Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

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Sunday, April 1, 2012

Travelers [Marco Polo, Twain, Robert Byron]

The Travels of Marco Polo
The book one generally encounters under the title The Travels of Marco Polo was, in fact, written by the traveler’s one-time cell-mate, Rustichello da Pisa in the Old French he used for romances. This volume, quite likely preserved only due to Messer Marco’s imprisonment, though from what must have been copious notes, enjoyed some circulation and a good many differing manuscripts with various titles are extant. The question is why it was not even more influential as it was clearly the most accurate and detailed account of the East during the second half of the Middle Ages.

So very many of the marvels Marco tells are true, and the bits of myth and folklore that are reported as fact, generally in explicitly second-hand testimony, are themselves fascinating. Strikingly open-minded and tolerant, he makes a convincing case for Kublai Khan’s being the greatest emperor in history.

Perhaps because he was no writer, apart from his openness, his text is generally egoless. The violent death of his comrades, a lengthy illness, a desert trek of the greatest rigor, none of these occupy more than a line. He is focused on the facts. Unfortunately, this orientation (and, it may be, the “as-told-to” form as well) leads to a book with no artful style whatever. It is as though his notes had been hastily strung together by a computer program, yet their inherent interest is such that the result is compelling reading.

The Innocents Abroad [Twain]

Though Mark Twain’s ticket was paid by the newspapers for which he wrote, his party was an early group tour. The age of the old-style “grand tour” for upper-class men ended with the growth of the middle-class and the coming of railroads and commercial agencies like Cook’s to serve the new market for recreational travel. The Innocents Abroad, Twain’s account of his trip, was a best-seller as a mass audience began to relish foreign travel, though some did so only vicariously. It not only provided the equivalent of a set of stereopticon slides, but the exotic sights came with a narration bubbling over with recognizably American jokes.

Twain’s subtitle The New Pilgrims’ Progress nicely suggests the replacement of the old Protestant ethic with consumerism while calling attention to several of the book’s governing oppositions: old and new, European and American, spiritual and worldly. The author ups his level of irony an extra notch in the Swiftian passage in Chapter 26 in which he speaks in the voice of an Italian returned from a visit to the United States, telling an incredulous audience of America’s modern farming methods, but also noting that, in this peculiar land across the sea, the people have the “effrontery” to conduct the affairs of government themselves and “you might fall from a third story window three several times, and not mash either a soldier or a priest.” He never fails to be amused at the abundant relics enshrined in Catholic churches, and he has a nice set-piece that moves from a description of the horrors of the Coliseum to the tortures of the Inquisition. His persona of the far Westerner who can know nothing of art oscillates between the comic rube and the child who points out that the emperor has no clothing.

Though the trip was billed as “The Grand Holy Land Pleasure Excursion” Twain claimed to find it more like a funeral procession due to the piety and advanced age of his fellow travelers. He says they would sometimes stray as close to sin as dominoes when in desperate need of recreation, but he found a few kindred spirits he liked to call “the boys,” with whom he could steal grapes after sneaking off to Athens in defiance of a quarantine.

The Road to Oxiana [Byron]

Byron’s marvelous book, first published in 1937, might be called the first modern travel book (discounting the antiquarian preference for Smollett’s Sentimental Journey). Byron’s narration, dramatic though it be in its outlines, virtually always focuses, as the traveler does, on the accidental near-at-hand, the curiosae of every day abroad. His prose, itself a marvel, can make a spectacle of a plain. James Knox’s biography Robert Byron provides plenty of entertaining anecdotes of Bryon as a aesthete bound to shock. One sample will suffice: in Russia Byron’s Intourist guide doubted Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays saying they never could have been composed “by a grocer from Stratford-upon-Avon” provoking Byron to reply, “They are exactly the sort of plays I would expect a grocer to write.”

His observations, reported conversations, and profound ironies are all delightful. His formal innovations brought a Modernist sensibility to travel writing with his use of fragments, ephemera, and documentary material. He provides one of the noblest jusfications for travel, to him a “spiritual necessity,” in First Russia, Then Tibet: “Yet for some persons there exists an organic harmony between all matter and all activity, whose discovery is the purpose of their lives and whose evidence, being inexhaustible, can only be selected by the good judgement and perpetual curiosity of the individual . . . He can know the world, in fact, only when he sees, hears, and smells it.” For some readers it will be enough recommendation that Bruce Chatwin regarded The Road to Oxiana as “a sacred text.”

