Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy

Leviticus

Jesus Christ, Leviticus is boring! It’s one long list of rules and regulations with an occasional threat thrown in for good measure. I miss the rock’em sock’em good times of the first two books. Really detailed instructions on sacrificing sheep, fowls, etc. Salt makes an appearance in 2:13, we’re veering into recipe territory and it seems god has quite the appetite. The cooking show get sizzling with 6:21 “in a pan it shall be made with oil; and when it is baken, thou shalt bring it in”. But before you get too cozy with eating, chapter 11 tells you what NOT to eat (including camel, coney, hare, swine, things without fins and scales in the water, eagle, ossifrage, ospray, vulture, kite, raven, owl, hawk, cuckow, owl, swan, pelican, stork, heron, lapwing, bat). But feel free to eat locusts, beetles, and grasshoppers.

There’s some real voodoo shit, and specific details about dealing with leprosy and gonorrhea. Oops, we are sorry to inform you that incest is now not permitted (18:6), sorry for those thousands of years of confusion before this. While we’re at it, let’s go ahead and outlaw homosexuality as well (our bad—it just got too popular! 18:22).

Things get real with 19:29: “Do not prostitute thy daughter, to cause her to be a whore; lest the land fall to whoredom, and the land become full of wickedness.” And since we like making specific regulations about women, there’s a proclamation that the daughters of priests who commit adultery “shall be burnt with fire” (daughters of regular folk were just strangled, not burned). Know any flat-nosed rabbis? I don’t think you do, according to 21:18.

Numbers

There are a lot of numbers in this book, but not a lot of action. Numbers, numbers, numbers, and more of those tediously specific instructions you’ve got to follow exactly or suffer the wrath of god. There’s some really graphic torture that god inflicts, like 5:21’s causing thighs to rot and bellies to swell. The patriarchy is in full force here, with women bearing the brunt of all punishment (5:31 – men are guiltless, women shall bear her iniquity).

Yadda yadda yadda about sacrificing, gold spoons, but again don’t complain because that throws god into a tizzy and he burns people up who complain (11:1). Nice reminiscing about all the good food they used to have in Egypt: cucumbers, fish, melons, leeks, onions, garlic. But cry about it? I’ll give you something to cry about, god says, giving you enough meat to “come out at your nostrils” (11:20).

More patriarchal rot in chapter 12 where both Miriam and Aaron are talking shit about Moses for marrying an Ethiopian woman but only Miriam is punished by being turned into a leper and cast out of the community.

More bitching and moaning from the people so god starts killing people again. 21:6-“And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.” Do not mess with pissy- mood god.

More graphic violence: a grandson of Aaron takes a javelin and thrusts it through a man and a woman, through her belly, in order to keep a plague from killing people. Patriarchal bullshit continues in chapter 30 where women’s choices get overridden by their fathers or husbands.

The height of tedium is reached in chapter 33 which reads like directions printed out from MapQuest: “And they departed from Kibrothhattaavah, and encamped at Hazeroth. And they departed from Hazeroth, and pitched in Rithmah. And they departed from Rithmah, and pitched at Rimmonparez.” The whole chapter lulls you to sleep with this singsong list of arrivals and departures.

Is Moses dead yet? Ugh, no. One more book to go.

Deuteronomy

Hooray! Moses finally dies at the end of this book. But first, lots of reminiscing about god’s greatest hits, some rehashing of the commandments, and god generally acts like an abuser, reminding people that he’s jealous and then pretending he’s merciful.

There’s a lot of weird emphasis here on creating refuge cities in case anyone accidentally kills someone, they can escape to these cities for safety. Also weird to specifically describe that if you accidentally hit your neighbor with an axe, it’s ok to flee to a refuge city.

I guess the vengeful god is more interesting than the nice one. God threatens to send hornets to kill people if they disobey. Not chill.

Also in here is the concept of releasing people from debt every 7 years and helping the poor.

A bunch of bullshit about the patriarchy, like if you want to take a wife from people you capture, go for it, and if you later find you “have no delight in her,” you can let her go but you can’t sell her. Bummer. There’s specific instructions that women can’t wear men’s garments and vice versa. If you take a wife and “go in unto her, and hate her” then pretend she wasn’t a virgin, her parents have to provide “tokens” of their daughter’s virginity and if they can’t provide them, the daughter gets stoned to death.

The whole end of chapter 22 is nuts. If a married woman is raped in the city then they both get stoned to death, but if she’s raped in a field then only the man dies because there was no one to save her. Oh, and if the raped woman wasn’t married then she has to marry her rapist (22:29).

The rules start to get bizarre and arbitrary, like not plowing with both an ox and an ass together, and not wearing clothes that mix wool and linen. If your balls are crushed or your penis cut off you can’t worship god?

Ladies have to marry their dead husband’s brothers. If you try to help your husband in a fight by grabbing the genitals of his assailant, you get your hand cut off!

Chapter 28 is classic—10 verses about how god’ll be nice if you follow the rules, and then 40+ verses on the curses and damnation he’ll bring if you don’t obey. Pestilence, fever, inflammation, burning, sword, blasting, mildew, drought, eaten by vultures, boils, scabs & itches that can’t be healed, madness, blindness, poverty. God will make another man sleep with your wife if you don’t obey. Kill your animals, give away your children, “smite thee in the knees and in the legs, with a sore botch that cannot be healed, from the sole of thy foot unto the top of thy head.” He’ll bring locusts and worms to eat your crops.

God is apparently a lawyer because 28:61 is the kind of cover-your-ass clause you’d find buried in a website’s terms and conditions: “Also every sickness, and every plague, which is not written in the book of this law, them will the lord bring upon thee, until thou be destroyed.”

