Tuesday, August 28, 2018

‘for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head’

As I attempt to wind down writing in this blog—for who isn’t tired of my nattering on, and, plus, I would like PeaPickleFarm.com to be devoted to wax and candles, and all the other stuff to be basically filed away, preserved elsewhere, ended or extended in some other fashion—I pause after reading Chapter 25 of “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale,” by Herman Melville, to compose a blog post. I’d like to share some quotes from the book. First, take note: There are 135 chapters. The boat has barely left harbor. I’ve a long way to go. But there is something about all the various books I have undertaken the reading of due to their direct or indirect association with wax that I have so enjoyed and that, somehow, seem so present even though for the most part the books are very old. Moby Dick was published in 1851.

We’ll start at the very place I paused, Chapter 25: Postscript, because nobody ever told me Moby Dick is funny. But it is. First, background. In Chapter 24: The Advocate, Melville, or should I say our narrator, Ishmael, offers a defense of whale hunters, who, it seems, the world looks a little down on, as if they were, perhaps, of a lower class, I’m sure you can imagine, the necessary butchers of the sea, but who wants to see them? Ishmael himself is just leaving Nantucket, heading out to sea on the Pequod, embarking on a three-year whale-hunting voyage, and in his defense of whale hunters we get one of the first mentions of light—the light that whale-hunters, via the whale, provide.
But, though the world scouts at us whale hunters, yet does it unwittingly pay us the profoundest homage; yea, an all-abandoning adoration! for almost all the tapers, lamps, and candles that burn round the globe, burn, as before so many shrines, to our glory!
Through whale hunters, the world gets at the whale’s spermaceti, for candles, and the whale’s sperm oil, for lamps and, as we are to learn in Chapter 25, for anointing royalty.
It is well known that at the coronation of kings and queens, even modern ones, a certain curious process of seasoning them for their functions is gone through. There is a saltcellar of state, so called, and there may be a caster of state. How they use the salt, precisely—who knows? Certain I am, however, that a king’s head is solemnly oiled at his coronation, even as a head of salad. Can it be, though, that they anoint it with a view of making its interior run well, as they anoint machinery? Much might be ruminated here, concerning the essential dignity of this regal process, because in common life we esteem but meanly and contemptibly a fellow who anoints his hair, and palpably smells of that anointing. In truth, a mature man who uses hair-oil, unless medicinally, that man had probably got a quoggy spot in him somewhere. As a general rule, he can’t amount to much in his totality.
But the only thing to be considered here, is this—what kind of oil is used at coronation? Certainly it cannot be olive oil, nor macassar oil, nor castor oil, nor bear’s oil, nor train oil, nor cod liver oil. What then can it possibly be, but sperm oil in its unmanufactured, unpolluted state, the sweetest of all oils?
Think of that, ye loyal Britons! we whalemen supply your kings and queens with coronation stuff!
Forgive me for imagining Donald Trump’s coronation and wondering: darest we wait that long? to rub his head with oil in the vain hope of “making its interior run well”?

In Chapter 17: The Ramadan, Ishmael offers a fine take on the human condition.
… let him be, I say: and Heaven have mercy on us all—Presbyterians and Pagans alike—for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.
That’s it. Though as long as I am here, perhaps a little final seasoning from Chapter 2: The Carpet-Bag.
—pooh, pooh! What a fine frosty night; how Orion glitters; what northern lights! Let them talk of their oriental summer climes of everlasting conservatories; give me the privilege of making my own summer with my own coals.
Now, back to not writing blog posts.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