Baby Boomer Reads the Beats

The term baby boomer has been stretched these days to include people born as late as even 1960, but when I was very young people said simply “post-war baby.” My brother was a “war baby,” which sounded considerably more dashing, while my birth date – August 13, 1946 -- came almost exactly nine months after my father’s return from a devastated Europe.

My parents had come from the rural Midwest, but I grew up in an affluent suburb where my father and the fathers of all my friends donned suits with starched white shirts and fedoras to board commuter trains to travel to their desks in the city. A boy seemed destined in those Eisenhower years to take The Road to Miltown and become The Organization Man, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The increasing prosperity that continued for twenty-five years after WWII and the dominant role the USA had come to play in the world allowed many Americans to feel life was good in spite of racism and the threat of nuclear holocaust.

A number of us middle-class laddies had been instilled with a love of reading with the encouragement of mothers who figured education would guarantee us our place in the grand American sun. I was among the many of my generation who proceeded to discover fascinating realms, both revealing and transgressive, in recent American writing. Though I got into everything from Gilgamesh to Updike, from Zhuangzi to Achebe, I do recall the unique excitement of finding in Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Corso a sensibility in which I felt at home (though I would not say, and I hope I do not hear for yet another time “Reading On the Road changed my life”). When The New American Poetry, 1945-1960 came out, I discovered further new directions. I read and reread Allen’s anthology, and wrote to the small presses listed in the back to buy texts that allowed even a suburban bourgeois to feel hip.

I was excited not merely by seeing voices in print that supported my views of art, vision, revolution, sex and love, and altered consciousness. I loved the return to the performative in poetry, to readings, with or without music, sometimes using the loping declamatory line of Ginsberg’s great long poems. I was charmed by the use of the personal in poetry – poems that mentioned friends as Sappho, the troubadours, and the Dadaists had done. The new poets’ pure joy of language seemed to me the very foundation of the aesthetic utterance, and my friends and I reenacted “Poets Hitchhiking on the Highway” while wandering suburban streets where few pedestrians passed. I couldn’t get over the Whitmanic catalogues in “Canticle for the Waterbirds,” the Wolfean rhapsodies in Kerouac, or the stately cadences of Robert Duncan.

At the age of twelve I read copies of Paul Krassner’s The Realist a subversive high school teacher risked firing by giving to my brother. I devoured Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself (1959) which included “The White Negro.” I listened to jazz and blues, but also to transparent red lp recordings from Fantasy in Berkeley featuring Ferlinghetti and Rexroth.

Paul Carroll’s Big Table originated in the banned issue featuring Kerouac and Burroughs (1959 again) of the Chicago Review. Carroll proceeded not only to put out four more issues that maintained the high standards of the first, but also hosted a poetry reading series at the Second City on Monday evenings which the owners must have figured would be a small loss even if audiences were few. I attended these readings as a teenager, hearing some great writers while sipping the over-priced non-alcoholic beverages that bought the customer a table for the evening. (I recall several years later feeling similarly uneasy in Greenwich Village’s Gaslight.)

I began my work in literary translation with a particular admiration for Kenneth Rexroth as an exemplar of a tradition at once scholarly and creative, erudite yet rebellious, descending from Ezra Pound and extending on to Paul Blackburn and, I felt, to me. Yet I have written almost nothing on the Beats; I always felt they were too intimate, too close to being me and my friends to analyze from the outside.

Later, during the 70s, I was involved with with Kush (Steven Kushner), Artful Goodtimes (Bontempi) and others in the Cloud House group in San Francisco which maintained a poetry gallery storefront and practiced guerrilla poetry techniques, principally street readings. Cloud House also sought out old North Beach poets, some fallen into SRO hotel isolation, for the mutual benefit of two generations of the hip. In this way I met people like Kirby Doyle, who had appeared in both Allen’s anthology and Carroll’s banned Chicago Review and had published his own collection Sapphobones. As the earth’s turned, he gave work to the Haight’s Communications Company and lived in communes in Marin County. Michael McClure said of him in memoriam, “Kirby was the gentle, human lion and pater familias of this scene [speaking of 1958] which was as close to magic as anyone could get.”

Bob Kaufman used to hang out at Cloud House as well, dear Bob Kaufman who eschewed publication and when young offered his poems in his original poet’s voice to drivers whose windows were, in those days without air-conditioning, open, whether their minds were or not. His vow of silence had ended by the time of Cloud House but he had little to say. He had, I suppose, become accustomed to spreading his beatitude silently. And there were others less celebrated. I recall an old amphetamine veteran who mumbled so that we often could not understand him, but we knew he had been through much, and understood.
We drove up to Elymakee, Gary Snyder’s place in the Sierras above Nevada City, twenty miles off the nearest paved road, but neighbor to Allen Ginsberg’s property and the tracts belonging to various gurus, devotees, and literary hangers-on, where we read under the full moon and a Tibetan flag.

