Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Different Fair

We arrived at noon to find that our favorite lot was full (should have known better) and ended up parking miles way on a side street near a church parking lot that had a shuttle service, thus saving $11 and getting to know an entirely new neighborhood. On our way back to the fairgrounds on the bus we passed the campus of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, which I’d never noticed before. (It might be worth a return visit.)

Quite a few people had arrived at the fairgrounds ahead of us, making it more difficult to see things. We cut through a very long line extending out into the street from the open doors of the education building, and I asked someone what all the fuss was about. Channeling with Elvis? A free foot massage, perhaps? “They’re giving out free bags at the St. Thomas booth,” the man told me. Hmmm.

As usual, the art show offered a diverse collection of wacky renderings of dilapidated cars, artily composed black-and-white nature photographs, laboriously executed pencil portraits of disgruntled teenagers, and “concept” works making use of toothpicks, bees wax, or tin foil. It seems that collages made from glossy magazine illustrations are now passé, and pastel dream-drawings with fantasy animals in them are definitely a thing of the past.

I took snapshots of five works of art, of which four were photographs of one kind or another. The one below depicts a young woman ripping apart a stuffed rabbit and fashioning an Easter hat out of it.

One advantage of arriving at the fair at noon is that more bands are playing. We missed country western star Gwen Sebastian and Breakaway, but caught a few tunes by the Creole Cowboy Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie. All the songs sounded the same but there were lots of people dancing in front of the stage, which was fun to watch. We later wandered into the International Bazaar, where vendors have gathered together all the worst gimcrackery from around the world into a single courtyard, and listened to the Sisters of Swing, who had an interesting dance routine worked up themselves.

It was hard to look at the wool sweaters in the craft building with any degree of attention, what with the temperature above ninety, but there were some splendid quilts on display. We stared at the ethnic cookies for a while, and amid the seed-art I spotted a well-done portrait of someone I actually know! (His wife hails from rural Iowa. Her dad once drove her to a party on his tractor.)

In the dairy building I chatted with a representative of the Mississippi River National Riverway who tried to convince me (unsuccessfully) that the Riverway is actually a national park. In a booth in the next aisle we got the latest update on pheasant populations. (The count isn't in, but things aren’t looking good, I’m afraid.) But there was a steady stream of acrid smoke blowing into the building from a gyro stand out on the street, and we felt it imperative to cut short the discussion of the Conservation Reserve Program and get on out of there, pronto.

We ate some greasy smelt in the food building across the street, watched the young couples emerge from the Haunted House, dazed and laughing, and returned to the bus stop, four hours after we'd arrived, without having seen a single barnyard animal. That's the way it goes, sometimes. A little too hot and crowded, and I began to gain some insight into why some people simply don't like to go to the fair.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Poetic Excursions

It’s a common complaint, and usually well justified: I didn’t have enough time to notice the day—the light on the dewy grass, the hummingbird by the window—or even to taste those cherries I had for lunch.

For my part, I often find myself slightly intoxicated by such things—perhaps too often. Which is as much as to say (I tell myself with a guilty pang) I don’t really have that much to do.

Today, for example, was a masterpiece of cool crisp air and blue sky. I logged a few hours in the office, to be sure, but also checked the available campsites on Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands, off the coast of California. (Another vacation in the offing?) I pruned the globe arborvitae beside the front stoop, which, the name notwithstanding, will not remain a globe unless you sheer it from time to time.

At eleven I drove out to Ridgedale Library (fifteen minutes away) to purchase a book I’d passed over yesterday due to lack of funds—Prague Pictures, Portraits of a City, by Jon Banville. As it happened, the bookshop was closed due to lack of staffing. There was a sign on the door asking for volunteers.