Monday or Tuesday

This is the only short story collection Woolf published in her lifetime, out via the Hogarth Press in 1921. The eight stories show her shift away from the more conventional novel form in her first two books towards the more modern approach that she launches in Jacob’s Room. She’s writing that novel over the same period that this collection of stories comes out, and has a conversation with Lytton Strachey about writing where he asks about her novel, and she says “Oh I put in my hand & rummage in the bran pie.” (The OED defines bran-pie as: “a tub full of bran with small gifts hidden in it to be drawn out at random, as part of festivities at Christmas, etc.” – apparently a Victorian tradition.)

These are the stories included in Monday and Tuesday:

  • A Haunted House
  • A Society – Poll’s dad leaves her a fortune but on condition that she read all the books in the London Library.
  • Monday or Tuesday – short, experimental swirl of sounds, colors, snippets of conversation, a heron flies past, time passes.
  • An Unwritten Novel – brilliant imagining of the life of a stranger commuting by train.
  • The String Quartet – penetrating description of London society as one goes to an afternoon concert.
  • Blue & Green
  • Kew Gardens – delightful, previously published in 1919, a first glimpse at a more free flowing form. I think she felt the riskiest part was the conversation between two women b/c she was nervous about certain women reading that section.
  • The Mark on the Wall – first pub’d in 1917; spoiler alert, it’s a snail!

Exodus

I’m not planning to write about the entire Bible, but the second book is just as bananas as the first. Compared to Genesis, which has tons of stars, co-stars, and even a few leading ladies (who have actual lines!), Exodus is a one-man show—all Moses, all the time. The god that seemed somewhat benevolent in Genesis becomes kind of a dick in Exodus.

Ok, so we all know the story of Moses, right? Placed in a basket on the river, abandoned by his mom in order to save his life, adopted by the daughter of the Pharaoh? Yeah, but do you remember that Moses’s sister is chilling right by the river and when the Pharaoh’s daughter is like “hey, here’s a Jewish baby,” the sister says “Oh snap, you want me to find a Jewish nurse for it?” and runs and gets her mom, then Moses’s mom ends up nursing her own son into a young boy before handing him back to the Pharaoh’s daughter.

Moses’s name is apparently a play on words. (Thanks to my Biblical scholars here: The Egyptian form of the name was probably Mesu, which signifies “born, brought forth, child,” and is derived from a root meaning “to produce,” “draw forth.” Egyptian has many roots common to it with Hebrew, whereof this is one. The princess’s play upon words thus admitted of being literally rendered in the Hebrew – “he called his name Mosheh (drawn forth); because, she said, I drew him forth (meshithi-hu) from the water.”)

Despite the mostly turgid prose in this book, there are some elements of poetry, like 2:22: “for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land” and 28:34: “A golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, on the hem of the robe round about.”

But back to Moses, since this entire book is about him. One day he’s chatting with god, as one does, and is like “How are the Egyptians going to believe that I mean business?” and god is like, “No worries, I’m gonna give you some magic tricks to play on them.” These include: the rod that turns into a serpent (nice touch that the Egyptian magicians also turn their rods into snakes but Moses’s eats theirs), turning water into blood, filling the land with frogs, turning dust to lice, filling the land with flies, killing all the cattle belonging to the Egyptians, festering boils on people, hail + fire, locusts, days of darkness, and then finally the night of Passover where god kills the firstborn of every house not protected by a smear of lamb’s blood.

Before all this happens, god almost kills Moses (4:24) for not circumcising his son (I cannot BELIEVE how big a deal circumcision is to this dude), but his wife “Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband are you to me.”

Changing names continues to be a thing. In 6:3 god declares that his name is JEHOVAH. Compare this to 3:14 after Moses asks what his name is and god gets all huffy: “I AM THAT I AM.” And 34:14 has “the Lord, whose name is Jealous…”

Anyway, Moses is a bit shy so he has to rope in his older brother Aaron to be the spokesperson, and Aaron’s the one doing all the magic tricks (rod turning to snake, water turning into blood). I love that the Egyptian magicians clap back and turn their own rods into snakes and turn water into blood.

Long story short, the Pharaoh finally has enough of these shenanigans and says get the hell out of my land. But god has Pharaoh change his mind and he sends chariots after them, leading to the famous parting of the Red Sea scene (Ch 14). After this little victory, we have the first song in the Bible, Moses singing that the lord is his strength and song and salvation, the lord is a man of war. (Yikes!)

The people start to get restless after days and days wandering the wilderness but Moses keeps them fed with miraculous bread and water out of nowhere. Finally in Chapter 20 we get to the commandments. THERE ARE SO MANY! Way more than the famous ten that we all know (thou shalt not kill, commit adultery, steal, lie, covet, etc.). In fact, the entire section between Chapters 20-23 are injunctions on what to do and what not to do.

In this section is the bit about an eye for an eye, only it’s so much better than that: “thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” Daaaaaamn. Tooth for tooth! Foot for foot!

Here’s another of the many more than 10 commandments: (22:18) “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” WTF! The next line calls for death to bestiality practicers: “Whosoever lieth with a beast shall surely be put to death.”

In Chapter 25 god starts to get greedy and REALLY specific about the dream house he wants built. This goes on for several chapters as he micromanages the exact dimensions and decorations of the ark of the covenant and its surrounding flourishes. Same thing happens with the details of the garments the priests must wear, and number of loops in a curtain (50), and colors of linen used, etc etc. If anyone is having a bad day and wants to kvetch about their terrible boss, I recommend they come read Chapters 25-30 and feel better about their work life.