The performance poetry scene is clear in its Beat lineage, and all of us who have striven to restore poetry to its traditional place in the air recognize what a dramatic shift it was in the 50s for poetry readings to appear apart from universities with their occasional literary stars and ongoing pin-striped faculty readings. In bars and cafes, book stores and living rooms, poetry became not only audible but also participatory. Everyone who had taken the trouble to chase after the words had a vision to relate. The open reading is an integral part of contemporary poetry series. The boorish sometimes arrive after the main reading is nearly done, and the slightly less boorish come on time but page through their own work while the featured reader is on. And all this surely happened during the 1950s as well. But everyone understands that we are all the children of the Beats; we remember how one after another, the practitioners of tight and intellectual verses like (Robert Lowell) were converted to free composition and to freer statement of what most needed to be said. It is difficult for younger people to whom the Beats are simply a literary chapter to realize the scorn and derision these writers attracted when they were themselves younger. Were they the last literary generation with the ability to shock?

To me, a most engaged partisan especially in my callow years, the Beats were the most recent team fielded by the Dionysians whose competition with the Apollonians had always to be refought on the printed page as well as in our minds. Perhaps I am a typical sexagenarian in that I find myself these days reading more old books than new, but the Beat writers I encountered in my prepubescence have never lost their savor. I don’t doubt that the weakness is mine if I have found so little later writing that for me says as much as well.

This reaction is not inevitable, though. I was visiting the home of a Southern California super-affluent cousin of my wife’s when the alienated teen-age son who secluded himself to listen to Kurt Cobain excused himself from going out for dinner by saying he had to do a report for English. Incommunicative as he had been, I though we might have a bit of common ground, and I asked his assigned topic. “Awww, it’s just some boring book my English teacher gave us,” he said. “What’s the title?” I pressed on. “Some stupid thing I’m supposed to read . . . it’s called On the Road.”

Dada in America

When I read translations of German Dada poetry recently, I provided a general introduction to the Dada scene including some details about American Dada. As it happened, Duchamp and other avant-garde artists had often visited Kurt Seligmann’s home in Sugar Loaf, now the site of the Seligmann Center for Surrealism where the talk was given. My summary of information on New York Dada is purely reportage – no original analysis, but it may be convenient for some readers.

Francis Naumann is the leading scholar on the subject. His New York Dada 1915–1923 is the standard reference, though Rudolf E. Kuenzli’s New York Dada has some good essays and documentary material.

American Dada arose among immigrants at a time like today when a significant percentage of Americans are immigrants or the children of immigrants. It was, however, sufficiently naturalized that the seminal publication included a cartoon by Rube Goldberg.

The greatest American-born artist associated with Dada was surely Man Ray who met Duchamp in 1914 and collaborated with him on the New York Dada publication in 1920. Best known for and elegant photography in both conventional and avant-garde styles (including the rayograph), he was an important painter and filmmaker as well. His innovative and accomplished body of work includes assemblages from 1915 (for example, his "Self-portrait" using bicycle bells), kinetic works such as "Rotary Glass Plates," ready mades like 1921 "Gift," a flatiron with nail-like projections (the original of this poignant self-defeating object exhibited in the first Surrealist art show Paris 1925 was given to Satie and is lost). Like Meret Oppenheim’s cup, saucer, and spoon covered with fur from a Chinese gazelle ("Object") this gift is recognizably Dada as it tightens the knot of dualities and highlights at once the centrality and the futility of art.

Though Duchamp said, “The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges,” a number of Dada journals appeared during the 20s. New York Dada must be the single most important publication. Others magazine was edited by Kreymborg, financed by Arensberg and published Mina Loy, Man Ray, William Carlos Williams, Marcel Duchamp, and Marianne Moore. Broom was edited by Harold A. Loeb, Alfred Kreymborg, Slater Brown, Matthew Josephson, Malcolm Cowley, and Lola Ridge. The Blind Man was edited by Duchamp, Henri-Pierre Roche, and Beatrice Wood and published Walter Arensberg, Mina Loy, Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, Stieglitz, Joseph Stella and, in number two, protested the exclusion of Duchamp’s “Fountain” from the unjuried Independents’ show. Rongwrong was edited by Duchamp, Roche, and Wood.

The most important formation of Dada in this country was formed by Picabia and Duchamp in their alliance with Stieglitz, his gallery 291 and the patronage of Walter Arensberg.

