doubt, vomit and the great books of the world

Wow. Eight hours actual sleep last night, unpunctuated by two-hour crying jags or sudden eruptions of vomit! Luxury! Teething molars is a bitch, it would seem, and the worst of it comes on at 3am. Shannon’s theory is that as Claire sleeps the fluid accumulates in her sinuses and jaw, just like the sinus pain you get when you have a bad cold. Nowadays the baby books all say that teething doesn’t hurt, but the baby books don’t have to mop gallons of bilious macaroni off the sheets in the dark hours before dawn. Between that and the horror, the horror of Showbiz Moms and Dads on Bravo I have revised my earlier position on Claire’s status as infant prodigy. I now view her instead as tiny, adorable demonspawn. Thanks for your attention to this matter.

She does crack me up, though, she’s such a little bruiser. Having spilled her guts, literally, all over both of us and the bed the other night, she blicketed happily around pulling pillowslips out of the bottom drawer while Jeremy and I stripped the sheets and carted them to the laundry (the laundry! How did I ever survive without a laundry?) Once we’d restored some semblance of order it took her about ten seconds to fall asleep in Jeremy’s arms. Then last night Bryan came over and as he and I were chatting, Claire tripped over her own feet and did a face-plant on the carpet.

R: Are you all right, love?

Claire gets up on her elbows and grins at me.

Bryan: She meant to inspect that bit of carpet anyway.

In other book news, Bryson’s Short History prompted me to read Oliver Sacks’ wonderful Island of the Colorblind; I love Sacks’ enthusiasm for multiplicity and his overflowing empathy and admiration for the way people adapt to the weirdest situations. The Gaskell Bronte biography made me pick up The Professor, which I’d never read and which is usually dismissed as a draft of Villette. Not sure yet what I thought of it. Exquisitely written, but with all the suspense of a wet noodle. The Penguin Classics introduction arguing that it’s a mature work of fiction reminded me of my own defense of Marlow’s Faustus in my Honors thesis. Everybody protestethed too much. I’m just saying.

Now reading Kenneth Clark’s Civilization. Like Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, which I had another go at last week, it’s not really right for the bus trip too and from work, because I keep having to stop and think. The trouble is that when I do that I look out the window and get distracted by Mission Street. I have the attention span of a gnat. They’re both lovely writers, but they both keep tripping me over by saying things that are profound, highly questionable or both. Clark’s book was written in 1969, and you couldn’t write one like it today. If you did, it would be Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, a very different beast. What Barzun presents as his own unabashed curmudgeonliness, Clark serenely sets forth as fact. As It Was In The Beginning Is Now And Ever Shall Be, World Without End, Amen. He holds these truths, for example, to be self-evident:

“…if one wants a symbol of Atlantic man that distinguishes him from Mediterranean man, a symbol to set against the Greek temple, it is the Viking ship. The Greek temple is static and solid. The ship is mobile and light… The carving on its prow has that flow of endless line that was still to underlie the great ornamental style we call Romanesque. When one considers the Icelandic sagas, which are among the great books of the world, one must admit that the Norseman produced a culture. But was it civilization? The monks of Lindisfarne wouldn’t have said so, nor would Alfred the Great, nor the poor mother trying to settle down with her family on the great banks of the Seine.

“Civilisation means something more than energy and will and create power: something the early Norseman hadn’t got, but which, even in their time, was beginning to reappear in Western Europe. How can I define it? Well, very shortly, a sense of permanence. The wanderers and the invaders were in a continual state of flux. They didn’t feel the need to look forward beyond the next March or the next voyage or the next battle. And for that reason it didn’t occur to them to build stone houses, or to write books.”

This bugs me on many levels, not least because I heartily agree. I am that mother on the banks of the Seine, trying to build a city of stone I hope will one day be Paris. But my conscience won’t let me stop there (Bryan again last night: “Anglicans are Unitarians with doubts.”) By design, ten years of education in critical theory stand between me and the uncomplicated embrace of my desire. If you reject theory, you’re just using someone else’s, as I read in New Scientist the other day, or possibly on Mordwen’s blog. Much as it pains me to confess it, real estate and good books aren’t universal, absolute values. I was going to write that they are a peculiarly Western incarnation of the Higher Good, when I bethought me of Genji and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagan and remembered, again, that It’s More Complicated Than That.

But if books and houses as the embodiment of civilisation and what’s worth preserving aren’t specific to Western culture, I think I can make a good case that they are specific to the middle class. The people I think of as My People are not all white, by any means, but they may all be (whether by birth or aspiration) bourgeois.

So, yes, doubt as the intellectual legacy of Protestantism; cultural relativism as the shibboleth and sacred cow of Liberalism, discuss. Or consider if you will exactly who is crewing the Viking boats these days, the unbearably beautiful vehicles of war that strike terror into the hearts of women not (yet) on the banks of the Seine but certainly on those of the Tigris and the Euphrates. I can’t even talk about Abu Ghraib with any coherence or detachment; there’s too much shame and disgust and worst of all, unsurprise. What I’m groping toward is some (useful, nonselfpitying) way to express my sense of complicity. This is very difficult to write. I must have deleted twenty false starts. All I can say is that the government to which I pay my taxes doesn’t seem to be thinking beyond next November, and that my taxes pay for bombs and schools for torturers. This may indeed be a peculiarly Western dilemma. I’ve pursued Clark’s civilisation all my life, in the shape of books and houses and the city of lights, and look where it’s got me: I help prop up an unelected and utterly corrupt regime. I honestly don’t know what to do.

But, but, but then there’s this: On the Uses of a Liberal Education, II. As a weapon in the hands of the restless poor.

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