e n d n o t e s 


Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. Erasmus instructed them how to do it; and if they did not have access to his popular De Copia, they consulted printed models or the local schoolmaster. The practice spread everywhere in early modern England, among ordinary readers as well as famous writers like Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and John Locke. It involved a very special way of taking in the printed word. Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.

                                                         Robert Darnton
                                                         “Extraordinary Commonplaces”

                                                         The New York Review of Books
, December 21, 2000



We are each a chapter house: we are a monk

inscribing his page by winter light:

holding off with willed calm our common dread;

aware of the clinked-coin noise at our gate.

                                                                          New York, 1992


It was the end of the year but not of hypocrisy, banality, and unsubtle thuggery, nor gabbling hysteria. Oh, we were tired. Wouldn’t politics, let alone the damned economy, please just shut up? I turned toward Little Muddyfoot, but her blank gaze revealed nothing. Was the word “thuggery” overstating it? Nobody had drawn a gun, after all. No response. Well, then, what about “the healing process,” “compassion” – sorry, not compassion – “compassionate conservatism,” “no bipartisan bickering”: anything credible there? Nothing doing. I persisted. Could you follow Justice Scalia’s reasoning? No change, though I thought her face had tightened. All right, Justice Stevens’ opinion: is that where we stand? Her eyes – green eyes, seer’s eyes – looked into the distance. She was only a marionette, a little wooden jointed object born in a farmyard in Central Europe. How much of the world had she seen? I felt I had hoped for too much and left myself wide open.

Then it began to snow, and it snowed all day. Afterward, it was very, very quiet. I thought for a while about my dead. If any one thing had been altered, all that followed would have been different. What one thing would I have altered? Nothing, I decided, for the thousandth time. I carried a bottle of fine Madeira into the study and promised myself a contemplative glass.

For months, slowly, I had been trying to read John Felstiner’s beautiful literary biography of Paul Celan. Slowly, by no more than one line in any day, I approached the poems. In the car I kept an audio book of INVISIBLE MAN, Joe Morton reading all of those voices Ellison had caught on the page, infusing them with the grief, pain, anger, the pure delirious humor, the language, Ellison had unloosed from the page. Though forgetting nothing I played the tapes rarely, only as often as I could bear to. I wondered about this.

I had watched a documentary about the present Pope. It was a serious, complex study of this man of God and the Virgin, of whom I am so wary. I could not stop thinking about one thing in particular. The Pope believes that people who have not known suffering have not lived full lives. He does not advocate suffering, it was said, but (he knows that) it exists. He has witnessed suffering. He believes those who are able to endure it are somehow deepened in their humanity.

I thought this must be so. In his observation, those who have not suffered are, by implication, the capitalist (American) middle class. What is the virtue of this class, that is, its historical nature, but frantic acquisition against the fear of dispossession, acquiescence in the dismantling of public social relations, and neurotic or calculated self-interest? What is the suffering of this class?

We bow before the suffering of individuals. How could I ignore the man diagnosed with melanoma, the woman who found herself without home or position, the woman with voice ragged from the emotional derangement of her body, the man whose longed-for marriage had become infirm? These were friends of my heart. How could I think of them as instruments of capital? They were alert, schooled, thoughtful adults, who did not know each other, though I knew them all. A great writer, also a Pole, Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski, observed, “In vain had books taught him of human perversity and the disasters that clung like shadows to man’s fate; his heart refused to believe what his eyes read.” I, at least, was that man of whom Herling wrote.

I drew back. It was distressing even to imply a comparison of the scales of human suffering. Rather, my unease had been set off by some kind of warning noise, it occurred to me; a cacophony. I won’t storm at God or the middle class just now, I thought, but try to listen to the irritating sound.



Clinked coins at the gate.


An editor in New York named Ben Gerson used to say that the public liked George Bush because they saw compromise in his face, the face of a man who had abandoned his principles, and it made them feel less lonely. Our new president was going to be that man’s son. He, the son, was not learned or well-read, nor widely-traveled, nor worldly; often spoke incoherently; did not seem brave. He was a man who had made a comfortable amount of money from relatively small investments and become governor of his state; no other accomplishments, pubic or private, were reported. One had no sense of his mind, how it moved, what nourished it.

Since election day, a sense of discontinuity had fallen over me. Whatever had been true of our national life the day before, it felt, somehow no longer was. A shift had occurred, so that as we went forward we could no longer look behind and see what we had come from; the past was obscured and irrelevant. It was a feeling of unmooring, not easily described but almost tangible. I recalled Natalia Ginzburg’s essay “The Little Virtues,” which begins, “As far as the education of children is concerned I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one’s neighbor and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.”

The education of children is much more haphazard than the public likes to believe, for kids are in the hands of the culture, as it is called, more readily than of their parents, and “the culture” is rank with the little virtues, particularly the last one. Natalia Ginzburg had written of a different time than ours, but her observations sounded warm. I went on reading.