4. Two Characters
Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927) came to the US in 1910 where she worked as an artists’ model and wrote Expressionist and Dada poetry as well as making collages and found sculpture, most notably a piece of drain pipe she titled God. There is evidence, including a letter of Duchamp that she is the actual creator of his urinal titled “Fountain.” Became celebrated for stealing and for outrageous costumes, crepe paper in strings from her neck, a bird-cage, an array of spoons hung from neck and arms, sometimes head shaved and painted vermilion, or a bustle with a taillight. When visiting the French consul in Berlin she wore a birthday cake with fifty lighted candles on her head and a necklace of dried figs about her neck from which she offered the bureaucrat a suck now and then. She appeared in Marcel Duchamp’s film The Baroness Shaves Her Pubic Hair. Jane Heap described her as “the only one living anywhere who dresses Dada, loves Dada, lives Dada” (“Dada,” Little Review, Spring 1922: 46). Wallace Stevens was quoted as saying he was afraid to come below 14th Street for fear of encountering her. Djuna Barnes mourned her death in transition. Her poems in German have never been translated.

Arthur Cravan used many pseudonyms and most of his biographical details are uncertain. He was born Fabian Avenarius Lloyd, Oscar Wilde’s nephew. He is known to have been a thief, forger, draft-dodger, sailor, and lumberjack, but his greatest non-literary glory was his prize-fighting. He sponsored his trip to America by a fight with world champion Jack Johnson in the Canary Islands. (He had convinced Johnson’s promoters that he was the European champion. (In fact he had managed, by an unlikely but legitimate series of events, to be named light heavyweight champion of France in 1910.) The bout with Johnson ended in the almost immediate knockout of the inebriated Cravan.

He edited -- in fact he wrote -- the journal Maintenant from 1911-15. In it he once claimed to have met a living Oscar Wilde. The New York Times dispatched a reporter to see if it might be true.

Following Picabia's suggestion, he left Barcelona early in 1917 and came to New York, where Duchamp and Picabia arranged for him to give a lecture on modern art at the Grand Central Gallery. He wrote Willard Bohn, whom he had defrauded by selling him a fake Picasso, that he was “going to America to see the butterflies. Perhaps it is absurd, ridiculous, impractical, but it is stronger than I.” Oddly, he added that another of his goals in America was to “make friends with a giraffe.” The audience for his lecture contained many wealthy art patrons who waited for over an hour for Caravan to make an appearance. When he did show up, drunk and semi-coherent, many were concerned that he would damage the painting by the academic American artist Alfred Sterner hanging behind him. He proceeded to curse and sputter and had just begun to disrobe when the police arrived and took him away. Walter Arensberg got him out.

He fled to Canada when the US began drafting people, using new forged documents, and was on his way to South America with his wife Mina Loy when he vanished. Many suspected he was still around, especially when faked Wilde memorabilia hit the European markets, offered by individuals using his pseudonyms.

Of the painter Marie Laurencin, Apollinaire’s mistress, Cravan observed: “Now there’s someone who needs somebody to lift her skirts and stick a fat [...] somewhere to teach her that art isn’t just little poses in front of a mirror [but rather] walking, running, drinking, eating, sleeping and relieving oneself.” Apollinaire then challenged him to a duel, which resulted in a rather ignominious apology from Cravan.

There was a half-baked attempt to revive Dada organized by Americans who had spent time in France including Malcolm Cowley and Matthew Josephson. They spoke of hiring a hall to “give a literary entertainment, with violent and profane attacks on the most famous contemporary writers, court-martials of the most prominent critics . . .all this interspersed with card tricks, solos on the jew’s harp, meaningless dialogues and whatever else would show our contempt for the audience and the sanctity of American letters.” (Josephson had denounced the French in the Little Review as chameleons for leaving Dada for Surrealism.)

From one of the last nonprofessional literary theorists Kenneth Burke who in his essay “Dada, Dead or Alive” says America has too little tradition to need Dada; in fact, according to Burke, “America is Dada in its actual mode of life, and has produced popular artists to express this Dada.” He mentions Krazy Kat and vaudevillian Joe Cook who “was an incredible juggler, could walk a tightrope, ride a unicycle, mime, and perform many other circus skills with ease.” He played piano, violin, and ukulele, told absurd and often lengthy humorous stories and built very complex Rube Goldberg-type devices to perform simple tasks. His nickname was “One Man Vaudeville.”

