February 28

1533, 1929


And then there are the ways in which the historic turns into the merely quaint: this entry in my 2008 diary for example, which I now look back on (and it's barely a decade) as though I had written: "hitched up my donkey this afternoon to a wooden box I made, with some wooden wheels. I wonder if it might catch on as a new mode of transport." The real entry reads:

"The newly-installed Kindle on my i-Phone has turned me into a digital bookworm, augmenting the thousands of books on my physical bookshelves by providing me access to tens of thousands more in cyberspace. What I am particularly treasuring is the ability to download out-of-copyright classics for free and have any of them that I wish to in the palm of my hand at any time. So I stand, in the check-out at the grocery store, or sit in a coffee bar waiting for a friend, or fill the time until the bus, the plane, the train is due to leave; or simply lie in the bath or in the darkness of my bedroom, knowing I cannot fall asleep in one, but safely can do in the other, because the machine will automatically switch off. The entire world of literature at my disposal, literally at the click of a thumb. A moment of Aristotle. The discovery of Disraeli as a novelist ('Tancred' is my favourite; better than 'Sybil'). A poem by Robert Service or Siegfried Sassoon. Books I have never got around to reading, but should have - 'Vanity Fair', Turgenev's short stories, 'The Three Musketeers', Coleridge's 'Biographia Literaria' - all free..."

Ah, what it is to be an enthusiast!

The last sentence of that diary entry added one more book, "Epigrams" by Michel de Montaigne, whose birthdate it happens to be today, and who might have been copying Pessoa when he wrote:

"We should set aside a room, just for ourselves, at the back of the shop, keeping it entirely free and establishing there our true liberty, our principle solitude and asylum. Within it our normal conversation should be of ourselves, with ourselves, so privy that no commerce or communication with the outside world should find a place there."

What he goes on to say is more mundane, not worth the quoting (though the inference of the quoted remark is precisely my paragraph which preceded it: Montaigne would have been a Kindleholic). A few pages later he becomes quotable again, referencing Cicero:

"Remember the man who was asked why he toiled so hard at an art which few could ever know about. 'For me a few are enough; one is enough; having none is enough.' He spoke the truth. You and one companion are audience enough for each other; so are you for yourself… You should no longer be concerned with what the world says of you, but with what you say to yourself. Withdraw into yourself, but first prepare yourself to welcome yourself there."

Isn't that the most wonderful way of phrasing it! "Withdraw into yourself, but first prepare yourself to welcome yourself there." A warm bath, and a good book. D.H. Lawrence called it "Art for my sake", but I think the Montaigne is actually bigger. Not just Art, but Life itself.

Michel Eyquem, to give him all his first names, and very much the aristocratic de Montaigne, uttered what I regard as the most profound line ever uttered by wise man and by fool: 

"I have never seen a greater monster nor a greater miracle than myself".

The pulchrasaurus, perfectly defined.

"There is a plague on Man, the opinion that he knows something."

Including this, of course. Including this.

As a writer, I rather enjoy this one too, from his essay "On Some Verses of Virgil":

"Any topic is equally fertile for me. A fly will serve my purpose; and God grant that this topic I have in hand now was not taken up at the command of so flighty a will! Let me begin with whatever subject I please, for all subjects are linked with one another."

The opening phrase is arrogant, of course, but just. It offers a good description, too, of the method of this blog-book. But it also leads, or at least risks leading, to Beckett's Lucky in "En Attendant Godot", the thinking-machine that simply requires a Pozzo to press the start button. Nonetheless "he spoke the truth".

Harold Bloom, in his essay on Montaigne, insists on spelling Virgil Vergil - as though he were the Sidney Poitier character in "In The Heat Of The Night". But he too spoke the truth - Publius Vergilius Maro the full Latin.

Bloom also makes the claim for Jewish lineage in Montaigne: two references in the "Essays" to his mother, Antoinette de Lopes, as coming from a prominent Toulouse family of Spanish-Jewish origins. Given the spiritual-metaphysical link to Freud and other Jewish thinkers, perhaps this should not have surprised me. But it was the Lopes that caught my interest, because I was writing a novel at the time, about a historical Lopes of the same period, likewise of Spanish-Jewish, though even more of Portuguese-Marrano origins, Queen Elizabeth's personal physician and the model for Shakespeare's Shylock, Roderigo Lopes. Could it be? 

To which the answer, after some research, proved to be yes, and they were cousins. Upon leaving Spain at the time of the expulsion of 1492, his mother had frenchified her name to Antoinette de Louppes - Bloom's spelling error, on this occasion (though, strangely, not in the book version that I just got from the library, only in the copy I downloaded to my Kindle).


A decade and more ago (the pun, actually the double-pun, is sadly inevitable), I was living in Toronto, and among the several splendid buildings that were being put up at the time, to enhance the city's aspiration to be taken seriously as a cultural centre, the good Jack Diamond, when not refurbishing and expanding my school at ridiculously low cost, was building the city's magnificent Opera House, while his old Jewish friend Frank Owen Goldberg, now known as Frank Gehry, was doing something rather less conventionally traditional or traditionally conventional, to the AGO, the Art Gallery of Ontario: "a landing-pad for an alien spacecraft", was the generally favoured description, though most people presumed that the spacecraft, in the end, had crashed.

The outside of the AGO is indeed shocking, and may even leave you wondering if he "borrowed" the idea from the spacecraft that landed safely in the courtyard of the Louvre; inside the use of space is simply fantastic, even better than the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which he also built - similar in the way it manages to pour light in through every nook and cranny, but the Bilbao doesn't have those staircases and walkways, nor that absolutely gorgeous fir - who builds in fir, for g-d's sake! Nor does Bilbao have the two great holes that Toronto has, an enormous collection of those two great holes indeed (a Henry Mre sculpture of Trnt would of course require Three Large Hles), though I understand - with deep regrets - that Henry and the Mre are going to remain inside, but the splendiferous bronze "Large Two Forms", which have provided an adventure playground for visiting scoolchildren for decades, have been removed. The other Frankly great among architects, Lloyd Wright, would never have allowed this sacrilege.

FG was born today in 1929.

No comments:

Post a Comment