At the end of Chapter 31, god sends Moses down the mountain with a to-go box packed with rules and regulations, the famous tablets (double-sided printing is specified!) “written with the finger of God.” (Shout out to the Biblical scholar who says: ” It is idle to speculate on the exact mode of the Divine operation.”)

But what will Moses find at the bottom of the mountain?! In his absence, good old Aaron has built a golden calf for the people to worship- uh oh! God sees what’s going on and starts calling these sinners “stiff-necked people” which comes up a lot (apparently meaning stubborn). Moses is like, wait dude I can fix them, slow your roll. Then comes my favorite verse yet (32:14): “And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.” Hell yeah, take that!

Moses sees the party going on and breaks the tablets in frustration. Then he called for teams– who’s with me, who’s against me, and his team swept through the camp and killed “about three thousand men.” These are his own people. Nice!

He has to go back up the mountain which probably makes him crabby, or maybe it was having to fast for another 40 days and nights, but then he gets a second copy of the tablets. The final chapters (35-40) are extremely boring since they repeat all the details of god’s micromanaged wish list from Ch 25-30, only by saying that they are following the orders and executing that punch list.

 

The Complete Essays of Montaigne: Book Three

This final book was tacked on later, after the initial publication (1580) and you can tell that Montaigne lets his hair down a bit, settles in and gets comfortable, lets fly with his last bits of wisdom before he wanders off into that good night, his final repose.

Helpful thoughts for the pandemic: “We get hardened to anything to which we are accustomed. And in wretched circumstances such as ours now it is a most kindly gift of Nature that we do grow accustomed to it, so that it deadens our sense of suffering many evils.” (3:9)

On old age: “If we were always progressing towards improvement, to be old would be a beautiful thing. But it is a drunkard’s progress, formless, staggering, like reeds which the wind shakes as it fancies, haphazardly.” (3:9)

On solitude: “Wretched the man (to my taste) who has nowhere in his house where he can be by himself, pay court to himself in private and hide away!” (3:3)

On laziness: “… my chief aim in life being to live it lazily and leisurely rather than busily…” (3:9) “For me nothing is expensive save toil and worry: all I want is to be indifferent and bovine.” (3:9)

On books: “… days and even months on end may pass without my using them. ‘I will read them soon,’ I say, ‘or tomorrow; or when I feel like it.’ Thus the time speeds by and is gone, but does me no harm; for it is impossible to describe what comfort and peace I derive from the thought that they are there beside me, to give me pleasure whenever I want it, or from recognizing how much succour they bring to my life. It is the best protection which I have found for our human journey and I deeply pity men of intelligence who lack it. I on the other hand can accept any sort of pastime, no matter how trifling, because I have this one which will never fail me.” (3:3)

Some Zen thoughts: “… there is in truth no greater silliness, none more enduring, than to be provoked and enraged by the silliness of the world—and there is none more bizarre. For it makes you principally irritated with yourself…” (3:8) “… we have to live among the living and let the stream flow under the bridge without worrying about it or, at the very least, without making ourselves ill over it.” (3:8)

On friendship: “Most of all I am able to make and keep exceptional and considered friendships, especially since I seize hungrily upon any acquaintanceship which corresponds to my tastes. I put myself forward and throw myself into them so eagerly that I can hardly fail to make attachments and to leave my mark wherever I go… In commonplace friendships I am rather barren and cold, for it is not natural to me to proceed except under full sail.” (3:3)

Odds & ends

There’s a reference to a great legal tale in Rabelais: “a chef complained that a poor man was savouring the smell of his roast beef: a fool, called in to judge, ordered the smell to be paid by the jangle of coins.” (3:5)

“You ask me, ‘What is the origin of our custom of saying Bless you when people sneeze?’ Well, we break three sorts of wind: the one which issues lower down is very dirty; the one which issues from the mouth comports an element of reproach for gluttony; and the third is sneezing, to which, since it issues from the head and is blameless, we give that honourable greeting.” (3:6)

Montaigne knew a dude who made you look at 8 days worth of poop in his chamberpots when you visited. (3:9)

Like all good Frenchmen, he mixed his wine with water. “I water my wine, sometimes half and half, sometimes one-third water… It is said that this custom of mixing wine and water was invented by Cranaus, King of Athens—I have heard arguments both for and against its usefulness.” (3:13)

Genesis

Saying that you’re reading The Bible has such a charged effect; you look like a kook. And yet it’s one of the classics, one of the oldest tomes, the book of books. I ordered a copy of the authorized King James Version years ago so it would feel less bible-y while reading, once I got around to it. What a perfect pandemic read! We’ve got nothing compared to the fire and brimstone of these old stories. Step right up and get circumcised, one and all!

I don’t think I’ll document every book of the bible but I felt compelled to get some thoughts on Genesis down because it’s a humdinger. Twenty pages in and you’ve already got murder, incest, drunkenness. Now that I’ve finished it, I have to wonder if anyone has ever made Bible-themed porn? Unexpected to find so much sex and violence.

Considering making t-shirts with Genesis 1:29 printed on them to promote veganism: “Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.”

1:27 – God creates men and women at the same time (later in 2:22 god steals that famous rib, but I prefer the earlier verse)

Adam and Eve have their sons, then all of a sudden Cain’s got a wife– hmm, who that could be? Yes, his sister. Unnamed, of course.

In chapter 5 we’ve got all sorts of nonsense. Adam lives to be 930 years old? Seth 912 years? Enos 905? I guess we’re getting shorter and shorter lifespans but then Noah gets 950 years.