A friend writes from Canada: "A neighbour, moving near by, was for some days involved in the turmoil of resettling; and his dog, to that extent dis-orbited, walking a quarter of a mile up the road to explore the new territory, stopped gravely to observe me in the garden. His owner is James MacDonald; so I, not knowing the dog's name, and yet hoping to find some bond of communication between us, called out, 'Heigh, MacDonald.' Whereupon MacDonald, agreeably surprised by hearing this familiar name, entered the garden and stood beside me. I next asked, 'How's business?' and MacDonald presented his ears to be scratched. I scratched his ears, and he forthwith began attempting the virtue of my leg, so that in anger I ordered him out of the garden. Later I reflected on this strange encounter: how quickly our acquaintance had ripened into friendship, our friendship deepened into intimacy, and our intimacy burned itself out in passion-and in this rapid telescoping of events, I decided, there was Dada."

Over a number of years Duchamp posed in drag as Rrose Sélavy, an alias first written originally "Rose Sélavy" (an actual double pun in French based on phonetic transcription and concatenation of two common popular expressions: "C'est la vie!" ["That's life!" -- "Tough luck!"] and the other expression "La vie en rose" ["Life in Pink" (the good life)]) to further the parody of the marketing of the perfume "Belle Haleine". The alias was later changed to Rrose Sélavy to force pronouncing the first "R" (against normal French articulation) so that it becomes "Eros, c'est la vie) ["Eros, that's life"]. Man Ray was asked to make several photographic portraits of Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy.

Duchamp with Ray and Katherine Dreier founded the 1920 “Société Anonyme – the Museum of Modern Art,” an art center in New York which influenced the Rockefeller-funded Museum of Modern Art in 1929.

“The Cheerless Art of Idiocy” in the June 12, 1921 issue of The World Magazine is typical of the few reactions in the popular press. According to Henry Tyrrell the Dadaist is a “perverse and destructive” “child” whose “nursery breathes an atmosphere of decadence and dynamite. That latter word implied “anarchist” (indeed the IWW, many experienced miners, had been known to value the explosive’s expressive power), but Tyrrell does not stop with the altogether accurate charge of political radicalism. He makes it quite clear that the Bolshevist threat Dada presents is merely one instance of the malicious influence of Jews!

A poem by the painter Charles Demuth the painter published in The Blind Man indicates the significance for American artists of the arrival of the new ideas from Europe. His poem was called “For Richard Mutt.”

For some there is no stopping.
Most stop or never get a style.
When they stop they make a convention.
That is their end.
For the going everything has an idea.
The going run right along.
The going just keep going.

The Theory of Souvenirs

Souvenirs are surely as old as recreational travel: among medieval examples are clay water bottles or tin badges for those who had visited Santiago de Campostela; for those who made it all the way to Jerusalem: River Jordan water, models of the Holy Sepulchre, or, for the really big spenders, pieces of the True Cross. According to The Innocents Abroad Mark Twain’s party was partial to chipping off pieces of every monument they encountered in hopes of bringing a bit of the sublime to their own home parlors.

For every souvenir has a spiritual character, rising above a simple tchotchke primarily because of its associations. As assertively lowbrow as the Donald McGill cards on which Orwell wrote so well and as full of content, the souvenir is fully present only to the purchaser who “remembers.” (This can prove a handicap, as In the case of the sizable equine skull I came across in the middle of a Mexican field and hauled home, worried that customs agents would find the bits of dried flesh clinging to it to be inadmissible to my hygienic and vasty land. It took years after my return to find a means of passing the thing on without offending the alert hollows where once were eyes.)

The linked reminiscence is less in the case of the stack of museum post cards, though even these were purchased in the excitement of viewing the originals and deciding that I must take the image with me. The aura of the low-fire Tarahumara pot is more luminous when I recall buying it from a lady who lived in a cave with a front porch of the most casual stone construction. Once Patricia and I were given a ticket and resulting fine by the French police for hitchhiking before they returned us to the same spot where they had found us by the edge of the autoroute and wished us “Bon voyage!” The documents of this incident would surely be a bore without the story. In fact, this slip of paper should perhaps go – even the story is insufficient to redeem it.

On the other hand in a prominent spot over my fireplace hangs a rectangular piece of cloth in a West African palette: orange, blue, red, and black. A large head of ripe grain is surrounded by lines radiating in all directions. The fact that it is a piece of a shirt which I came upon in a roadside ditch in the Niger Delta of West Africa does not prevent me from regarding this image as revealing much the same profound principle as the “ear of corn” that Hippolytus said was the holy of holies for the Eleusinian Mysteries. Roadsides and crossroads in particular often in that hot and humid climate held offerings bearing people’s poignant wishes, pointing to the gap that defines desire.