the wonderful world of a. b. granville

I have never read anything quite like Dr. A. B. Granville’s autobiography. To hold such a book in one’s hands; to feel the weight of the 144-year-old pages, covers and binding; to smell the attendant must and dust; to read of one man’s life, his own record, set in such sharp, precise type; to turn the thick, stiff pages, especially while one is positioned comfortably below a whirling ceiling fan on what is, after all, just another hot, humid, incredibly buggy August afternoon or, better yet, evening, after the day’s sweat has been washed away, on one’s own sofa in the middle of nowhere America at the start of the twenty-first century: it is a panacea. A. B. wrote his memoir when in his late eighties in consultation with the journals he had kept throughout his life, and the tome was then completed and edited by his youngest daughter after his death. The reading of the book (and I am just now in year 1814, Chapter XXIII) has taken me from late eighteenth century Italy to Greece, its various islands, to Turkey, Spain, Gibraltar, Portugal, England, the West Indies – A.B. starts at the very beginning.
On the seventh day of October, 1783, at early morn, at Milan, Maria Antonietta Rapazzini added a third son to the progeny of Carlo Bozzi, her husband, which in process of time extended to the number of nine children, of all of whom I remain solitary survivor.
Soon I read of how I would like to die, like A. B.’s grandfather.
He was in the act of sipping his chocolate in bed one morning when he expired, eighteen months before reaching a century.
And I agreed with the following.
There is no book, whether on general or special subjects, however insignificant, out of which a reader may not learn something he was ignorant of before. Likewise, in the written life of any individual, however obscure, who has devoted himself to the public service, there will be found in the narrative of its events, faithfully and unreservedly told, some facts, some occurrences or adventures, useful and instructive to some, amusing (perhaps the contrary) to many others.
A. B.’s treatise on Turkish dress illustrates this point, as I felt I learned a lot and was highly amused, particularly by the sash and waltz.
As regards the Turkish costume I may, in my character as a physician, make one or two remarks in this part of my memoirs concerning it. I wore that costume a sufficient length of time to authorize me to express an opinion respecting its superiority over the modern European style of dress, whether with regard to health and the proper development of the human frame, or its suitable and decorous appearance. In each of these requisites the oriental costume indisputably bears away the palm of superiority. The surface of the human body in a state of complete civilization requires to be protected, both winter and summer, from the influence of capricious and frequent changes in the atmosphere by which it is surrounded. The covering should be proportioned to the degree of protection required, and should be uniform for the entire surface. It ought to be of ready and easy application, with few impediments and contrivances to occasion loss of time and temper. It should be free from all tight ligatures, whether partial or general, that tend to impede the free circulation of the blood. It should invest the whole person with becoming decency; lastly, it should not interfere with the free action of all the parts of the external organization. Now each and all of these requirements are attained with the Turkish costume. In five minutes after quitting your couch in the morning, and your general ablution performed, you may don it, and it is as quickly thrown off in the evening when you retire to rest. Every part of the body is uniformly covered. You may even dispense with an attendant to put the long wide sash or shawl round your waist, which is de rigueur; for if you fasten one end of it to the key of your bedroom door, and stretch the shawl to its full length by going towards the opposite wall, you may roll yourself neatly up in its folds, keeping the straight end tight in one hand while you waltz round on your return to the first end, which you then detach and tuck in at the waist. The operation used to occupy me one minute exactly.
From the Smithsonian Libraries Image Gallery.

I’ll admit there is some droning on, but I love the way A. B. can suddenly turn a phrase—you never know when it’s coming. In his early days he came to be a surgeon with the British Royal Navy, and there seems to be always some invasion or war going on, Napoleon playing no small part in this, and at one point A. B. is a member of a shipwrecked crew spending time stranded on an island off the coast of Portugal. This seems, at first, a little bleak, a tad dire, but –
I cannot adequately express, as I felt it on the occasion, the vivid satisfaction, nay more, the delightful feelings experienced when, on a sunny morning, and better still on the declining of the sun, with a round and blue canopy over my head, I stood erect on one of the loftiest pinnacles of this curious group of rocks, surveying the immense Atlantic, as smooth as the Lago Maggiore and as blue as the lake of Geneva, without one token of life but my own breathing.
And the odd bits of detail that get thrown in, like something wonderful you taste in a tossed salad but you have no idea what it is. In 1812 he is stationed in the Mediterranean, growing a bit bored, hoping to return to England, where he had begun making his home.
It was ultimately arranged, that as I was to be a principal witness in the intended court-martial on Lieutenant Donnellan, late of the Maidstone, and nephew to the well-known Captain Macnamara, who shot his opponent in a duel for insulting his dog, I might be sent home with him in the Impregnable, which was under orders to return to England.
Shot in a duel for insulting his dog?

A. B. writes of each stage of his life from Day One onward as if it were as important as the next and indeed important to the next. At one point, in reference to this, this progression of life, he quotes Seneca, in Latin, as he often throws in a little Latin, some Italian or French, he spoke all those languages as well as Spanish, some Portuguese and, of course, English. So some of what he writes, I have no idea what he’s saying. Still, as I suppose Seneca once said –
“Omnia certo tramine vadunt,
Primus que dies dedit extremum.”
And to quote Dr. Granville one last time (for today anyway):
Thus do we go on acquiring wisdom as we progress blundering through the world.