`The Smudge of the Ashen Fluff'
We were watching a movie with the boys Friday evening when something crashed into the front window. Outside on the gravel was a motionless song sparrow. I lifted it by a wing and saw that it clutched a piece of gravel with each of its feet. One fell immediately and the other fell as I walked around the corner of the house and opened the gate. I lifted the lid on the plastic yard-waste bin and dropped the bird inside, where it landed on a bed of leaves and grass clippings. I felt lousy but didn’t want a neighborhood cat to tear it up and leave the mangled body for the kids to see. Naturally, I thought of the opening lines of “Pale Fire,” from the novel of the same name:“I was the shadow of the waxwing slainSaturday morning I took out the trash, including a handful of banana peels. I opened the yard-waste bin again and the sparrow exploded, shooting past my head, around the magnolia and over the fence. My “smudge of ashen fluff” had “lived on.” A reader who is losing his vision and faces another surgery writes: “I am hope-filled but not naïve.”
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of the ashen fluff – and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.”
`Superficially, If I May So Say, Omniscient'
Twenty-five years in journalism turned me into a professional extravert without touching my essential introversion. I can talk to anyone. Or rather, I can listen to anyone, as the lives of others are invariably more compelling than my own. The topic over lunch in the faculty lounge was Star Trek, a subject about which, as Charles Lamb writes, “I am a whole Encyclopedia behind the rest of the world.” It’s not the first time. I know nothing about television, sports, and the movies and pop music of the moment – the lingua franca of students and faculty. I would be found out immediately if I tried to fake a knowing familiarity with such matters, so I nod, smile, emit the occasional throaty laugh and think of what else Lamb wrote in “The Old and the New Schoolmaster”:“Not that I affect ignorance -- but my head has not many mansions, nor spacious; and I have been obliged to fill it with such cabinet curiosities as it can hold without aching. I sometimes wonder, how I have passed my probation with so little discredit in the world, as I have done, upon so meagre a stock. But the fact is, a man may do very well with a very little knowledge, and scarce be found out, in mixed company; every body is so much more ready to produce his own, than to call for a display of your acquisitions.”Don’t get me wrong: When the topic turns to something I know something about – children, for instance, or Zbigniew Herbert – I’m right there in the thick of it. Or when teachers turn to their other favorite subject (bitching about students, administrators and other teachers), or when students turn to theirs (bitching about teachers and “The Man” in general), I’m a fount of empathetic reciprocity. As Lamb goes on to say:
“The modern schoolmaster is expected to know a little of every thing, because his pupil is required not to be entirely ignorant of any thing. He must be superficially, if I may so say, omniscient.”
`The Paradigm of Civilization and Proportion'
“Dr [Johnson’s] dogmatisme was the façade of consternation. The 18th century was full of ahuris [“bewildered people”] – perhaps that is why it looked like the age of `reason’ – but there can hardly have been many so completely at sea in their solitude as he was or so horrifiedly aware of it – not even Cowper. Read the Prayers & Meditations if you don’t believe me.”
At last, The Letters of Samuel Beckett: 1929-1940 has arrived, and my first act was to look up the other Samuel, Johnson, in the index, where I found 35 citations. The passage above is from a letter to his friend Thomas McGreevy, written Aug. 4, 1937. Beckett spent several years in the nineteen-thirties researching Johnson’s life and work, focusing on his relationship with Mrs. Thrale. The result was an abandoned play, “Human Wishes,” not published until 1984 as a “dramatic fragment” in Disjecta.
Of growing interest to me are the occult kinships and unacknowledged convergences between writers separated by time and space. This relates to Guy Davenport’s notion that every text is a response to another text, whether or not the author announces it or is even aware of it. Everyone knows Beckett revered his countryman, James Joyce, but how many of Beckett’s avant-garde-minded admirers know of or share his lifelong fascination with Dr. Johnson?.... In How It Was, her memoir of a 30-year friendship with Beckett, Anne Atik writes:“Johnson was the one subject most certain to animate Sam, no matter how despondent he’s been before. There were many evenings, as mentioned, when he could say nothing [much like Johnson – and Cowper], show nothing, would hide his eyes and answer mechanically, albeit with his never-failing courtesy, until Johnson’s name came up (I’d bring it out like whiskey, or medicine). He dipped into Johnson constantly, for sheer pleasure; it was a source of relief, and, for the sake of our conversations, he was very glad that I considered it such, too.”
Atik continues:“He had innumerable books concerning Johnson, as well as a 1799 edition of his Dictionary. One day he came in with a delighted expression on his face, giving a quick rub to his nose, smoking his cigar, saying, `Just read this in Johnson’s Dictionary – his definition of `lamentation’: `audible wail’…Johnson’s conversation – in spite of his notorious rages – was for Sam the paradigm of civilization and proportion; his kindness and hospitality to the poor and helpless, exemplary.”