My own first stage of souvenirs was preceded by an anticipatory period in which I was beguiled by the associative bouquet of other people’s souvenirs. An Eiffel Tower is a snow globe would have held little appeal for me, though I am told it was in the nineteenth century the most popular reminder of Europe. My taste ran more to a cancelled second-class ticket from the Métro or a plastic bag from Monoprix. A recently returned traveler might possess a precious pack of Turkish cigarettes, impressively cheap and foul. The stamps in passports were resonant, each with its own unique timbre. Before my first trip abroad, I saw once a great hunk of hashish with gold markings I was told was the tax stamp from the Indian state where it had been purchased.

But best of all were the stories. I recall a friend aglow with the memory of what he called “a plum of a job,” civilian supply clerk on a American base, where he could read Hegel in German all day long and then walk the cobbled streets of the Old World in the days when the dollar was strong. Another friend who had served in the Peace Corps in Ghana had a half hour riff on the “car parks” where one might get a seat in the highly competitive collective taxis. A third who had been set up and then busted for pot in Thailand then surprised the authorities when he not only failed to offer an immediate bribe,but also, after being convicted, he refused to pay the small fine, preferring to spend six weeks in jail where he became very popular teaching English to the other inmates. I heard stories of the territories popular in the hip Cook’s Tour of the day: Morocco, Ibiza, Amsterdam, Kathmandu.

With a backpack, a Swiss Army knife, and s few pairs of jeans we wandered around Europe and North Africa for much of 1970 and ’71. Our worldly possessions consisted of a few cardboard boxes, mostly books, art works, and papers, stored in a parent’s home. In part because we had so very little, we did buy things now and then. Being in foreign markets reminded me of first visiting Cost Plus, up by Fisherman’s Wharf in 1967. The store still exists, but I cannot say whether it fills the role it did forty-five years ago. The warehouse-like aisles (a novelty at the time) held an endless variety of cheapo goods from all over the world. Everyone whose living room I passed through seemed to have been there for Indian bedspreads, incense, paper lanterns, beaded curtains, Mexican drinking glasses, Spanish botas, and Thai teacups. Within a single shopping trip one could establish a recognizable style on a budget. Just as in thrift stores, the value of such purchases testified to one’s taste rather than one’s wealth.

So while traveling we gathered this and that to ornament our imagined apartment of the future. Every few months we sent a parcel in motion to the USA, always labeled “gift – value under $25” to avoid customs. Sent by the defunct category of sea mail, these boxes moved very slowly about the globe, taking as much as six months to arrive at their Midwestern destination. Several only made an appearance long after our return.

We were snobbish enough to consider a potato peeler from Paris to have a certain cachet, even if its French aura be invisible to others, and a sweater from a Paris shop was an extravagance, but one that could be savored. In Barcelona we bought an elaborate antique-style lamp and a hammered copper pitcher, but perhaps the wisest investment was a genuine (if imperfect) art nouveau candle-holder in the form of a flower. Our collection of carved wooden pipe-stems and clay bowls (sebsis and shkaufs) from Morocco have not been used or displayed, but they carry to the present minute the savor of our days in Mufis’ café and the Gout de Fes. We sent back ephemera as well: leaflets from the tourist offices of a dozen cities, receipts of various sorts, bits of windblown litter like an advertisement for a small traveling circus in Ibiza featuring el hombre electrico.

A few items were more substantial: on the wall outside my bedroom hangs an old Tunisian carpet. I know nothing of its provenance. In the spring of 1971 I saw it in a merchant’s stall of used goods in the medina of Tunis. We talked, had tea, yet could not agree on a price. On each of the four days Patricia and I stayed in the city, we returned to admire the piece and to bargain a bit more. Finally, we bought it, dearer to us for the memory of the recreation potential in commerce, though hardly dearer than a pizza and a half.

Our place acquired in time sufficient satisfying clutter that we decided that the truly tasteful traveler will avoid shopping for amusement and acquire only a very few items of high quality. In this category I place a new carpet of subdued palette bought in a Marrakech souk the evening before we returned home almost twenty-five years ago. I recall the mint tea, the unrolled carpets expanding from the front of the shop into the dusty lane, and I recall our companion, the musician Hassan Hakmoun, with whom we had visited a market in Ourika and hiked for miles to a cataract above Setti Fatma. When we bought the carpet, Hassan bought a small rug for his son which we carried back to New York and when we went to take it to him in Harlem I locked myself out of my car and Hassan had to jimmy the door with a long blade which he tucked in to his sleeve while strolling up his street. And in this way the forest of narratives branch and continue and link like neurons to make new data and connections and comparisons and the web of words connected to the carper is as tightly woven as the fabric itself, if one tried to tell all, there would be no end to the language until the story-teller or listener has had enough for the time and snips the thread at a convenient spot.