After the flood, there’s some weirdness with Drunk Noah lying naked in his tent. Ham sees him naked (some scholars say this mean he buggers him!) and his brothers cover him up, when hungover Noah wakes up he gets pissed off at Ham’s son Canaan. Why?!

Things get even weirder with Abram/Abraham (both he and Sarai/Sarah get renamed in Chapter 17?!). When traveling, A pretends that S is his sister (12:13) to save his own life and to give her to the Pharaoh as a wife. Boop!– here comes a plague and the Pharaoh finds out S is A’s wife already. This must have been a common ruse because it happens again in chapter 20 (20:2); Abraham says Sarah’s his sister and so the king took Sarah. Best part: the grand reveal in 20:12 – yep, she is my sister but she’s ALSO my wife!

Let’s see, what other goodies are there. First recorded mention of menopause? (18:11) First recorded mention of women lying? (18:15) The decree of circumcision and the fact that everybody got circumcised that day– Abraham was 99 years old, Ishmael was 13, and all of the men in the house no matter what age they were (moving forward, it was boys at age 8 days).

My two favorite names so far are brothers Huz and Buz (22:21).

Oh, the Sodom section is completely nuts. A couple of angels float into town, Lot gives them hospitality, the townspeople crowd around the house demanding to bugger the angels, Lot says “Nah, mate, but I have two virgin daughters, take them?” Later, when the town’s destroyed, Lot and those two virgins are hanging out in a cave and the virgins decide to get their dad drunk and fuck him to “preserve his seed.”

More craziness with Abraham—when he goes to sacrifice Isaac and the poor kid’s like, “where’s the lamb, dad?” You’re the lamb, kiddo. He binds him up and reaches for the knife! Tell me Isaac isn’t mentally scarred for life from this.

Before Abraham dies, he does one last crazy thing, where he has his servant “put his hand under the thigh of Abraham” to swear something; Bible notes say this is a solemn oath, “Probably it is an euphemistic manner of describing the circumcised member, which was to be touched by the hand placed beneath the thigh; and thus the oath was really by the holy covenant between Abraham and God, of which circumcision was the symbol.” !!!

More pseudo sister shenanigans with Isaac this time who pretends Rebekah is his sister and not his wife.

Jacob has a dream about a ladder, which I guess is the origin of Jacob’s ladder, something I only know of as a cat’s cradle string figure we used to make as kids. Rachel pimps out Jacob to her sister for some mandrakes.

How convenient that giving a tenth of your income to the church is written here (29:22).

Revenge for raping their sister Dinah? Jacob’s sons tricked the townsmen into circumcising themselves because they wouldn’t agree to live in their town unless everyone was circumcised. Why would the men agree?! Anyway, on day 3 after the act, “when they were sore,” Jacob’s sons killed all the dudes in town.

Another inexplicable name change– Jacob becomes Israel.

Ah yes, Joseph and the technicolor coat who’s sold to the Egyptians and is skilled at interpreting dreams, gets in with the Pharaoh, predicts the famine and prepares for it by storing grain, saves his family from starvation when they come creeping up.

Chapter 49 gives us the 12 tribes of Israel, e.g. the 12 sons of Jacob, when on his deathbed he gives his opinion of (disses) them all. Reuben, you no good lout, “unstable as water, thou shalt not excel.” Judah’s eyes “shall be red with wine”, Dan “shall be a serpent”,  Asher “shall yield royal dainties”, etc.

 

The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 1: 1915-1919

So many things to be thankful for. I’m grateful to Woolf for having written diaries most of her life, this is the volume where we witness her getting her sea legs with the diary and read of her delight in re-reading the pages; the shift comes in October 1917. I’m thankful for the pandemic closing the library and thus focusing my energy on this project of reading Woolf sequentially, something I’ve dreamed of doing for years. I’m thankful for her words of wisdom and description of the horrors of the Great War and the influenza of 1918, coffins next door and being laid up several times herself. I’m very thankful to Anne Olivier Bell for being up to the tremendous task of bringing the diaries to print and doing a phenomenal job with the explanatory notes. I’m thankful for the gaps in her pages which remind me that it’s ok not to drudge at it day after day (but it’s also very ok to do so). I love her list of friendships in January 1919, something we’ve all done; while Vanessa and Leonard are missing from the list it’s because she feels something stronger than friendship there. Leonard’s access to her diaries is established early, the 8 Oct 1917 entry mentioning “L has promised to add his page when he has something to say,” which is possibly why she never goes into detail about her thoughts on him.

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening

I’ve been re-reading this each morning since the beginning of the year—what luck! It has supported my flimsy wandering flabby mind during this panic time by providing calm wisdom and basic guideposts to help train the brain to mindfulness. Three months into this reading, the pandemic swept us all into a new reality, making Goldstein’s words echo ever more helpfully: “Anything can happen anytime.”

I wrote out a few reflections on PostIts by my mirror so that every day I am reminded of the essential facts: that I am subject to old age, illness, death, I’ll be parted from every one and everything dear to me, and that I am the owner and heir of my karma. They are reminders of what is true and what will happen to everyone.

His sections on worry also provide relief in this time when we’re all worrying about the future, making ourselves tense and miserable. “To whatever inconvenience there may or may not be, [when we worry] we’re saying, in effect, ‘Let’s add a little suffering to the mix.'”

I found myself getting angry at the many people (read: joggers) who are not wearing masks when outside. Goldstein counsels: “Although different conditions may prompt different emotions to arise, how we relate to those feelings is up to us.” This is also where lovingkindness comes in, so I’m trying to make it a practice to seek out and relate to the good in each person.

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness; be free from suffering and the causes of suffering; have joy and the causes of joy; remain free from attachment and aversion.