“Usually we do just the opposite; we rush to teach them a respect for the little virtues, on which we build our whole system of education. In doing this we are choosing the easiest way, because the little virtues do not involve any actual dangers, indeed they provide shelter from Fortune’s blows. We do not bother to teach the great virtues, though we love them and want our children to have them; but we nourish the hope that they will spontaneously appear in their consciousness some day in the future, we think of them as part of our instinctive nature, while the others, the little virtues, seem to be the result of reflection and calculation and so we think that they absolutely must be taught.”

Yes, she was right; I recognized the noise of calculation. A moment later I read the following: “Now I believe that a climate which is completely pervaded by a respect for the little virtues will, insensibly, lead to cynicism or a fear of life. In themselves the little virtues have nothing to do with cynicism or a fear of life, but taken together, and without the great virtues, they produce an atmosphere that leads to these consequences.”

This was the essay I wanted. I had been thinking about the nature of authority and how, since the Sixties, I supposed, “respect for authority” had gone away and been replaced nationally by a kind of – of what? Anarchy wasn’t the right word, nor chaos. The lives of many people were now rigorously controlled, in fact, to such a degree that when they sat at computers in the places where they worked, their very key strokes could be counted and their time-travels on the internet monitored (and censured if desired), and such spied-out data were added up to become part of what was called (amazingly) “productivity,” on which an index of our economy depended. Disrespect was what had replaced authority. I didn’t mean, disrespect for authority; I meant something like the opposite: the lack of respect of authority for human dignity.

I did think this, I realized, because (I saw) so many of those “in authority” believed that each man and woman had a price, for buying and selling. Ideas could be sold to the public; the people had to market themselves, their values, their talents, in order to make even a decent living; and many indecent livings were to be made. At the end of the year, “success” was a very little virtue.

During the noise of the campaigns I had heard nothing like Natalia Ginzburg’s ideas said by a public person. Moved by that thought, I sat and typed parts of it into my commonplace book, and as I wrote I thought of John Locke’s belief that a newborn child was like a blank page on which the form of his world could be impressed. I did not think this was entirely so. A child is not a blank page; but the world forms it nonetheless, and I did not want that world, the world as it is now, cut off from what had gone before. Writing the lines, I linked myself more finely and strongly to literature, which does not obscure the past and illuminates the present. Doing this did not put me at ease, but it made my unease bearable.

“In our relationships with our children it is no use our trying to remember and imitate the way our parents acted with us…. They were authoritarian towards us in a way that we are quite incapable of being. Strong in their principles, which they believed to be indestructible, they reigned over us with absolute power. They deafened us with their thunderous words: a dialogue was impossible because as soon as they suspected that they were wrong they ordered us to be quiet: they beat their fists on the table and made the room shake. We remember that gesture but we cannot copy it. We can fly into a rage and howl like wolves, but deep in our wolf’s howl there lies a hysterical sob, the hoarse bleating of a lamb.

“And so we have no authority; we have no weapons. Authority in us would be a hypocrisy and a sham. We are too aware of our own weakness, too melancholy and insecure, too conscious of our illogicality and incoherence, too conscious of our faults; we have looked within ourselves for too long and seen too many things there. And so as we don’t have authority we must invent another kind of relationship.”


Books mentioned:

John Felstiner, PAUL CELAN POET, SURVIVOR, JEW (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995)

Paul Celan, SELECTED POEMS AND PROSE OF PAUL CELAN. Tr.from the German by John Felstiner (New

York: W.W. Norton, 2001)

Ralph Ellison, INVISIBLE MAN (New York: Random House Audiobooks, unabridged, read by Joe Morton)

Natalia Ginzburg, THE LITTLE VIRTUES. Tr. from the Italian by Dick Davis (New York: Arcade Publishing,

 p.b. 1989)


“John Paul II: The Millennial Pope,” Helen Whitney, producer. Helen Whitney and Jane Barnes, writers. Frontline, PBS airdate 9/28/99

Previous Endnotes:

The Poem of the Grand Inquisitor, Vol. 4, No. 3

On the Marionette Theater, Vol. 4, Nos. 1/2

The Double, Vol. 3, No. 4

Folly, Love, St. Augustine, Vol. 3, No. 3

On Memory, Vol. 3, No. 2

Passion, Vol. 3, No. 1

A Flea, Vol. 2, No. 4

On Love, Vol. 2, No. 3

Fantastic Design, with Nooses, Vol. 2, No. 1

Kundera’s Music Teacher, Vol. 1, No. 4

The Devil’s Dictionary; Economics for Poets, Vol. 1, No. 3

Hecuba in New York; Déformation Professionnelle, Vol. 1, No. 2

Art, Capitalist Relations, and Publishing on the Web, Vol. 1, No. 1



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