All the same, I sometimes doubted the aesthetics of souvenirs. Though we lived most of our lives on a fraction of what the government considers the poverty level, I knew that some people consider travel conspicuous consumption. Souvenirs might be a display potentially not of wealth alone, but of sophistication as well. Are they inevitably aggressive or at least ego-assertive? I recall uncomfortably reading an essay that compared people’s Guatemalan weavings and wooden Chiwara antelopes from Mali with a previous generation’s French tapestries and elephant leg ash trays. Magnates swollen with money like Vanderbilt and Hearst brought home chunks of palaces and chapels as proof positive of power and taste.

A new philosophical phase of souvenirs succeeded in which it seemed that one need buy nothing at all, that the real memories are mental and the most sublime approach to travel would be similar to the hiker’s creed “take nothing, leave nothing.” Abandoning the commitment to discernment inherent in the previous phase for its dialectical opposite, the traveler now proceeds on the premise that all objects properly regarded have the same associative value. Unfortunately, this assumption rather casts the motive for travel at all in doubt. This is surely the part of wisdom if only to remind the traveler that whatever object he seeks to hold will fall from his hand at last. But then life consists of distracting oneself from impending disaster, and I suspect that any aid we can utilize toward that end is worthwhile.

I settled in the end at last to a less monistic daily practice, picking up a trinket or two in a casual way, a number of them made as souvenirs,: a fine blanket of baby alpaca, a Huichol peyote bud yarn painting, a plastic laundry bag from a hotel in Chichicastenango. I once spent a week by the Ganges in Varanasi, hearing chants and flute tunes all night long and seeing the saddhus doing yoga and telling fortunes out the window. There were a half dozen shrines containing Shiva lingams within a hundred yards of our guesthouse. I thought of the Rev. William Ward whose 1815 book fixed early British attitudes about India to whom such figures were “too gross . . . to meet the public eye” and of Ramakrishna’s devotions which led Vivekananda to claim righteously that the lingam was by no means phallic. Even Christopher Isherwood felt obliged to argue in “Early Days in Dakshineswar” that the lingam and yoni are no more sexual than a Christian spire and font. We brought a small Shivalinga home with us, trusting that it was, indeed, sexual, and it took its collegial place not far from the Jesus night light, the red Haitian candles of male and female forms, and the Buda de Dinero good-luck money-attracting spray. A second lingam we sent to a friend who wrote back, “What a good little lemon squeezer!” (which would have made good sense to the Robert Johnson who sang the “Traveling Riverside Blues”).

A conventional European meal -- even an airline meal -- seemed a marvel when we flew out of Nigeria after eating nothing but food from the local market all year, yet I clearly do not wish wholly to leave that wet and sunny land entirely behind, because in my attic I have yet, though I rarely look at them, a monkey’s hand from the Benin City juju market and an enormous black beetle whose larvae grew in the fruit of palms and were eaten with relish by the locals and by us with a bit less enthusiasm. (Once our dignified Yoruba principal in his three piece British woolen suit was bedeviled by one of these monsters while trying to give a speech.) And we have as well a humble figure, carved by the local Master of Ughelli, a crude tortoise-like object which doubtless contains at least as much mana as the more elaborate objects vended in the foreign oil compounds.

And so, we all surround ourselves with the household gods that time has shown will serve us. We go through life carrying our memories behind, unable to reenter the gone moment or to leave it entirely. Like clothes long unworn at the back of the closet or a ten-year-old check register, be it ever so mundane and arbitrary, each souvenir signifies the ineluctable passage of time and the sweet affection that so tragically ties us to this world. Twain and Cooper both record the humorous usage by which Americans who had gone abroad were called hajjis, but surely there is something of pilgrimage to our peregrinations, no less when we muse at home as when we travel to far-away places.

Notes on Recent Reading 7 [Nabokov, Austen, Grettis Saga]

Pnin [Nabokov]

Joseph Conrad became so naturalized in English that the reader cannot tell he is not using his native language, whereas Vladimir Nabokov, for all his stylistic sophistication, retained the tourist’s sense of wonder and amusement, writing a singularly exotic prose studded with rare words, unconventional usages, and luxuriantly burgeoning sentences.