Night and Day

Woolf’s second novel was written during the Great War but makes no mention of it, causing criticism from Katherine Mansfield who complained about the aloof attitude, written as if “unaware of what has been happening.” Woolf herself later dismisses the novel as “interminable” but at the time it provided her a structure to work out the conventional form of a novel. Like painters, once she’s mastered that, she’s free to experiment with more modern forms. (Contrarily, she also writes in 1919 “I don’t suppose I’ve ever enjoyed any writing so much as I did the last half of N. & D.”)

Dreams and realities was the working title of the manuscript and the heroine, Katharine, floats in between those two states, confidently ordering the household of her aged parents and helping with her mother’s biography of the famous ancestor, a poet whose artifacts clog the house and make it impossible to breathe and think of a life for herself. She’s on a fast track to marriage with William Rodney because she believes it will give her the freedom to do what she wants to most in her life: study mathematics.

Instead, Ralph Denham captures her heart (eventually), and William gets paired with the more traditional Cassandra. But Ralph and Katharine have difficulty believing in their love, that it’s not an illusion.

Honestly, who cares about plot when you’re bound to run into lush descriptions of walks around London, Kew Gardens, the Zoo, the Embankment, the Strand, the Inns of Temple. Woolf makes you laugh but mostly makes your heart soar with her elegant prose.

Bonus points for memories dredged up by encountering detritus I’ve left throughout the years in my books—this has a train ticket stub from Paris to London and a sheet of paper from the London hotel I stayed in; additionally, I did much penance by having to erase my ill-advised college-era pencil notations as I read my way through again.

The Complete Essays of Montaigne: Book Two

My reading of Europe’s “great bedside book” continued over the past month, sipping at Book 2 along with my morning coffee. One caveat with this entry is that I confess to having skipped chapter 12’s massive (nearly 200pp.) Apology to Raymond Sebond. I promise to go back and read it sometime as a separate project but couldn’t muster the dedication this month.

That said, there were plenty of other chapters to enjoy as a wormhole back to Renaissance times which itself contain wormholes back to ancient Greece & Rome. Continuing with favorite quotes:

“My business, my art, is to live my life.” (2:6)

“Nature has vouchsafed us a great talent for keeping ourselves occupied when alone and often summons us to do so in order to teach us that we do owe a part of ourselves to society but that the best part we owe to ourselves.” (2:18)

“I may be a man of fairly wide reading, but I retain nothing.” (2:10)

Quoting Ovid: “What is allowed has no charm: what is not allowed, we burn to do.” (2:15)

“Even if nobody reads me, have I wasted my time when I have entertained myself during so many idle hours with thoughts so useful and agreeable?” (2: 18)

“To help my defective and treacherous memory a little—and it is so extremely bad that I have more than once happened to pick up again, thinking it new and unknown to me, a book which I had carefully read several years earlier and scribbled all over with my notes—I have for some time now adopted the practice of adding at the end of each book (I mean of each book which I intend to read only once) the date when I finished reading it and the general judgement I drew from it, in order to show me again at least the general idea and impression I had conceived of its author when reading it.” (2:10)

“I have boundless love for [poetry]; I knew my way well through other men’s works; but when I set my own hand to it I am truly like a child: I find myself unbearable. You may play the fool anywhere else but not in poetry: ‘Poets are never allowed to be mediocre by the gods, by men or by publishers [quoting Horace, Ars poetica].’ Would to God that the following saying was written up above our printers’ workshops to forbid so many versifiers from getting in: ‘truly nothing is more self-assured than a bad poet. [quoting Martial, Epigrams]'” (2: 17)

“Evil fortune does have some use: it is a good thing to be born in a century which is deeply depraved, for by comparison with others you are reckoned virtuous on the cheap. Nowadays if you have merely murdered your father and committed sacrilege you are an honest honorable man.” (2:17)

“Not only does the wind of chance events shake me about as it lists, but I also shake and disturb myself by the instability of my stance: anyone who turns his prime attention on to himself will hardly ever find himself in the same state twice. … I speak about myself in diverse ways: that is because I look at myself in diverse ways. Every sort of contradiction can be  found in me, depending upon some twist or attribute: timid, insolent; chaste, lecherous; talkative, taciturn; tough, sickly; clever, dull; brooding, affable; lying, truthful; learned, ignorant; generous, miserly and then prodigal—I can see something of all that in myself, depending on how I gyrate; and anyone who studies himself attentively finds in himself and in his very judgement this whirring about and this discordancy.” (2: 1)

“Some forms of government have been concerned to decide when suicide may be legal and opportune. In our own city of Marseilles in former times they used to keep a supply of a poison based on hemlock always available at public expense to all those who wished to hasten their days; they first had to get their reasons approved by their Senate (called the Six Hundred); it was not permissible to lay hands on oneself, save by leave of the magistrate and for lawful reasons.” (2:3)

 

The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 2: 1912-1918

It is a treat to descend into the cool, calming prose of Woolf’s reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, which she continued to churn out even during this tumultuous time of war and death and illness and marriage. I pulled this volume out as I was uncovering the work of Samuel Butler to read her July 1916 review of a newly released biography; she praised it mostly because it causes us to take down Butler’s work itself to reread. I find her essays to be a great place to start when I’ve just discovered a new-to-me writer; she praises or eviscerates, she rarely hides her barbs. Here is a limited selection of hits I enjoyed:

Hours in a Library

Her November 1916 “Hours in a Library” is both a nod to her father’s collection of essays by the same title and a declaration of love for reading.