Groceries. A deposit at the bank. A few more hours in front of the computer. A few trips to the refrigerator for grapes. By three I’d had enough, and went out into the brilliant day once again. I doubt if I’ll ever go to Prague, but the thing was gnawing at me…

Yes, the book shop was open! The book about Prague was still on the shelf. And alongside it there was now a companion volume in the same series, Rio de Janeiro: Carnival Under Fire, by Ruy Castro. My lucky day! Nor was that the end of it. I snatched a copy of mind, language, society by philosopher John R. Searle (who needs to study up on capitalization, I think) and a nifty paperback edition of Jason and the Golden Fleece, which might be just the thing to pack on a trip to California, where some things are golden (though you might get fleeced). Then I spotted This I Believe: an A to Z of a Life, by Carlos Fuentes, and, tucked in among the numerous slim books of poetry that are fated to be forgotten almost before they appear in print, Swithering, by the Scottish poet Robin Robertson.

I’ve never heard of Robin Robertson, but I could tell, glancing at a few pages, that he’s a modern master of the old school of poets who have the experience, know the language, but also hear the music.


Her long body in the spangled shade of the wood
was a swimmer moving through a pool:
fractal, framed by leaf and light;
the loose plates of lozenge and rhombus
wobbling coins of sunlight.
When she stopped, the water stopped,
and the sun re-made her as a tree,
banded and freckled and foxed.

Besieged by symmetries, condemned
to these patterns of love and loss,
I stare at the wet shape on the tiles
till it fades; when she came and sat next to me
after her swim and walked away
back to the trees, she left a dark butterfly.

It’s a perfectly literal description, though with the lines “re-made her as a tree” we might think of Apollo pursuing Daphne until she turned into a tree. Patterns of love and loss. Dark butterfly, the impress of wet buttocks on a bench. Lots a precise wording everywhere. A very short poem.

I will probably spend more time peeling library stickers off this book than I will reading it. But it’s been a good day. A remarkable day. And it still is.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


Though giant scorpions don’t emerge from the dunes and no one gets lost under a pyramid or hacked to pieces by an army of skeletons gone berserk, Agora is an entertaining film all the same, and thought-provoking too. It gives us a better look at the ancient city of Alexandria than we’d ever be likely to get otherwise, via the lavish sets and CGI add-ons of Spanish director Alejandro Amerábar. That in itself is worth the price of a matinee.

In fact, Agora might almost be taken as an antidote to the Mummy series, though it shares a star—Rachel Weitz. Instead of primitive one-liners from Brendan Fraser we get courtly discussions of logic and astronomy. Instead of battles in the desert we get zealous urban mobs seizing government buildings and brutally disposing of their foes. All the while discussions continue to take place at the administrative level between the Roman government, the Christian community (which has recently emerged from the shadows to become a “legal” creed, and now seeks to expand its influence politically), the temple priests of the local pagan cults, and the leaders of the Jewish community. Many of the aristocrats in government have already become Christians—some through expediency, others through genuine conversion. It’s a heady situation, fraught with complexity, and there are plenty of gray areas where diplomacy gives way to the powerful yet brittle forces of moral dogmatism, realpolitic, and popular fervor.

The philosopher Hypasia (played by Weisz) offers us yet another slice of the ancient world-view. She’s the head of the local school and library, following in the footsteps of her father; in that capacity she advocates exploring the mysteries of the universe via disinterested observation, measurement, and reasoning. The political import of her teaching ranges from nil to positively subversive, depending on the point of view opposing it, and the fact that she’s a woman doesn’t help much either. What does stand in her favor in that she’s very beautiful, and three of her former students who now occupy prominent positions in society are in love with her, including the prefect, the regional bishop, and her former slave, who has now joined the Christian militia.

There’s an element of stereotype in the set-up, to be sure, but it’s interesting to note that most, if not all, of the major characters Amerábar has woven into the plot are genuine historical figures. There has long been dispute in historical circles as to whether the leader of the Alexandrian Christians, Cyril, was actually a dastardly figure or a decent, sober-minded Christian. Amerábar puts him somewhere in the middle, charismatic and confident in his growing authority, but ultimately intolerant of anyone who questioned the primacy of men over women, and of Christ over the cosmos.

I won’t tell you how the film ends, though I will say that it isn’t pretty. The controversy at the center of the film is still far from over. Agora hasn’t generated a fraction of the controversy aroused by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. (How could it? It’s showing in only 13 theaters in the U.S. today.) But Christian groups have taken offense, arguing that it’s a historically inaccurate portrayal designed to put Christianity in the worst possible light.

