Archive for March, 2010


“So I associated myself with fossilized figures…”

Memes come, memes go, and I rarely inflict personal stuff on readers of this blog. However, this meme is fun: list the ten books that most influenced you. Forget the books you love, or the books you think you need to say you’ve read; instead, list the books that answer the question, “Who are you, and how did you get that way?”

Anne Terry White, The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends (1960).
They’re all here: Theseus, Narcissus, the Volsungs, Beowulf and Grendel, Charlemagne, Tristan and Iseult, all strikingly illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen. Finding this book in my elementary school library was like falling into a whole new universe, one I haven’t quite climbed out of yet.

Literature I: The Oregon Curriculum (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968).
When my fifth-grade teacher saw me reading The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends, he decided I was ready for this more advanced textbook. He marked the Greek myths with a paperclip, but I soon moved on to the Norse myths, literary ballads, fables, folktales, and short stories, not knowing I was reading Aesop, Goethe, Kipling, Poe, William Morris, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Graves. Thirty years later, I’m amazed by the breadth of this book’s gorgeous color illustrations: ancient and medieval art from India, China, and Scandinavia, colonial American folk art, and paintings by Breughel, Rembrandt, Chagall, Grandma Moses, Calder, Warhol, Dürer, and Klee. Could we even publish such a sophisticated textbook today?

All of those hardcover Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks from the early 1980s.
Judge me if you must, but I stand by what I wrote in my appreciation of Gary Gygax: “[f]or those of us who were raised outside of an academic milieu, D&D also offered a valuable experience that later served us well: the game offered a preview of the systems, organization, and culture of a worldwide scholarly community.”

Commodore 64 Programmer’s Reference Guide. (Commodore Business Machines, Inc., 1982).
We humanities types blather on about “critical thinking skills,” but if you really want to create English majors who can ace an upper-level college course on symbolic logic, make them program a computer.

Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (Basic Books, 1980).
I bought this book in high school on the recommendation of a friend who went on to become an engineer. I didn’t entirely get it, I don’t think I finished it, and I doubt I’ll ever return to it, but the lesson was useful: The world is full of people who are much smarter than you are, and you sound like a fool when you call their work “weird” or “esoteric” just because you don’t understand it.

J.D. Salinger, Nine Stories (1953).
It’s exciting to be 17, and to be charmed by a book, and to think, “I want to write like that.” Only when the author kicks the bucket 20 years later do you realize what his book was trying to tell you: “This isn’t the sort of thing you’re meant to write.”

Ben T. Clark, Russian: Third Edition (Harper and Row, 1983).
It’s 9 o’clock in the morning on your first day of college, no one can yet imagine a world in which the Berlin Wall falls and “Winds of Change” is the #4 song in America, and you’ve never seriously studied another language—but within minutes, you’re learning a new alphabet, holding rudimentary conversations, and absorbing terms and concepts that will help you dabble in languages for years to come. Спасибо, Ben T. Clark.

Henry Treece, The Crusades (1964).
I still have my crummy paperback copy of this lurid pop-history, which introduced me to all sorts of wild medieval nutjobs, including Pope Urban, Peter the Hermit, Peter Bartholomew, and Henry Dandolo. Wanting to understand why angry mobs would tear people apart for the sake of relics, I became a medievalist—and as a result, here you are, reading this blog.

Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson, A Guide to Old English, Fifth Edition (Blackwell, 1992).
So maybe you don’t grow up to become an Anglo-Saxonist. So what? Spend a semester working through this tome and you ought to agree with C.S. Lewis: “The taproot, Anglo-Saxon, can never be abandoned. The man who does not know it remains all his life a child among real English students.”

A.S. Byatt, Possession (1990).
Few novels matter, so it’s nice when a work of fiction speaks to you, offering assurances that leaving grad school is okay—and that trying your hand at writing might be more fun than making a career out of studying the works of others.

“And he plays at stocks and shares, and he goes to the regatta…”

When I asked the owl on the north nave to contribute a poem to this project, I assumed from his mortarboard, scroll, and book that he’d hand me a pile of self-aggrandizing verse. Instead I got this shamefully loose translation of a pseudo-Ovidian poem written sometime between the 12th and 14th centuries. I guess a gargoyle, like the occasional human, reserves the right to remain enigmatic.