For the first time, perhaps, all restrictions have been removed, we can read what we like; libraries are at our command, and, best of all, friends who find themselves in the same position. For days upon end we do nothing but read. It is a time of extraordinary excitement and exaltation. We seem to rush about recognizing heroes. There is a sort of wonderment in our minds that we ourselves are really doing this, and mixed with it an absurd arrogance and desire to show our familiarity with the greatest human beings who have ever lived in the world. The passion for knowledge is then at its keenest, or at least most confident, and we have, too, an intense singleness of mind which the great writers gratify by making it appear that they are at one with us in their estimate of what is good in life.

This gets at the heart of my dilettantish curiosity about most topics under the sun:

And then there are the books of facts and history, books about bees and wasps and industries and gold mines and Empresses and diplomatic intrigues, about rivers and savages, trade unions, and Acts of Parliament, which we always read and always, alas! forget.

To Read or Not to Read

This 1917 review of a book by someone who thought books were evil.

‘Books!’ What sin do you most abhor? Is it drunkenness or lying, cruelty or superstition? Well, they all come from reading books. What virtues do you most admire? Pluck them in handfuls, wherever you like, the answer is still the same; that is the result of not reading books. The trouble is that somehow or other the vicious race of readers has got the virtuous race of non-readers into its power.

Mr Conrad’s ‘Youth’

I note this 1917 essay on Joseph Conrad’s latest batch of stories as the first place I’ve seen her mention what ultimately will be her own method of suicide twenty-four years later:

… when old Captain Whalley, betrayed by nature and by man, fills his pockets with iron and drops into the sea we feel a rare sense of adequacy, of satisfaction, as if conqueror and conquered had been well matched and there is here ‘nothing to wail’.

Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection

When the lockdown hit, it was like musical chairs after the music stopped. Whatever books from the library you already had in your possession, that was it. I feel extremely lucky to have already had this book of poems on hand, loaned from the Stanislaus County Library. They brought necessary warmth and comfort during dark, uncertain times.

An earlier version of me, my younger self, proclaimed a hatred of anthologies, including those of poems, but I have corrected that opinion, seeing the value. The editors say it best in the preface, anthologies are “an efficient means for finding beautiful and moving poems. The wrecks and fender-benders in nearly every individual poet’s books have been pushed off onto the shoulder, leaving only the poems still capable of taking us somewhere… Every anthology, too, is an argument for something, an act of persuasion, and this one is no exception.” My only beef is that it’s arranged alphabetical by author last name; so predictable, so boring, why not attempt something new with zetabetical ordering?

The collection came to my attention when I was searching for more poems by Danusha Laméris after appreciating her “Small Kindnesses”:

Small Kindnesses

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”

Lucinda Williams’s dad, Miller Williams, gives good advice:

Compassion

Have compassion for everyone you meet
even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit,
bad manners or cynicism is always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
down there where the spirit meets the bone.

This by Rob Jacques:

Inukshuk

Note: On frozen trails of the far north, Inuit people placed five stones in rough human form as a testament of endurance and as warm encouragement from those who had gone before to those who were coming after.

We were here. We saw sorrow.
Across our hearts, emptiness and cold
pulled hard, as they do in you now,
and we pressed on as you will do.
We did all that possibility will allow
and expect nothing less of you.
We stand guard over accomplishment
and a strong journey through all this.

See in gray desolation how we made
this five-piece thing and left it here,
a stone creation to bring you certainty
in this drear, frozen waste, showing
you and we are keepers of the flame
melting chaos. You and we proclaim.

This by Thomas R. Smith:

Trust

It’s like so many other things in life
to which you must say no or yes.
So you take your car to the new mechanic.
Sometimes the best thing to do is trust.

The package left with the disreputable-looking
clerk, the check gulped by the night deposit,
the envelope passed by dozens of strangers—
all show up at their intended destinations.

The theft that could have happened doesn’t.
Wind finally gets where it was going
through the snowy trees, and the river, even
when frozen, arrives at the right place.

And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life
is delivered, even though you can’t read the address.

This by Sue Ellen Thompson:

Sewing

The night before my older sister’s wedding,
my mother and I sat up late
hand-stitching a little cloud of netting
to the brim of each bridesmaid’s hat.

To be alone with her was so rare
I couldn’t think of what I had to say.
We worked in silence beneath the chandelier
until it was almost daybreak.

Soon I’d have a room of my own
and she would only be cooking for six.
We drifted among the wreaths we had sewn,
nursing quietly on our fingertips.

That she still had me was a comfort,
I think. And I still had her.

This by Barbara Crooker:

Listen,

I want to tell you something. This morning
is bright after all the steady rain, and every iris,
peony, rose, opens its mouth, rejoicing. I want to say,
wake up, open your eyes, there’s a snow-covered road
ahead, a field of blankness, a sheet of paper, an empty screen.
Even the smallest insects are singing, vibrating their entire bodies,
tiny violins of longing and desire. We were made for song.
I can’t tell you what prayer is, but I can take the breath
of the meadow into my mouth, and I can release it for the leaves’
green need. I want to tell you your life is a blue coal, a slice
of orange in the mouth, cut hay in the nostrils. The cardinals’
red song dances in your blood. Look, every month the moon
blossoms into a peony, then shrinks to a sliver of garlic.
And then it blooms again.

Reading Virginia Woolf during the pandemic

An ongoing collection of relevant quotes from VW as I read my way through her oeuvre. Updated daily.

I never felt anything like the general insecurity.

Aug 12, 1914; Letter to Ka Cox

Well—I wonder what we shall do. I’d give a lot to turn over 30 pages or so, & find written down what happens to us…. At this moment, I feel as if the human race had no character at all—sought for nothing, believed in nothing, & fought only from a dreary sense of duty.