For example, Father Robert Barron, on his “Word on Fire” blog, finds the film to be a further chapter in a tradition of anti-Christian calumny dating back to Gibbon. He admits that Hypatia “was indeed a philosopher” and “was indeed killed by a mob in 415.” The rest, he argues is bunk:

Alejandro Amenabar’s new film stands firmly in the Gibbon/Sagan tradition, presenting Hypatia as a saint of secular rationalism who desperately gathers scrolls from the library before it is invaded by hysterical Christians and who goes nobly to her death, defending reason and science against the avatars of religious superstition.

Yet Barron’s own grasp of the facts is tenuous at best. He asserts that the library of Alexandria “was burnt to the ground, not by Christian mobs in the fifth century, but by Julius Caesar’s troops, some forty years before Jesus was born.”

However, Theodore Vrettos, in his recent book Alexandria, City of the Western Mind, tells a different story:

The Roman galleys carrying the Thirty-Seventh Legion from Asia Minor had now reached the Egyptian coast, but because of contrary winds, they were unable to proceed toward Alexandria. At anchor in the harbor off Lochias, the Egyptian fleet posed an additional problem for the Roman ships. However, in a surprise attack, Caesar's soldiers set fire to the Egyptian ships, and the flames, spreading rapidly in the driving wind, consumed most of the dockyard, many structures near the palace, and also several thousand books that were housed in one of the buildings. From this incident, historians mistakenly assumed that the Great Library of Alexandria had been destroyed, but the Library was nowhere near the docks...The most immediate damage occurred in the area around the docks, in shipyards, arsenals, and warehouses in which grain and books were stored. Some 40,000 book scrolls were destroyed in the fire. Not at all connected with the Great Library, they were account books and ledgers containing records of Alexandria's export goods bound for Rome and other cities throughout the world.

The record makes it pretty clear that there were several impressive libraries in Alexandria during the Hellenistic period, and we don’t really know exactly when they were destroyed, or by whom. There is no evidence that they were (or weren't) destroyed by Christians. Barron is willing to admit that a temple to the god Serapis was sacked by Christians in Hypatia’s time, and that there were scrolls in the temple at the time. We see this event take place in the film. Where’s the problem?

The problem lies in Barron’s simple-minded characterization of the film, which he attempts to conflate with crude myths from other sources. Perhaps he's been blinded by defensiveness and paranoia. He depicts Agora as a “battle between sweet reason and vicious religious superstition,” and finds the rendering of Hypatia as a champion of reason against superstition ridiculous. He has entirely overlooked the many nuances Amerábar highlights within both the Christian and pagan communities, and the interesting counter-currents between slave and free, male and female, pagan and Christian and Jew, that give the film its flavor and keep us intrigued at times when the dialog becomes stodgy or the mob fanaticism routine. For example, when the prefect Orestes asks Hypatia, “What does it matter if the earth moves or not?” he is asking a valid question, and many in the audience will probably be thinking (as I was): He’s right. It really makes no difference.

We’ve seen countless films depicting Roman legionnaires as insensitive brutes; is it that difficult to believe that in ancient times a few avowed Christians were no less intent on gaining power for their faction by any means available? That isn’t the main point of the film, but it's historically unassailable, and Amerábar goes out of his way to differentiate the thuggish Christian "enforcers," a sort of brown-shirt vigilante group, from the masses of common folk hanging around in the agora out of curiosity or desperation.

The most interesting point Barron makes, it seems to me, is that the historical Hypatia was best known in ancient times, not as an astronomer, but as a neo-Platonist philosopher. He points out that there were Christians in Hypatia’s classes and eminent Christians among her circle of friends, and goes on to observe that Christian theologians including Augustine, Ambrose, and Origen were neo-Platonists. What he seems to be suggesting is that Hypatia and the sharpest, best, most-well-educated of the Christians had a lot in common. But that's the same point Amerábar is making. Hypatia isn't charcaterized as “the noble champion of reason over and against mouth-breathing Christian primitives.” She isn’t specifically against Christianity or anything else. The main intellectual point advanced by the film—and it’s a simple one—is that people are mostly the same and ought to treat one another decently.

