Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thanksgiving biibliomancy

In the days before I'm to travel, I usually find myself in a delicate dance with my reading. Weeks in advance, I've already started mentally stockpiling books for the trip, but as the days dwindle, I have to, as it were, prepare for takeoff: I don't want to be midway through a book that I'm enjoying, thus forcing the tough decision of whether to table it midway or carry a book that will be nothing but dead weight two hours into the trip. So I haul down my books of essays and short stories, extract the bookmarks from where they rested after the last trip, and while away a few days.

This time, though, I found myself turning to James Boswell's inexhaustible Life of Johnson, which can be picked up or put down at any point. Almost every page has something of interest, some line of wisdom or wit from either the subject or the author. Which led me to think of the classical tradition of the Sortes Vergilianae: the consultation, at random, of the works of Virgil in hope of finding advice or fortune. Sanctified by Hadrian--who in 808 saw foretellings of his accession to the throne--it has, with Virgil and the whole classical tradition, fallen out of favor these days, as has, one suspects, bibliomancy in general. But as we're on the verge of a holiday, and all the history and tradition it brings in its train, I thought it would be fun to close out November with a bit of perhaps less time-honored bibliomancy.

Let us start, however, with the proper sources. First we'll turn to the only competitor, historically, for Virgil in this regard: the Bible. I don't actually have my King James to hand, so we'll do this old-fashioned trick a new-fashioned way, via the Sanders Family's random Bible verse page. We get Proverbs 3:11-12:
My son, do not despise the Lord's discipline
or be weary of his reproof,
for the Lord reproves him whom he loves,
as a father the son in whom he delights.
Ah, already we're getting a bit of family conflict around the table. Sounds like someone's getting scolded. The verse immediately puts me back in mind of Johnson, who in a passage I read yesterday tells Boswell,
Power, in whatever hands it is placed, will sometimes be improperly exerted; the courts of law must judge, though they will sometimes judge amiss. A father must instruct his children, though he himself may often want instruction.
And now to Virgil, in the wonderful translation by Robert Fagles. We get a verse from Book Six, "The Kingdom of the Dead." That doesn't sound promising, does it?
Attendants run knives under throats and catch
warm blood in bowls.
Good lord. Let us hope not to have that be our Thanksgiving.

From there, we move more into the realm of I've Been Reading Lately favorites. First up, Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, a book that's surely suited for post-turkey lethargy:
The Persian kings themselves drank no other drink than the water of Choaspes, that runs by Susa, which was carried in bottles after them whithersoever they went.
Now Chaucer, from the Canterbury Tales. We get "The Canon's Yeoman's Prologue":
Why is thy lord so sluttissh, I thee preye?
Oh, my. I suspect the family member who said that had been drinking something a tad stronger than the water of Choaspes during dinner, no?

Speaking of sluttish, here's Byron, from his journals:
It is singular how soon we lose the impression of what ceases to be constantly before us.--A year impairs, a lustre obliterates.--There is little distinct left without an effort of memory,--then indeed the lights are rekindled for a moment--but who can be sure that the Imagination is not the torch-bearer?
That's for those of you unfortunate enough to have lots of cousins: remember to brush up on who's who before you sit down on Thursday!

Sei Shonagon, from her Pillow Book:
148. These weapons were used mainly for ceremonies, processions, and the like.
In other words: whatever you do, do not draw your sword at the table on Thanksgiving! It's only for show!

Now Milton, from Paradise Lost. We get Book VI:
Servant of God, well done, well hast thou fought
The better fight, who single has maintain'd
Against revolted multitudes the Cause
Of Truth, in word mightier than they in Arms:
And for the testimony of Truth has borne
Universal reproach, far worse to bear
Than violence.
Uh-oh. I'm not sure I'd recommend Milton as your guide. Thanksgiving, if it is to remain hospitable, is probably not the best place to declare oneself a warrior for truth.

Fortunately, it seems that Montaigne might agree. From his longest work, the Apology for Raymond Sebond:
What does truth preach to us, when she exhorts us to flee worldly philosophy, when she so often inculcates in us that our wisdom is but folly before God; that of all vanities the vainest is man; that the man who is presumptuous of his knowledge does not yet know what knowledge is; and that man, who is nothing, if he thinks he is something, seduces and deceives himself?
In other words: if you're about to call a family member an idiot, you might consider having a piece of pie instead. Everyone will be happier.

With that, we creep a bit closer to our own era, and Melville. Moby-Dick, almost as inexhaustible as the Life of Johnson, delivers:
Yet their doubting those traditions did not make those traditions one whit the less facts, for all that.
The Thanksgiving meal can certainly be improved upon (says this vegetarian), and I'm sure Slate has a host of recommendations. But there is something to be said for the memories evoked by stuffing, and sweet potatoes baked with marshmallows, and Presbyterian green bean casserole. Tradition may not taste as good as innovation, but there's other value there.

From Melville, we go a bit afield, to the book in this batch that is my newest acquaintance: The Element of Lavishness: The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell. Maxwell has long been a beloved, admired favorite, but Warner has only recently stolen her way into my heart, via her empathetic biography of T. H. White and these clever, kind, smart letters. Randomness presents us one she wrote to Maxwell on January 11, 1962:
And of course, with the exception of hermits, saints have had to spend a great portion of their lives in the company of pious and religious people, and we all know how disheartening that can be, and even, so to speak, disfiguring.
May your table have around it a family that is light of heart, and quick of wit. Let there be prayers, if that is how you or they are constituted, but let them be followed by jokes.

It wouldn't be right to send you into the holiday without drawing on my two old standbys, Anthony Powell and Donald E. Westlake.Here's Powell, from his notebook:
"They are casting lots for my raiment at this moment," someone remarks.
That sounds unpleasantly like Thanksgiving at the Lear residence.

And to send us home, here, from The Getaway Car, is Westlake:
Except for those who hit it big early, the only writers who stay with writing over the long haul are those who can't find a viable alternative.
Or, if we allow Robert Frost to put it in a Thanksgiving context:
Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.
Happy Thanksgiving, folks. Thanks for reading along with me for yet another year.

1 comment:

  1. Old Bald Helen6:22 AM

    Bravo! But nothing from Miss Macintosh, My Darling?!

    Here you go:

    “We should do very well to take care of each new
    day as it came. We should be grateful for every
    new day we had gotten through, for every sunset,
    for that was our only success in this world of failure,
    the fact that we had lived through another day.”

    (BTW, http://www.bibledice.com delivers random KJV Bible verses.)

    Happy Thanksgiving from a fellow refuser of putrefied flesh!