Jan 15, 1915; Diary

The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be.

Jan 18, 1915; Diary

I saw a beautiful woman in the Bus; who could hardly contain her laughter because a great military gentleman was thrown on to her lap, like a sack of coals, which seemed to tickle her greatly, & the more she laughed, the nicer I thought her. About one person in a fortnight seems to me nice—most are nothing at all.

Jan 28, 1915; Diary

keep well, and dont think that life is a thing to be thrown up into the air like a ball, which I’m sure is your present frame of mind.

Feb 12, 1916; Letter to Ka Cox

It is wonderful how entirely detached from sanity the aristocracy are; one feels like a fly on the ceiling when one talks to them.

March 26, 1916; letter to Duncan Grant.

we want to do so many things. Why can’t one be turned back and live everything over again, perhaps rather more slowly?

March 27, 1916; letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davies

I saw Lytton yesterday, who told me he had heard that you and Duncan and possibly others had all got influenza at Wissett. I should be very grateful if anyone who hasn’t go it would send a line to say how you are. I hear Clive had it, and Adrian too, and Nellie went for a holiday and was in bed with it all the time; and Ott’s got it… I saw Ka, who seems rather feeble still. I do hope you are all right. Please dont start a move with the germs still in you.

Oct 9, 1916; letter to Vanessa

If Shakespeare were to awake now! The thought of what he would see in the sky and on the earth is at once appalling and fascinating.

December 21, 1916; review in the TLS

The spring season is full of disease; and a small break in your life might keep you healthy for a year.

March 23, 1917 letter to Vanessa

But oh dear, how little one believes what anyone says now. I feel we’ve sunk lower than ever before this summer.

September 9, 1917 letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davis

The K. Shuttleworths advertise the birth of a [posthumous son] with the statement “His Perfect Gift” a good title for an Academy picture, or a Mrs Ward novel, & rather a terrible testimony to the limelight now desired by the rich upon their sacrifices.

October 9, 1917; Diary

The moon grows full, & the evening trains are packed with people leaving London. We saw the hole in Piccadilly this afternoon. Traffic has been stopped, & the public slowly tramps past the place, which workmen are mending, though they look small in comparison with it… “business goes on as usual” so they say.

October 22, 1917; diary

I suppose to Philip [Leonard’s war-wounded brother] these days pass in a dream from which he finds himself detached. I can imagine that he is puzzled why he doesn’t feel more.

December 12, 1917; diary

The streets remind me of Cambridge streets. People walk down the middle. This is partly because of the queues waiting to buy at Liptons. One has some difficulty in keeping on the pavement, & the motor buses are always grazing people’s sides.

December 15, 1917; diary

“A very interesting state of things—”
“And what’s going to happen?”
“No human being can foretell that.”

January 3, 1918; diary noting Leonard’s response to reading the latest news from Russia

Everything is skimped now. Most of the butchers shops are shut; the only open shop was besieged. You can’t buy chocolates, or toffee; flowers cost so much that I have to pick leaves, instead. We have cards for most foods… Suddenly one has come to notice the war everywhere.

January 5, 1918; diary

There are food riots & strikes at Woolwich, & the guards have notice to march there at any moment, & fire on the people, which their own Woolwich regiments would refuse to do.

January 21, 1918; diary

How are you? Influenza, [Dr] Craig told me, poisons the nervous system, and nourishment is the only way to get rid of it. Do take milk and ovaltine. I have 2 glasses a day.

January 29, 1918; letter to Vanessa

But when a crisis happens, scarcely anyone meets it naturally; either they’re too composed & prosaic, or the other extreme.

April 6, 1918; Diary

Influenza, which rages all over the place, has come next door.

July 2, 1918; Diary

Rain for the first time for weeks today, & a funeral next door; dead of influenza.

July 10, 1918; Diary

… the extra-ordinary number of coffins one sees about. Coffins at luncheon, coffins as I come back from London; and the gentleman next door is dead of the influenza.

July 15, 1918; Letter to Vanessa

The time passes, with proper nights and days, I suppose, but one seems to float through them in a disembodied kind of way here. For one thing we’ve been practically alone, which has a very spiritual effect upon the mind. No gossip, no malevolence, no support from one’s fellow creatures. I can’t think why one doesn’t spend the whole year in this way.

August 18, 1918; Letter to Ottoline

… avoiding London, because of the influenza—(we are, by the way, in the midst of a plague unmatched since the Black Death, according to the Times…)

October 28, 1918; Diary

The general state perhaps is one of dazed surfeit; here we’ve had one great relief after another; you hear the paper boys calling out that Turkey has surrendered, or Austria given up, & the mind doesn’t do very much with it; was the whole thing too remote & meaningless to come home to one, either in action or in ceasing to act?

November 9, 1918; Diary

Taxicabs were crowded with whole families, grandmothers & babies, showing off; & yet there was no centre, no form for all this wandering emotion to take. The crowds had nowhere to go, nothing to do; they were in the state of children with too long a holiday. … in everyone’s mind the same restlessness & inability to settle down, & yet discontent with whatever it was possible to do.

November 12, 1918; Diary

Ray [Stratchey], who is standing for Parliament as a Coalition candidate, says that if ever she were tempted to hoard food, now would be the time. The Lower classes are bitter, impatient, powerful, & of course, lacking in reason.