I don’t think Jesus Christ would have had much of a problem with that … though Plato might not have accepted it. And the leaders of the Alexandrian Christian community would certainly have had none of it.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Small Town Life, Small World

On a muggy morning recently I found myself on Highway 7 heading west toward Hutchinson, Minnesota, to pick up some childhood pictures of a famous female basketball player whose family lives out there. I spoke with Lindsay’s mother recently and she told me she’d leave the photos inside the side door along with her daughter’s wedding album. Though the atmosphere was a little glum, due to the humidity and cloud cover, the countryside was pleasant. I spotted some tundra swans lounging in a flooded field at one point, and a trio of pelicans flew by overhead as I passed Silver Lake. The home-made CD I was listening to—Sun Ra, Tomatito, Richard Galliano—began to sound a little raucous, so I popped in a Kate Wolf CD I’d purchased at the thrift store in Mora a few weeks ago, which better fit the mood of the hour—simple and suitably countrified, albeit a little mournful.

I bought some corn curls at a gas station just outside Hutchinson and immediately regretted it. It’s hard to get that greasy cheese powder off your hands, which is not good when you’re about to handle someone else’s heirloom family photos.

Hutchinson is a beautiful little town, a true gem, with shady streets, a vibrant main street stretching for five or six blocks, and a lovely central square. I found the house without difficult, went to the side door, and received the bundle of photos in a plastic bag from a young, friendly, shirtless man who seemed to have broken his leg. As I was pulling out of the driveway I glanced back at the backboard and hoop affixed to the garage. It looked just like ten thousand other backboards. And yet…

My next stop was the public library, where I washed my hands in the bathroom and then took a peek at what was in the bag. Good stuff. Sweet. Perfect. On my way out I purchased a book from the library's de-acquisition shelf called Picasso 1905-1906 for $2.00. (Not his best period by any means, but the book was in full color, and the fact that it’s in Spanish makes it even more appealing: I don’t know Spanish.) I asked the librarian if she had any archival stuff about Lindsay, and she recommended that I visit the county historical society a mile or so down the road.

The woman there was helpful, but came up with nothing. Nada. Zippo. "If people don't donate things to us, we won't have them," she explained apologetically.

Back downtown at the offices of the Hutchinson Leader I spent some time thumbing through the bound archives, which gave me a better sense of the community’s crimes, celebrations, civic challenges and successes. Mostly I looked at the sports sections, however, which contained plenty of information about the girl’s basketball teams from Hutchinson, Lester Prairie, Litchfield, and other towns but precious few photos of Lindsay herself.

My luck changed when the sports editor, Eric Kraushar, came out to say hello. Though twenty years younger than me, he was wearing the same outfit I was—blue golf shirt, white shorts. That was a good sign. We chatted, went back to his office, and eventually located some digital shots he’d taken personally at various Lynx games that they’d used for an article commemorating Lindsay’s return to Minnesota, along with one good picture from her high school years. A veritable gold mine. He emailed them off to me and at that point our conversation turned to the Twins. He’s been to the new stadium three or four times already. He and his girl friend even went to Chicago for the recent series. (It’s easier to get tickets for those games.) He’s originally from Highland Park, and when I told him I was from Mahtomedi he groaned. “They used to kill us every year in football.”

On my way out of town I stopped to buy a hotdog from a street vendor in the town square. The woman selling the hotdogs turned out to be the step-mother of a fellow who used to work with me years ago in the warehouse world. John Jodzio. He went on to become a writer (he was already a good story-teller when I knew him) won a Jerome grant, and just recently published a book of stories called If You Lived Here You’d Already be Home.

I told her to keep a lookout for the book about Lindsay. “Oh, I will,” she said. “She used to live just kitty-corner from us.”

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Chanterelles – The Last Post

It doesn’t often happen with such clock-like precision.

a) I read a friend’s blog about chanterelle mushrooms.

b) I say to myself, “I’ve been reading abut chanterelles for decades, but I don’t even know what they look like.”

c) I create a one-page instruction sheet for myself, lifting images of chanterelles (and false chanterelles) from on-line sources, drawing arrows to the significant details—the distinctive gills, the vase-shaped form, the orange-yellow coloring.

d) The next day, I see some chanterelles! Or something that looks a lot like chanterelles.

