What I’m reading lately: Dogs and Wolfe

It’s been a while since I did one of these roundups. Back in April, I read both A Dog’s Head (Jean Dutourd, 1950) and Where the Blue Begins (Christopher Morley, 1922) — both recommended, for different reasons.

More recently, a couple of good long-form blog series:

  • “The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown” (Michael Flynn, 2013) has an idiosyncratic (and sometimes tiny) approach to HTML font styling, but it’s a fun look at what happened to Galileo and why. I particularly appreciate Flynn’s pointing out the distinction between physical reality and the mathematical model: for astronomical and astrological purposes there really wasn’t much difference whether your model was geocentric or heliocentric. The controversial part was over whether to promote either model as “how the world really is.” There’s a big difference between saying that a planet is a point of light in the sky that behaves basically as if it were a giant world like Earth circling the Sun at such-and-such a distance, and saying that a planet really is a giant world circling the Sun at such-and-such a distance.

  • “Extropia’s Children” (Jon Evans, 2022) is a dishy read on the (sub)cult(ure)s around Rationalism, AI Risk, cryptocurrencies, Effective Altruism, the Singularity, and all the rest of that stuff. One must hold two thoughts in mind simultaneously: that most of that subculture is what the rest of us would call deeply crazy, and, at the same time, that Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a great read. (And don’t miss UNSONG either!)

My past week’s reading included The Boys’ Book of Submarines (Collins & Collins, 1917); The Best Irish Jokes (our old friend Clement Wood, 1926); and How to Tell the Birds from the Flowers (Robert Williams Wood, 1917). I highly recommend this last to fans of Hilaire Belloc.

The Parrot and the Carrot one may easily confound:
They’re very much alike in looks and similar in sound.
We recognize the Parrot by his clear articulation,
For Carrots are unable to engage in conversation.

I’ve also been reading — still am reading — Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel (1929). As a family story and Great American Novel, it reminds me a lot of East of Eden (1952), which I enjoyed immensely a few years ago; but compared to Steinbeck, Wolfe veers more dramatically from drudging biography to flights of literary eloquence and back. You’ll be reading along and suddenly — wait — I need to go back three paragraphs and pay attention, because this is good!

Very occasionally, the narrator drops into a different mode: pastiche de cowboy movie; Redwall-esque menu-conjuring; or this joyous little flight of fancy at the birth of our protagonist Eugene Gant (that is, Thomas Wolfe), who

was borne in, as we have said, upon the very spear-head of history. But perhaps, reader, you have already thought of that? You haven’t? Then let us refresh your historical memory.

By 1900, Oscar Wilde and James A. McNeill Whistler had almost finished saying the things they were reported as saying, and that Eugene was destined to hear, twenty years later; most of the Great Victorians had died before the bombardment began; William McKinley was up for a second term; the crew of the Spanish navy had returned home in a tugboat.

Abroad, grim old Britain had sent her ultimatum to the South Africans in 1899; Lord Roberts (“Little Bobs,” as he was known affectionately to his men) was appointed commander-in-chief after several British reverses; the Transvaal Republic was annexed to Great Britain in September 1900, and formally annexed in the month of Eugene’s birth. There was a Peace Conference two years later.

Meanwhile, what was going on in Japan? I will tell you: the first parliament met in 1891, there was a war with China in 1894–95, Formosa was ceded in 1895. Moreover, Warren Hastings had been impeached and tried; Pope Sixtus the Fifth had come and gone; Dalmatia had been subdued by Tiberius; Belisarius had been blinded by Justinian; the wedding and funeral ceremonies of Wilhelmina Charlotte Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach and King George the Second had been solemnized, while those of Berengaria of Navarre to King Richard the First were hardly more than a distant memory; Diocletian, Charles the Fifth, and Victor Amadeus of Sardinia had all abdicated their thrones; Henry James Pye, Poet Laureate of England, was with his fathers; Cassiodorus, Quintilian, Juvenal, Lucretius, Martial, and Albert the Bear of Brandenburg had answered the last great roll-call; the battles of Antietam, Smolensko, Drumclog, Inkerman, Marengo, Cawnpore, Killiecrankie, Sluys, Actium, Lepanto, Tewkesbury, Brandywine, Hohenlinden, Salamis, and the Wilderness had been fought both by land and by sea; Hippias had been expelled from Athens by the Alcmæonidæ and the Lacedæmonians; Simonides, Menander, Strabo, Moschus, and Pindar had closed their earthly accounts; the beatified Eusebius, Athanasius, and Chrysostom had gone to their celestial niches; Menkaura had built the Third Pyramid; Aspalta had led victorious armies; the remote Bermudas, Malta, and the Windward Isles had been colonized. In addition, the Spanish Armada had been defeated, President Abraham Lincoln assassinated, and the Halifax Fisheries Award had given $5,500,000 to Britain for twelve-year fishing privileges. Finally, only thirty or forty million years before, our earliest ancestors had crawled out of the primeval slime; and then, no doubt, finding the change unpleasant, crawled back in again.

