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nexial facetiae

…and Kentlee followed up with a pointer to John Gall‘s The Systems Bible, which deals with Systemantics. It first appeared in 1975, was updated in 1986, and expanded in a third edition in 2012. I grabbed it on the Kindle and started reading, flipping between parody and an exposé of some of the fallacies and limitations of “systems thinking” as practised (and buzzworded) in the early 1970s. Delightful reading, a flavor of which can be sampled via Taylor Pearson, and from Drafty Manor. Gall was an acute observer and had a sharp eye for hypocrises, things hidden in plain sight, and the Emperor’s Clothes.

I happened to look at the book’s cataloging information and found that one of its Library of Congress subject descriptors is

System Theory – anecdotes, facetiae, satire, etc.

Facetiae, eh? Here are some of the dictionary entries for that one:

treating serious issues with deliberately inappropriate humor
joking or jesting, often inappropriately
a joke with a little drop of sarcasm
intentionally unserious
making humorous remarks or saying things they do not mean in a situation where they ought to be serious
characterized by levity of attitude and love of joking
dark humor
playfully jocular
cutting, witty, often sarcastic remarks
a sarcastic and sardonic comment, more sneering and meaner
not meant to be taken seriously or literally
joking in terms of pretending something is true,
while knowing that it is false

Hmmmm, I thought, how guilty am I of pretty much all of those? How many of the books on my shelves partake of the facetious and the parodic? Edward Gorey? Terry Pratchett? Archy and Mehitabel? The Good Soldier Svejk? The Big Lebowski? Sandman? uh oh…

The Geese

Christopher Lydon’s Radio Open Source has brightened a lot of the last decade for me, opening doors into places and subjects I hadn’t known I wanted to learn about, and introducing me to stuff I’ve since realized I care deeply about. A case in point: an interview with Colm Tóibín, towards the end of which he reads an Elizabeth Bishop poem which is achingly reminiscent of the Nova Scotia I know. His lead-in is absolutely spot-on (“…what was it that just hit you, emotionally? where it was in the poem where that began, and was sustained?”)


About the size of an old-style dollar bill,
American or Canadian,
mostly the same whites, gray greens, and steel grays
-this little painting (a sketch for a larger one?)
has never earned any money in its life.
Useless and free., it has spent seventy years
as a minor family relic handed along collaterally to owners
who looked at it sometimes, or didn't bother to.

It must be Nova Scotia; only there
does one see abled wooden houses
painted that awful shade of brown.
The other houses, the bits that show, are white.
Elm trees., low hills, a thin church steeple
-that gray-blue wisp-or is it? In the foreground
a water meadow with some tiny cows,
two brushstrokes each, but confidently cows;
two minuscule white geese in the blue water,
back-to-back,, feeding, and a slanting stick.
Up closer, a wild iris, white and yellow,
fresh-squiggled from the tube.
The air is fresh and cold; cold early spring
clear as gray glass; a half inch of blue sky
below the steel-gray storm clouds.
(They were the artist's specialty.)
A specklike bird is flying to the left.
Or is it a flyspeck looking like a bird?

Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!
It's behind-I can almost remember the farmer's name.
His barn backed on that meadow. There it is,
titanium white, one dab. The hint of steeple,
filaments of brush-hairs, barely there,
must be the Presbyterian church.
Would that be Miss Gillespie's house?
Those particular geese and cows
are naturally before my time.

A sketch done in an hour, "in one breath,"
once taken from a trunk and handed over.
Would you like this? I'll Probably never
have room to hang these things again.
Your Uncle George, no, mine, my Uncle George,
he'd be your great-uncle, left them all with Mother
when he went back to England.
You know, he was quite famous, an R.A....

I never knew him. We both knew this place,
apparently, this literal small backwater,
looked at it long enough to memorize it,
our years apart. How strange. And it's still loved,
or its memory is (it must have changed a lot).
Our visions coincided-"visions" is
too serious a word-our looks, two looks:
art "copying from life" and life itself,
life and the memory of it so compressed
they've turned into each other. Which is which?
Life and the memory of it cramped,
dim, on a piece of Bristol board,
dim, but how live, how touching in detail
-the little that we get for free,
the little of our earthly trust. Not much.
About the size of our abidance
along with theirs: the munching cows,
the iris, crisp and shivering, the water
still standing from spring freshets,
the yet-to-be-dismantled elms, the geese.