We were visiting St. Croix State Park, Minnesota’s biggest, though not its most dramatic or interesting. It sits on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border in an obscure part of the state south of Duluth (The Mille Lacs Uplands) that’s largely lacking in towns, lakes, or other points of recreational interest. Perhaps the park's most distinctive feature is the architecture. The buildings were constructed during the 1930s from rough-hewn blocks of local sandstone, which is a warm tawny brown. Other than the St. Croix River itself, which runs along the eastern edge of the park, the Kettle River, Minnesota’s premier whitewater river, may be the park’s prime feature—though a river is hard to appreciate unless you happen to be going down (or up) it.

We had brought our canoe along, and after a cursory driving tour of the huge three-part campground we set out paddling up the St. Croix, which was much wider than I’d expected, considering how far upstream we were. Twenty minutes later we left the big river to explore a more intimate tributary (the Clam River, I later read on a map) then returned to the St. Croix and soldiered on against the current, which was pronounced but manageable. We ducked behind a few islands, looking for a sandy place to swim, and passed a couple camping on some high ground near the bank at one point. We turned around when we heard a tangle of distant voices around a bend further upstream. A tubing party that had taken the shuttle to the next landing, no doubt.

The return trip took all of fifteen minutes. No need to paddle much. Familiar landmarks whizz by. Not nearly as fun as the slow slog upstream.

We then drove the park’s gravel roads past huge forests that someone is attempting to re-convert to jack pine barrens—or so it appears—and a few boggy trout streams, before reaching a more substantial grove of red pines. At the end of the road we took the short hike out through the woods to a ridge overlooking the Kettle River. Though I’ve never canoed it, I’ve crossed it on the freeway countless times, and I am always reminded that the elder brother of a classmate lost his life there at the age of 14 doing Hell’s Gate with his dad.

It was there, in the trees near the overlook, that I spotted the wavy orange-yellow mushrooms. I picked three or four and we packed them into a handkerchief.

Back at the visitor center, two park employees were chatting at the front desk. I inquired if the naturalist were anywhere about. They gave a holler and a third woman emerged from the office.

“What have you got?” she said.
When I held up the mushroom all three of the women’s faces lit up. “That’s a chanterelle,” the naturalist said with a smile. She didn’t look at it closely, examine the gills, or smell it.
“That’s what I thought,” I replied. “I found it up at the Kettle River overlook.”
“Oh, don’t give your spot away!” one of the other women said.

But I was not entirely convinced. The gills didn’t have that “melted” look the websites talked about … though they did seem to be attached firmly to the cap. I sent emails off to a few friends, along with a photo, and the replies came back uniformly positive.

So last night I chopped them up and sautéed them in butter. They were good.

And here I am, eighteen hours later, writing about it. I guess this won’t be the last post after all.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Attachments and Commitments

In Nietzsche, Psychology, & First Philosophy, Robert B. Pippin gives us a new take on Nietzsche, considering him as a French rather than a German thinker, and framing him less as a philosopher in any technical sense than an essayist, a moralist, and a prophet. The basic question Nietzsche asks, according to Pippin, is this:

“How … did Montaigne manage to exhibit such a thoroughgoing skepticism and clarity about human frailties and failings without Pascal’s despair and eventual surrender or La Rochefoucauld’s icy contempt for the ‘human all too human’?

Nietzsche arrived at the conclusion that there is no theory underlying Montaigne’s worldview. Yet Nietzsche himself developed a number of theories to explain why European civilization seemed to be in such a funk, and Pippin wants to go as far as he can toward clarifying those positions.