THE LOMBARD AND THE SNAIL

Loudly, the Lombard lopes over the landscape, and stops;
Leery, he lights on the lushest and loveliest crops.
Frabjous he feels, for his fields are not fated to fail—
Then forth springs a spectacle strange and stupendous: a snail.
Cowed and confounded, he quivers and quavers and groans;
Witless, he whitens, as wonderment welters his bones.
Seizing his senses, he summons the sangfroid to say:
“Fie on a felon! My fortune is forfeit today!
No suchlike scoundrel has slithered or skulked here before.
Mark well his message: he musters to meet me in war.
Horns are his heralds; his shield makes his handiwork plain.
Shall I not spurn him? No—better, in sooth, to be slain.
What if I poke and provoke him? Perhaps I’ll prevail!
Minstrels and merchants will mimic my marvelous tale.
What am I saying? To fight with a fiend is uncouth!
Easier warfare abounds; it’s a world-weary truth.
Men will say ’madness!,’ maligning me under their breath:
’It’s not meet and fitting to seek an uncivilized death.’
What if my children should walk by this waelstow and see?
Faced with this fiend, they would fathom his fierceness and flee!
Still, they’d concede that this combat is clearly unfair:
Armed is this beast, but no buckler or broadsword I bear.”
Fretful, he freezes, as Fear grapples fiercely with Shame;
Shame is pugnacious, but Fear keeps his temperament tame.
Competent counsel can kindle a capable life;
Thus he petitions the heavens, and checks with his wife.
Promptly, the gods promise palms for the victor, and praise;
Nervous, he nurtures no trust in their numinous ways.
Thence to his wife; she is timorous, tearful, and true:
“Listen, you lunatic, what are you looking to do?
Scuttle your strife; let your spirit sit safe on a shelf.
Mind no more monsters—and muse over more than yourself.
Spurn not your children and spouse! Let your senselessness stall;
Ill-omened days will bring dolor and doom to us all.
Hector would crumble, and even Achilles would quail;
Fast would the firmness of Hercules fracture and fail!”
Roused, he retaliates: “Rein in your runaway fears!
We who dare Death are undaunted, dear woman, by tears.
Great be the gods, for they grant me a glorious name.
You and the family fare well! For I follow my fame.”
Forth to the field, where he faces the fiend in the fray;
Stalking around him, he steadies his stomach to say:
“Beast, you are feral, unnatural, immoral, and vague!
Monster of monsters, as mean as the mortalest plague,
Hold high your horns! I am horrified hardly at all.
Show me your shield! Into no stealthy shell shall you crawl.
Righteous, I raise my right hand! Now your ruthless reign stops!
Savagely sully no more my salubrious crops!”
Swinging and swatting and shaking and sticking his spear,
Panting, he presses; the palm of the victor is near.
For heroes who rate such renown, what reward is supplied?
The matter is lofty; their lawyers will likely decide.


(For all the entries in this series, hit the “looking up” tag.)

“The girls would turn the color of the avocado…”

According to Gasch’s Guide to Gargoyles and Other Grotesques, the cathedral’s beret-wearing, paintbrush-toting deer is a verbal and visual pun: “This ‘endearing’ artist is undoubtedly ‘fawning’ on art.” Forever facing south toward the city’s museums, this creature is finding that a life in the arts, or in Washington, is about acquiring far more than the proper costume or kit.

ARS GRAVIS, VITA LEVIS

“Oldenburg, Rauschenberg, Klimt, or Klee:
When will I know what my passion should be?
Bierstadt, Bearden, de Kooning, Kinkaid:
How will their worth and my wisdom be weighed?
Is Calder too cutesy? Is folk art still fab?
Must Modern mean morbid? Devotional drab?
Are Memmi’s Madonnas deserving of fame?
Is liking them rightly ironic, or lame?
Is Flagg too American? Catlin taboo?
Is Russell too western? Is Parrish too blue?
Is Fauve far too Fauvist? Is Nevelson fluff?
Noguchi not nearly noetic enough?
What if I’m cornered, but plead my release
By deftly decrypting a daring new piece?
‘Problematizing. Pedantic. Profane.
Derivative. Kitschy. Impassioned but vain.’
Stone-faced, I’ll suffer no pleasure to show.
What if they squint through my brilliance, and know?”

(Say God replies. His pronouncement drifts down:
“Art’s not an adjective, only a noun.”)

(For all the entries in this series, hit the “looking up” tag.)

“It’s the only the thing that never gets old.”

The conversations one overhears around the cathedral are enlightening. An eavesdropper soon learns that there are answers to seemingly impossible questions, including this one: “Why is that gargoyle smiling?”

A MOTHER CONSOLES HER DAUGHTER

“Lizards must perish, as sure as they’re born;
Children who love them are fated to mourn.
Yet lizards live on when their season is flown:
Scales fall away; the remainder is stone,
And wings, like green legends, burst forth and unfold.
The beasts they become covet altars of gold;
They roost on cathedrals, unnoticed and gray,
Watching the centuries die in a day.
Well may you wonder, ‘But what happens next?’
This question leaves even the wisest perplexed.
The wyrd of these wyrms is a subtle decree,
But here’s what a wyvern once whispered to me:
When Time bids these buttresses buckle and break,
Scattering rubble and ruin in their wake,
Things wearing wings will awake and take flight.
On towering temples a few will alight;
Some will watch kobolds construct them a shrine;
Some will stalk longships, their prows to entwine;
Some will grind gryphons to dust in their claws;
One may remember a child, and pause.
So listen, for wings carry comforting truth:
Honor the monsters that creep through your youth,
And never make light of a reptile’s pride;
A lizard, though small, is a dragon inside.”


(For all the entries in this series, hit the “looking up” tag.)