(source for the text: “Poem”)

Have a Piece of Pie

One of my Guilty Pleasures is books that I classify as Anglophilia. The latest to join the heap is Regina Marler’s Bloomsbury Pie: The Making of the Bloomsbury Boom. It’s comfortable and interesting in a slightly voyeuristic way, and from time to time one encounters a passage that just needs to be passed along to others. Today’s case in point:

Perhaps because they threaten our private feelings for a cherished figure, attempts to explain the few veiled elements of Virginia Woolf’s character arouse frenzied opposition. Armed with Freud or Laing or Husserl or Lacan and the immense written record of Virginia Woolf’s life, numberless critics and biographers have tried their hand at the puzzle only to be judged, at best, plausible and sensitive or, at worst, hostile, fanciful, unreflective, biased, arrogant, self-serving, and violently appropriative. Even the official biographer was attacked for broaching the possibility of sexual molestation: those who came after were torn by jackals. Some observers, like Leon Edel, blamed Michael Holroyd for establishing a prurient interest in the Bloomsberries and setting the tone for subsequent journalism and scholarship. This overlooks not only the growing candor of the period, however, but the perennial appeal of other people’s private lives. “Let me confess,” wrote Quentin Bell, “horrible though it may be to do so, that I would rather read almost any frivolous and salacious journalism than almost any literary criticism.” (pp 167-168)

And so say we all.

reading Patrick Leigh Fermor

I first read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s wonderful travel books about 30 years ago (when Penguin books were $5.95) and they’ve stayed on the at-hand shelves ever since. The recent publication of his last (and posthumous), The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos was reason enough to order from, and I’ve been enjoying its narrative and geographical/historical felicities since its arrival a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a wonderful self-reflective passage that goes right to the heart of problems of the aging mind:

…two main problems beset the very curious and enjoyable task of compiling this private [mental] archaeology. The first is a sudden blur, when exact memory conks out and a stretch of itinerary looms eventlessly ahead and no pencil mark on the map comes to my help. This has occurred on several occasions and will again, no doubt. At first these blackouts filled me with distress. I would gaze from page to map with growing misery as the minutes passed and nothing, absolutely nothing, surfaced. Not now. I interpret this blank as an indication that there was nothing, for my private purposes, memorable there. No reflection on the landscape, the villages, towns even –or their denizens. Often I must have wandered through, or just missed, or completely failed to remember, owing to some private defect, buildings of tremendous interest (that I would give perhaps a great deal to see now), whole mountain ranges teeming with history and with natural wonders, political trends and events of momentous importance. This last consideration prompts the thought that even after such a long time-lag, this must be one of the unscoopiest travel accounts ever to see the light. My private let-out here is that this is neither a cultural handbook, a guide, nor a political or military report. (It is impolitic to dwell any longer on these shortcomings.) The cheerful obverse of all these lacunae is that they save us both from drowning in the indiscriminate flood of total recall.

The second problem is the opposite of all this: while piecing together fragments which have lain undisturbed for two decades and more, all at once a detail will surface which acts as potently as the taste of madeleine which made the whole of Proust’s childhood unfurl. The haul of irrelevant detail, interlocking trains of thought and associations, and the echoes of echoes re-echoed and ricocheted, is overwhelming, and in the hopes of attaining some redeeming shadow of symmetry and balance, a lot of this irrelevant catch must be thrown away again to swim back to the dark pools where it has been lurking all this time… (pp 153-154)

Some other Patrick Leigh Fermor resources:

Anthony Lane’s 2006 New Yorker profile (full text available to subscribers, but see here for toothsome extracts)

Colin Thubron’s 2008 NYRB review of 5 books, which ends with this:

…It is a beguiling picture: a prelapsarian world sweetened by memory, perhaps, and by the author’s genial nature. For certainly that innocence did not belong to the continent Leigh Fermor was crossing, which had suffered an atrocious war only fifteen years before. It lay rather in the vision of the gifted youth who, ashplant in hand, went striding into his own Europe, and who would bring it back at last, still rich and vivid, after half a century.