In Pnin both the author and Cornell University are reduced ironically to low mimetic mode, and the book is often highly comic without sacrificing plausibility or subtlety. Satire of American culture, without history or formality, is balanced by satire of the backward-looking world of the Russian émigrés who have little else. Realizing that communication is always imperfect, he focuses on misinterpretation, incorrect usages, mistaken identities, a labored explanation of a cartoon, the absurdity of a basketball net.

One finds Nabokov jabbing at his bêtes noires: Bolshevism, Freud, and abstract art, and intimately caressing his loves: butterflies, chess, people of all sorts, and, most of all, language. Nabokov is a great writer and Lolita is his masterpiece, but in Pnin as well the reader encounters such marvelous gifts as this: “Technically speaking, the narrator’s art of integrating telephone conversations still lags far behind that of rendering dialogues conducted from room to room, or from window to window across some narrow blue alley in an ancient town with water so precious, and the misery of donkeys, and rugs for sale, and minarets, and foreigners and melons, and the vibrant morning echoes.”

Mansfield Park [Austen]

Timid and sensitive nearly to the point of neurasthenia, priggish in her deep opposition to amateur theatricals, a persecuted damsel of the sort that has always been popular (apart from Samuel Richardson, one might think of Yuan drama or the covers of thirties pulp magazine), Fanny Price distresses even many confirmed Austen fans. By introducing a family from a lower social milieu, Austen added little but a tinge of the sordid from which not only Fanny and William, but Susan as well, need fortuitous assistance to escape. The real tensions in the books are between the amoral, eighteenth century wit valued in sophisticated circles and the earnest uprightness of Edmund and Fanny. We can only miss the impertinent cleverness of the author who is herself evidence that nature can combine a good character and an epigrammatic skill.

The leading couple come together only in the very last pages as they discover their common taste for discussing the faults of others. Edmund’s infatuation with Mary Crawford, durable through many months, vanishes entirely and suddenly. It takes no longer for his elder brother Tom, through, sympathetic magic perhaps, to turn from a thoughtless self-centered wastrel to a man of integrity. For Sir Thomas, tasked with an indolent wife, disagreeable relatives, and the pesky problems of managing his distant West Indian slaves, propriety had been a trusty foundation, but he resolves his personal deficiencies through his proximity to the newlyweds.

We don’t see the deus ex machina, but it is surely there. Is all her piety, her superiority to society’s judgments consistent with her stress on “breeding”? In the story how one is brought up seems to all but determine one’s fate. Surely, I am not the only modern reader to wonder about Fanny’s word-choice when, concerned about Mary’s corrupting Edmund, she says, “God grant that her influence do not make him cease to be respectable.” Can one read those words without feeling a bit of a chill?

Grettis Saga

Last of the great Icelandic sagas, that extraordinary efflorescence, dozens of prose narrations, based in history but not shy of legend and folk-tale motifs, produced in a small and poor country. The stoical understated northern sensibility, reflecting a world of privation and casual violence, shaped a number of works of tragic depth, including Njal’s Saga and Grettir’s.

Virtually any line from these works provides a microcosm of their society. Grettir the Strong is respected for his physical prowess, just as if he had been a similarly powerful baboon or a forest stag. Even apart from war and raiding, these Northmen are never far from a brawl as they can be extremely sensitive on points of honor, and the traditions of feuding mandate danger points among family and loyalty groupings that extend for generations. Some elements of law and even democracy did mitigate the bloodshed, but it was often prudent, it seems, to bring a well-armed party even when attending the Althing.

Grettir, himself, is ill-starred, and his fortunes fall particularly after his struggle with the revenant Glam (who had been weird even before his killing by a monster). Just as his opponent is stronger than most men, Glam’s animated corpse “possessed more malignant power than most fiends,” and it curses Grettir with terrible words. From childhood he had been a trial to his father, lazy, unproductive, and bad-tempered. His earlier scrapes had been the result of an impulsive nature, easily offended, old feuds, and a strain of reckless cruelty. After this critical struggle, however, not only is his might limited, but bad luck will govern his fate, condemning him to outlawry, exile, and solitude. Worse, the spectre tells him, “These eyes of mine shall be ever before your vision. You will find it hard to live alone, and at last it will drag you to death.” After this, the fierce warrior is afraid of the dark.

Part of the reader’s immersion in early Icelandic society is the result of the saga’s inclusion of many proverbs and verses of skaldic poetry (our hero, for all his rough-and-ready fighting, has been an accomplished poet since childhood). If, as the author had it “One man’s tale is but half a tale,” Grettir, though lacking spirituality or the lighter strains of music, is a moving and fully-fleshed hero, the more rather than the less for his substantial faults.