November 21, 1918; Diary

Not Woolf, but related. From society hostess Lady Aberconway who decamped from London to North Wales at the outbreak of WW2: “… all my past life – everything that has happened before last September [1939], seems to me these days like a tiny picture seen through the wrong end of a telescope …”

Butleriana

I rescued this gorgeous 1932 book (copy # 257 out of the 800 printed) from the library before it shuttered for the next few weeks. The craftsmanship makes your heart swell, perfect font, crisp photographs, handmade paper. It’s another collection of ad hoc writing from Samuel Butler, the one place where his entire Pauli explanation is given without editing; why, for the love of god, was he carving out £200-£300 a year out of his dwindling capital to give to Pauli, a man who he had no real friendship with, for dozens of years?

I think he says it best here: “Pauli impressed me as especially strong precisely in those respects wherein I felt most deficient… The main desire of my life was to conceal how severely I had been wounded [by his father and upbringing], and to get beyond reach of those arrows that from time to time still reached me. When, therefore, Pauli seemed attracted towards me and held out the right hand of fellowship, I caught at it not only because I liked him, but because I believed that the mere fact of being his friend would buoy me up in passing through waters that to me were still deep and troubled, but which to him I felt sure were shallow and smooth as glass.”

And once he was giving it, he was simply too much in the habit to keep giving Pauli his allowance each year. He broached the subject every year at Christmas but Pauli moaned and said (untruly) that he’d be ruined without the money. Butler seems to have recognized it as an obligation that he was required to keep performing until Pauli’s death, when he found Pauli had been earning a considerable amount at the bar and had other wealthy benefactors who knew nothing of Butler and vice versa.

Here also is the anecdote in full about Pauli’s handsomeness: “I remember how the late Captain Buckley, V.C., told me that when he and Pauli were at San Francisco together in 1860 or 1861 they went into the bar of the hotel where they were staying, and the barman asked Pauli to have a drink with him. Pauli tried to get out of it, but the barman said: ‘Oh, but you must; you are the handsomest man God ever sent into San Francisco, so help me God you are!’, with a strong emphasis on the ‘are.'”

Of other interest, Butler mentions that he’s only written two short reviews of books, one of Leslie Stephen’s Essays on Freethinking and Plain-speaking, the other on the philosophy of Rosmini.

Olive, Again

Excellent followup to Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, we pick up almost exactly where the first Olive leaves off. She marries Jack and feels like he’s her “real” husband (not dead Henry), although at the end of the book when she’s in assisted living, she ends up hiding Jack’s smaller portrait and leaving Henry’s up. That’s actually a sweet ending, where she bounces lonely around the old folks until she meets a new inmate who she gets along with. They exchange keys and check in on each other twice a day, in addition to having meals together, but the simple 8am opening the door, waving, not saying anything, and the same at 8pm is so sweet.  Possibly my favorite section was Exiles, about a couple visiting his brother and their sister-in-law, Helen gets wasted on white wine and falls down the stairs after she gets flustered when the sister-in-law declares that hearing about other people’s grandchildren gets tiresome.

The Complete Essays of Montaigne: Book One

My morning routine has been mindfulness, meditation, and Montaigne for the past several weeks as I finally picked up Europe’s “great bedside book” to begin the journey. The chapters are groupings of several ‘assays’ as Montaigne tries to stick a pin in his soul so that he may examine it more clearly. He wrote and distilled his thoughts from his retirement (1571, aged 38) up until his death in 1592.

Going on a Montaigne journey makes you laugh and wonder and be amazed; you have this simply eloquent bridge between pagan and Christian antiquity and our own time. He was raised speaking Latin as his first language, learning French later, and thus finds comfort in the ancient tomes he rips quotes from liberally. In a nod to his preference for quotes (he also had dozens of quotations carved or painted on the beams of his library ceiling), I pull out my own favorites of his:

“An abundance of children is a blessing for the greater, saner, part of mankind: I and a few others find blessings in a lack of them. When Thales was asked why he did not get married, he replied that he did not want to leave any descendants.” (1:14)

On punishing cowards: ‘Suffundere malis hominis sanguinem quam effundere.’ [Make the blood of a bad man blush not gush.] (1:16)

“Always bring those with whom I am talking back to the subjects they know the best.” (1:17)

“I want Death to find me planting my cabbages, neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening.” (1:20)

“I am the sworn enemy of binding obligations, continuous toil and perseverance.” (1:21)

“When the Cretans wished to curse someone, they prayed the gods to make him catch a bad habit.” (1:23)

(What Plato taught about education:) “Spewing up food exactly as you have swallowed it is evidence of a failure to digest and assimilate it; the stomach has not done its job if, during concoction, it fails to change the substance and form of what it is given.” (1:26)

Horace: “It is reason and wisdom which take away cares, not places affording wide views over the sea.” (1:39)

“I always write my letters at the gallop, with so headlong a dash that I prefer to write them by hand than to dictate them (despite my appalling writing) since I can never find anyone who can keep up with me… as soon as I flag, that is a sign that my heart is not in it. I prefer to begin without a plan, the first phrase leading on to the next.” (1:40)

Ancient customs he gives details about (in 1:49): the ancients watered their wine, took a gulp of breath when they drank, ate between meals, used snow to cool their wine, wiped their arses with a sponge on a stick, kept jars on the street corners to piss into.

Explaining his process of writing the essays: (1:50) “Everything has a hundred parts and a hundred faces: I take one of them and sometimes just touch it with the tip of my tongue or with my fingertips, and sometimes I pinch it to the bone. I jab into it, not as wide but as deep as I can; and I often prefer to catch it from some unusual angle. I might even have ventured to make a fundamental study if I did not know myself better. Scattering broadcast a word here, a word there, examples ripped from their contexts, unusual ones, with no plan and no promises, I am under no obligation to make a good job of it nor even to stick to the subject myself without varying it should it so please me;  I can surrender to doubt and uncertainty and to my master-form, which is ignorance.”