We might well question whether these two endeavors will really be taking us in the same direction. For the differences between Nietzsche and Montaigne go far beyond the fact that only one of them had a theory. Montaigne luxuriated in the differing and contradictory approaches to life he met up with. He enjoyed nothing better than to muse on the variety, not to mention illogicality, of the many habits men and women have developed and grown committed to in the course of time. Perhaps his watchword might be found in the remark, “All other knowledge is harmful to him who has not the knowledge of goodness.” (On Pedantry) This approach to “philosophy” differs radically from Nietzsche’s, of course. Nietzsche took little interest in the particulars of personal or social life. His efforts were directed toward diagnosis and reform on the social level, if not utter “transformation,” and his writing often carries a cantankerous, hectoring, admonitory tone as a result.

At one point Montaigne writes:

“It is a mistake to describe [philosophy] as inaccessible to children and of a lowering and frowning and terrifying aspect. Who has disguised her with this wan and hideous mask? There is nothing gayer, more jocund, more blithe, and I might almost say, sportive. She exhorts always to holidaying and merry-making; a sad and spiritless air shows that not there is her abode.”
(On the Education of Children)

Pippin’s finds the “key” to Nietzsche’s work in his desire to assume this sportive attitude toward philosophy himself, and he suggests that Nietzsche arrives at a mature exposition of this position, if not a genuinely sportive tone, in The Gay Science.

Though he structures his argument methodically, Pippin’s prose is far from scintillating, and as we soldier on through the early chapters, there are many points at which we feel things are being made more complicated than they need to be, and other places at which Pippin loses the point entirely.

Let me give you an example. At one point early on in the book, Pippin takes up the issue of commitment as a grounding force in the search for meaning. Where do commitments come from?

“ No one faces a world of neutral objects and possibilities and ‘decides’ with what sort of importance to invest some, any more than one faces an array of persons and decides whom to invest with love.”

What Pippin is trying to say, I guess, is that things (and people) have valences that attract or repel us—they aren’t neutral. Nevertheless, we do make decisions all the time about which things appeal to us and which don’t, based on our personal experience as well as our predilections; at the highest (or deepest) level, the things we value—things like friendship, loyalty, honor, kindness—aren’t things at all in any material sense.

Pippin goes on to differentiate between “deep” commitments and “thin” commitments, and in several places uses the word “commitment” and “erotic attachment” interchangeably. Here again he seems to be muddling the issue. A commitment is not the same thing as an attachment, erotic or otherwise. A child may be attached to his or her poodle, for example, but not fully committed to caring for it. A soldier may be committed to carrying out an order, out of a sense of duty, without being in any way attached to it.

The presence of the word “erotic” is also troubling. We are being asked to draw upon a long history of associations extending back to Plato, though in his efforts to elevate “erotic attachment” above mere “felt desire” Pippin offers a circular definition that includes the thing defined: “[Erotic attachment] involves a wholehearted, passionate commitment to and identification with a desired end.”

Wrong again. An attachment is not a commitment, and the phrase “desired end” threatens to pitch Pippin’s analysis off the rails entirely. Why? Because a commitment—and especially a deep one—is less often to an end than to a way. I might be committed to completing a crossword puzzle, but such a commitment isn’t terribly deep. A commitment to eating free-range chicken, on the other hand, or to reading the Times faithfully, gives slightly greater weight to the concept. But such commitments are open-ended. They lack a desired end, as do more serious commitments, such as to dealing honestly with others, being faithful to one’s spouse, obeying the law, or tithing.

Pippin’s argument, here and elsewhere, would have benefited immensely from a few examples. Yet we follow the imprecise and sometimes muddled reasoning, stimulated by the counter-thoughts they generate and hopeful that he’ll turn the corner when he finally begins to discuss the specifics Nietzsche puts forth in The Gay Science. Montaigne is nowhere in sight by this point, but according to Pippin, the problem that Nietzsche himself is addressing (and here is where the “erotic attachment” comes into play) is, to put it in the simplest and least philosophical terms possible, that as the nineteenth century drew to a close, Western civilization was losing its mojo.

In chapter three Pippin takes up the most famous (but still not well understood) tenet in Neitzsche’s corpus—the death of God. The passage in question is more complex, not to say ambivalent, than a simple pronouncement that God is dead, and Pippin’s analysis here is both nuanced and sound. In the end, it brings him around again to the issue of commitment.

