Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Sometimes the cogs mesh, other times the gears just spin

Tonight I attended a talk on Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey (1768). I left with my brain full of so many coincidences and confluences among things I've been reading and thinking about that I decided to map them out. I make no bold (or even timid) claims for the connections, which I openly admit are tenuous, but I think the web of them starts to give a sense of why I find constant pleasure--and a perpetual supply of new thoughts and ways of thinking--in a reading life.

Laurence Sterne had been on my mind since just after Christmas, when my friend gave me a DVD of A Cock and Bull Story, the 2005 movie of Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759). The movie, which I heartily recommend, stays impressively true to the digressive, hilarious, muddled spirit of the book; the sheer fun of it had me thinking that maybe I should read the novel itself again this winter. So a few weeks ago, as Stacey and I leaned against a wall waiting to be admitted to a different lecture (on bird song), having Sterne on the brain no doubt helped me pick out the poster for tonight's lecture from the usually indistinct mess of fliers and announcements papering the hallway.

Between work and the lecture, read a bit of Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), for which Maggie and Christmas are also, in a sense, responsible. When Maggie was in town in December, she was reading Robinson Crusoe (1719), our discussion of which made me think I should try A Journal of the Plague Year. However, it's unlikely that I'd have gotten around to it by now except that for Christmas Stacey got me Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map (2006), a history of London's 1854 cholera epidemic, and my brother got me Max Brooks's World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006). Clearly, if there was ever going to be a time to read A Journal of the Plague Year, it was now.

In the pages I read just before I left the bar feature Defoe's narrator, H. F., decides to flee London in the early days of the plague, only to discover that there are no horses available. Following that disappointment, he turns to bibliomancy to decide whether he will stay or set out on foot; he opens the Bible to Psalm 91, which exhorts him to
Say of the Lord, He is my refuge, and my foretress, my God, in him will I trust. Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler and from the noisome pestilence.
Thus reassured, H. F. decides to place his hopes (and his soul) in God's hands and stay in London.

Arriving at the talk, I learned that it was to focus largely on the role played in Sterne and subsequent sentimental literature (down to Frank Capra!) by the ideas of the vehicle and motion. It was fairly heady stuff, exploring the real and metaphorical roles of actual vehicles and motion, as well as more abstruse spiritual concepts of vehicles for the workings (and movement) of the soul, the emotions, and sentimental communication. But it did immediately call to mind H. F.'s worries about transportation and his entrusting his soul to God for delivery, if not physically out of London, then at least safely into the afterlife. The soldiers and zombies of World War Z came to mind, too: the soldiers, forced by society's collapse to eschew the vehicles they had come to depend on, are brought face-to-face with the zombies, the ultimate expression of Descartes's concept of a body without a soul They're empty vessels, still animate but to no good purpose--and with whom there is no communication. No matter how earnest and heartfelt an entreaty one makes, there is no hope that they will be moved.

Finally, a mention late in the talk of J. M. Coetzee's most recent novel brought me, in a sense, full circle, as Coetzee's 1988 novel, Foe, is a reworking of the Crusoe story. Though it's not nearly as good as Coetzee's best, if you're a Crusoe fan it's worth at least looking at; I had just today reminded myself to send Maggie a note asking if she knew about it.

So what does all of this mean? As I said at the top, almost certainly nothing of substance. But I know that it--and the talk itself--got the wheels of my brain spinning, and they're still going. And I know that if I were to ever imagine coming to believe in a soul, its vehicle-of communication, transit to immortality, whatever--would most certainly be some form of that whirring activity.

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