Kids’ Treat

March 12, 2018
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Drawing Lots – Illustration by Arianna Vairo

I collect illustrated editions of two books:  Candide and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and I have a particular thing for Pym.  I came across this etching from a children’s, or perhaps young adult, edition of the grisly Poe novel.  I imagine they edited out the “good parts.”  I couldn’t quite recall whether the drawing of lots to determine who would be sacrificed to feed the other surviving crew members was followed by an actual meal, and if the hero partook, so I checked the text.

I recovered from my swoon in time to behold the consummation of the tragedy in the death of him who had been chiefly instrumental in bringing it about. He made no resistance whatever, and was stabbed in the back by Peters, when he fell instantly dead. I must not dwell upon the fearful repast which immediately ensued. Such things may be imagined, but words have no power to impress the mind with the exquisite horror of their reality. Let it suffice to say that, having in some measure appeased the raging thirst which consumed us by the blood of the victim, and having by common consent taken off the hands, feet, and head, throwing them together with the entrails, into the sea, we devoured the rest of the body, piecemeal, during the four ever memorable days of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth of the month.

In searching for the text, and  yet again for illustrated editions of the book, I came upon several webpages dedicated to the “strange” pre-cognizance of Poe’s tale:  it seems that forty or fifty years hence, there was a famous shipwreck that led to some castaways in a lifeboat drawing lots and eating the loser.  The name of the victim was, as in Poe’s story, Richard Parker.  He was a mere cabin boy, and probably didn’t know about Poe’s book, or he would probably have shipped under a different name, just in case, that is.  And, of course, Richard Parker was also the name of the tiger (real or imagined) in Yan Martel’s The Life of Pi.

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Melancholy Project

March 20, 2014

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The NYRB edition of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy is great, but let’s face it – it’s a pain to lug around!  It is certainly the best to read, because it retains the endless series of Latin quotations in the text while providing their translations right after each one, in brackets.  No need to constantly thumb to the notes to see what they mean, and with the English right there, sometimes they are fun to read.

It turns out that the text first appeared in the Everyman’s Library, revived recently, in a larger format.  So, I searched and found a copy of Burton’s work in the original three-volume edition from the 1930’s.  Ah!..much easier to handle.

The slipcase was made by me to hold them together – they are a bit delicate, and I will probably cover them in paper before I toss them into a backpack.  I have taken up the craft of making cases for my little treasures, such as my recently acquired Poe-Pym-Baudelaire illustrated edition.  It is not nearly as hard as I had feared to get a pretty decent result.


Pym

June 17, 2012

In Pym, Mat Johnson has created a wildly satirical novel that takes a tremendous bite right into the heart of American civilization – slavery and its racial aftermath.  You don’t have to be a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, or have read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Nantucketer to like this book, but it does add another delicious dollop of cultural allusion and dissection to it.  The book stands on its own as the very darkly hilarious (Any metaphorical use of light/white and dark/black have to be tentative in discussing this book, lest one become part of its subject!) riff on Poe’s only novel-length work, American history, and race, not to mention contemporary American taste as exemplified by The Painter of Light.

The narrator of the tale is Chris Jaynes, an African-American scholar of American Literature, who can’t hack it in the tenure track of Academe.  He confronts the president of the small college that has canned him in a very funny scene, only to retreat, humbled, after ripping off the man’s bow-tie. It’s a clip-on job:  appearances, appearances.  Obsessed by Poe’s tale of Pym and his perilous adventures in Antarctica,  and convinced it has a profound racial subtext, he strikes pay dirt when he comes into possession of an authentic manuscript written by one of the tale’s characters.  It isn’t fiction, it’s fact!  What a scoop!  He manages to scrape together the funds for an expedition to Antarctica to get to the bottom of it all.

The story of Arthur Gordon Pym involves cannibalism, and the drawing of straws to determine the victim, strange, gigantic figures of perfect white, devilish black natives of a strangely warm land in the antarctic, known as Tsalal, who fiendishly dispose of most of the white visitors, and it is enigmatically broken off at the end.  Pym cleverly mimics and inverts much of the narrative, substituting street-wise jive for Poe’s absurdly melodramatic prose.  It also displays much wonderful deadpan humor: In this passage, the narrator, having discovered the real Arthur Pym, miraculously still alive after more than a century, tries to talk to him:

“I’m a Natucketer,” he replied.

“Well, are your family landowners?”  At this, the supposed Nantucketer shook his head with enthusiasm and then annoyance that I would even question that fact.