Mary Beard’s 2005 London Review of Books review of Roumeli and Mani

At year’s end

Year’s end finds me doing the sorts of things I most enjoy: playing with collections, reading new stuff, listening to a wide spectrum of musics, eating/cooking wonderful food, messing with photography. Today I’ve been exploring a project on Borneo, making a database of the hundreds of albums I’ve gathered into Spotify playlists in the last 12 months, and keeping fires going in both woodstoves.

On the organizational front, I’ve just installed a new (3 TB!) Time Machine drive on my desktop computer, and done some of the housekeeping to reorganize the other backup drives that dangle from the machine. I still need a good backup strategy for the terabyte-plus of music files,

The books I’m actively working on include

A History of the Future in 100 Objects

Hild: A Novel

Swann’s Way

Only Yesterday

Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?

River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West

Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven

On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History

All Change (Cazalet Chronicles)

Pogo: Bona Fide Balderdash

…and just finished Still Inside: the Tony Rice Story

Other regular reading includes The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Baffler, all in somewhat helter-skelter fashion. Lapham’s Quarterly will join the stable soon.

The Borneo project began as a waking dream about a week ago, as I found myself thinking about how I would teach a class centered on that always-fascinating corner of the world, with which my life has been entangled for about 50 years. Nobody wants such a course, but it’s been an interesting Gedankenexperiment to rehearse how I’d go about it. And almost needless to say, it’s as much a matter of how to approach the study of anyplace as an essay upon the island itself. And so (especially as I’ve been going to sleep) I’ve been turning over what I know (and what I’d like to know more about) in realms of geography and history and ethnology and trade and hydrology and ecology and demography and politics and musics and arts and epidemiology and agriculture and development and… A couple of days ago I spent a few hours interrogating JSTOR for articles on Kalimantan, from which I downloaded 20 or so, and I’ve been reading those, extracting juicy bits that fit into my evolving narrative, and starting to collect a bibliography of sources that I could get to at Harvard if I spent a day or so in those familiar libraries. This phase of information gathering is all very familiar territory, from years of teaching and preparing to teach, and even without any prospective audience it seems a constructive thing to be doing.

It’s been a very productive year for photography, and I’m anticipating a lot more in 2014. The just-acquired iPhone 5s has a remarkable camera, and my new Nikon D610 oozes potential too. And of course there are still a great many old negatives awaiting digitization. The question of audience continues to not trouble me: I’m content to put photos up on Flickr, and have no grander ambitions along the lines of gallery display or publication.

Just what to do with the music resources continues to baffle me. I’d love to share what I have with like-minded others, and I’d certainly like to expand my circle of musical acquaintances, but I don’t see pathways to either of those ends. I’ve made a list of the year’s Spotify playlists, which offers a glimpse at what I’ve been listening to in that medium.


Pretty much as long as I can remember (back to 1950 or so anyhow), Heinrich Schütz: Weihnachtshistorie has been an element in my [utterly secular] celebration of Christmas. My parents had an early LP

and over the years I’ve accumulated several different performances in different media (WorldCat lists nearly 100 scores and recordings). This year I’m listening to this version, via Spotify.

A bit of googling disclosed this description of context, which includes a link to a nice bilingual libretto and offers YouTube video of performance by the Monteverdi Chor Würzburg.

testing Christoph Bach

I’m exploring the interconnection of text with YouTube clips, starting with a passage from John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music In The Castle Of Heaven, where he discusses Christoph Bach’s Es erhub sich ein Streit:

Creating a magnificent tableau in sound, Christoph portrays the great eschatological battle in which the archangel Michael and his angelic squadrons fought the dragon and snuffed out a mutiny led by Lucifer and the forces of darkness… the halo of beatific string sounds of the sinfonia soothes the listener up to the moment when two solo basses appear and sing:

are these dispatches from the front line or war reporters furtively recording their commentaries in the build-up to battle? Their antiphonal exchanges become steadily rougher, and they start to roar like a couple of meths-drinking tramps. Then almost imperceptibly the drumming begins.

One by one four field trumpeters bugle out their alarm calls and the voices start to pile up, while the circling angels size up the dragon and plan their attack. Soon a space opens up between the two five-voiced choirs… and a column of sound, six octaves tall, has been built up.

(that’s enough for proof of concept)

I have a lot more to say about Gardiner, but wanted to solve this problem of multimedia linkage. Stay tuned.