“…we have been investigating how Nietzsche understands the psychological conditions of value, the possibility of an action-guiding depth commitment. He treats the current context as hostile to this possibility both because of the death of God and even more because of how that news has been understood.”

Nietzsche felt that his contemporaries were no longer capable of sacrifice or commitment, and found their reaction to such a condition no less distressing—either a melancholic and theatrical guilt or a self-satisfied pose of enlightened free-thinking.

But it’s important to note (Pippin devotes a good deal of time to the issue) that in Nietzsche’s view this cultural malaise is historically conditioned. As Pippin puts it: “The psyche amounts to a historically achieved and quite variable way of holding ourselves and others to account.” Yet this view doesn’t square very well with Pippin’s own rhetoric, in which he often uses the pronoun “we,” as if the situation he and his twenty-first-century readers face were identical to the one Nietzsche and his late-nineteenth-century European contemporaries found themselves in. Can it really be said that Tea Party advocates, Al-Qaeda operatives, North Korean generals or Japanese auto workers lack commitment? Pippin is in danger of undermining the relevance of his entire project when he writes: “This image of the passionless, bored bourgeois has by now become a rather banal cliché.” Not only banal, but inaccurate.

In the end, what saves the book are the footnotes and asides, which draw our attention to various minor points explored by Nietzsche, Montaigne, Pascal and other thinkers. Certainly there is food for thought on every page, though we may leave the book with the impression that Montaigne is, indeed, a vital and engaging writer … while Nietzsche remains an aphorist for disgruntled adolescents who have not yet come to grips with the wider, deeper streams of modern thought and history.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Tall Ships and Small Lakes

We drove up to Duluth so I could sit in front of a table in the hall outside a bookstore in an old brewery for an hour, just in case someone wanted a signed copy of Vacation Days. (See previous entry.) This is what we call a book “event.” I chatted with a few strangers, and with the bookstore clerk, who used to be an insurance underwriter, and would just as soon move back to the Twin Cities, though her husband owns a bar just south of Two Harbors. (Her father used to own the bar, and she saw what it did to him. But she's not complaining. The kids like it up here, and she has plenty of places to jog and ski.)

A woman I did a book with a few years ago wandered by, looking for her 84-year-old father. And Stephen Dahl, who catches herring for a living a few miles up the coast, stopped by, along with his wife Georgeanne. He told me that a few days earlier he’d gone out onto the big lake through the dark to the nets at 4 AM, as usual, to discover that a four-masted sailing vessel was anchored a quarter-mile away. That must have been quite a sight!

Yes, Duluth was having its tall ships “challenge.” Before the book event we’d wandered down to the docks to see them ourselves. We didn’t have time to go aboard—there were long lines—but I noticed that the first ship we came to, the Bounty, was the very one we boarded and spent quite a bit of time exploring in San Diego a few years ago.

The sleek schooners out in the bay made for a more lovely and dramatic sight in any case.

After the book event we drove up to Stephen and Georganne’s hand-built house in the woods north of Larsmont and sat on the deck admiring the hummingbirds, eating smoked fish, and discussing the sometimes-peculiar attitudes of the DNR and the weirdly beautiful novels of Knut Hamsun.

Then it was off to Tettegouche State Park, where we hiked in 1.7 miles to tiny Micmac Lake to spend the night. There’s an old hunting camp up there that was donated to the state in 1979, and four of the cabins are available now for rental. (Good move by the DNR.)

It’s very hilly country, with cliffs and echoes and paths going here and there through the woods. We took a canoe ride to the north end of the lake, watched a beaver cross a cove, listened to the ethereal song of a hermit thrush. The next morning we made coffee, ate some cheese on Ry Krisp (topped with ginger jam) and then set off through the woods to a few nearby overlooks. Thimbleberries everywhere. It’s very quiet and pristine up there in the hills, more like the Green Mountains of New England, perhaps, than Minnesota.

Lunch at Va Bene in Duluth, exasperating the waitress with our desire to find exactly the right table on the cantilevered balcony of the terrace overlooking the lake. Bright sun, blue sea, sails unfurled, and everyone having a very good time.