“Well, you’ve been gone awhile, things have gone up in value,” Nathaniel followed, and this time Pym deigned to hear him directly.  “Land in Nantucket sells for about two million, two hundred thousand an acre on today’s market.  You probably have quite an estate to attend to.”  Already growing a bit more alert, at the sound of the figure Pym’s eyes seemed to gain a greater level of consciousness.  The ghost of a man leaned in toward me.

“Is this true?” he muttered.

“Yes, it is,” I told him, relieved that we finally seemed to be getting closer to an actual conversation.

“In a world where people would pay so much for sand,” Pym started, clearly awed by the thought of this, “how much did these niggers cost you?”

Pym, who is a caricature of Poe himself, in this story at least, generates a lot of humor by saying in a completely nonchalant way things that are, today, completely outrageous – but they weren’t in the ante bellum USA.  And among some people today, they probably are not yet.  The characters on the expedition, all black, are thrown up against their own notions of race and class, and their status as free men and women when they are taken on as slaves by a race of giant, antarctican white hairy ape creatures.  And then there is that painter who has created his own pleasure dome down there, but who becomes part of the conflict.  It all gets pretty crazy:  it’s reminiscent of the best parts of The Planet of the Apes.

Well, race, and slavery based on race, is a crazy idea, but as we like to forget, it is what the Hispanic and Anglo empires built North American civilization with.  And though it ended with the Civil War (not really with the Emancipation Proclamation, but with the abolition of slavery by individual states, starting with, of all places, Texas, as commemorated this week with Juneteenth), Reconstruction saw to it that much of its cultural apparatus remained intact for another hundred years.  And what was it all based on?

As the narrator of Pym reflects on the One Drop Rule at several points, it is clear that it is based on power pure and simple.  What can you make of a rule that says that a person is “black” if they have one drop of black blood in them, no matter how white they look?  Logical, in a sick way, on the face of it, but why does it run only in one direction?  In today’s NYTimes, there was an article about Michelle Obama’s ancestor in the ante bellum South, a woman slave who had a child by the son of her owner.  So, why isn’t Michelle Obama white by a One Drop Rule?

Weelll…the One Drop Rule only goes one way, except, perhaps, in a society where everyone is black…like Tsalal, for example.  Which is where the expeditionary crew in Pym ends up, with predictable consequences for Arthur Gordon Pym.  It’s the ultimate literary irony of the book.  And just how did the writer ever get his manuscript to print, anyway..?


Tekeli li

January 3, 2008

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Reproduction of this image is prohibited, or at least that is the title of the painting by Magritte shown here. I guess I have involved myself in the sort of vicious logical cycle that he loved so much, and that he painted, by simply showing it here. Or buying it in a book, or on a postcard. Another one along the lines of “This is not a pipe.” A college friend of mine remarked of this painting, “What a nightmare – looking into a mirror and not being able to see your face!” Another interdiction.

The book on the mantle, by the way, is Poe’s “Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym”. That story dealt with unmentionables and things unseen and never seen – the ghastly horrors of the antarctic regions. Pym ends up there on a doomed sailing ship by way of shipwreck, psychopaths, and cannibalism. On expedition into the inland regions of the south, he meets his end, we think, at the hands of vicious natives. All chant, shout, and speak with horror the syllables, “Tekeli li!” What does it mean?

H. P. Lovecraft knew what it meant, or so he claimed. I’d always thought that he wrote junk-fantasy, and so avoided him. Recently, I corrected that error and found him to be a worthy follower, and a worshipper, of E. A. Poe. His story, “The Mountains of Madness” is an over-the-top recounting of an expedition to the south gone awry that connects with the fantastical notions of Arthur Pym – the sounds of “tekeli li” hover ominously throughout this story of the discovery of a vast polar civilization that pre-dates the rise of advanced lifeforms on the other continents. (They appear to have been of the shape of huge cucumbers, tremendously intelligent, and, as in other Lovecraft stories of aliens and ancient civilizations, have “blood” that is sticky, green, and foul smelling.)

The mere sight of the remains of the the huge urban settlements built by these creatures, with the realization that they are millions of years older than the oldest human city, and the eventual discovery that some of the inhabitants yet live, drives some of the explorers positively mad.   Lovecraft repeatedly mentions paintings by Nicholas Roerich (an early 20th century mystic and pacifist) to describe the appearance of the urban remains.

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