Such was the state of history when Eugene entered the theatre of human events in 1900.

Our young protagonist acquires a paper route and must wake himself pre-dawn, when he would rather linger in the chambers of a dream:

His thin undeveloped body drank sleep with insatiable thirst, but it was now necessary for him to get up at half-past three in the morning with darkness and silence making an unreal humming in his drugged ears.

Strange aerial music came fluting out of darkness, or over his slow-wakening senses swept the great waves of symphonic orchestration. Fiend-voices, beautiful and sleep-loud, called down through darkness and light, developing the thread of ancient memory.

Staggering blindly in the whitewashed glare, his eyes, sleep-corded, opened slowly as he was born anew, umbilically cut, from darkness.

Waken, ghost-eared boy, but into darkness. Waken, phantom, O into us. Try, try, O try the way. Open the wall of light. Ghost, ghost, who is the ghost? O lost. Ghost, ghost, who is the ghost? O whisper-tongued laughter. Eugene! Eugene! Here, O here, Eugene. Here, Eugene. The way is here, Eugene. Have you forgotten? The leaf, the rock, the wall of light. Lift up the rock, Eugene, the leaf, the stone, the unfound door. Return, return.


Far-forested, a horn-note wound. Sea-forested, water-far, the grotted coral sea-far horn-note. The pillioned ladies witch-faced in bottle-green robes saddle-swinging. Merwomen unsealed and lovely in sea-floor colonnades. The hidden land below the rock. The flitting wood-girls growing into bark. Far-faint, as he wakened, they besought him with lessening whir. Then deeper song, fiend-throated, wind-shod. Brother, O brother! They shot down the brink of darkness, gone on the wind like bullets. O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.

He dressed and descended the stairs gently to the back porch.

Eugene grows into his paper-boy role:

At first, the canvas strap of the paper-bag bit cruelly across his slender shoulders. He strained against the galling weight that pulled him earthwards. The first weeks were like a warring nightmare: day after day he fought his way up to liberation. He knew all the sorrow of those who carry weight; he knew, morning by morning, the aerial ecstasy of release. As his load lightened with the progress of his route, his leaning shoulder rose with winged buoyancy, his straining limbs grew light: at the end of his labor his flesh, touched sensuously by fatigue, bounded lightly from the earth. He was Mercury chained by fardels, Ariel bent beneath a pack: freed, his wingshod feet trod brightness. He sailed in air. The rapier stars glinted upon his serfdom: dawn reddened on release. He was like a sailor drowned within the hold, who gropes to life and morning through a hatch; a diver twined desperately in octopal feelers, who cuts himself from death and mounts slowly from the sea-floor into light.

Within a month a thick hummock of muscle hardened on his shoulder: he bent jubilantly into his work. He had now no fear of failure. His heart lifted like a proud crested cock. He had been dropped among others without favor, and he surpassed them. He was a lord of darkness; he exulted in the lonely sufficiency of his work. He walked into the sprawled chaos of the settlement, the rifleman of news for sleeping men. His fast hands blocked the crackling sheet; he swung his lean arm like a whip. He saw the pale stars drown, and ragged light break open on the hills. […] As the gray tide of morning surged westward he awoke.

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Posted 2023-07-01