morning sunlight.

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