2001-01-20 - 11:55 a.m.
A couple of days ago, I learned a new definition for "excelsior." I knew about "always upward" but had not known that it could also describe "long, thin wood shavings used for packing." A now archaic word, in that sense, what with starch and foam peanuts, recycled newsprint, grey lint and bubble wrap now the norm - but after all, the letter that sent me to the dictionary was written over thirty years ago: "The clock was marvelously packed, in a muff of excelsior."
The Element of Lavishness is so marvelously packed with such excerpts from the letters of William Maxwell (who reported the safe arrival of the clock) and Sylvia Townsend Warner. I have been bringing my copy to work all this week and losing myself in it during lunches and the waiting for my ride. It has proved to possess curative powers: on Tuesday, especially, I had been tight with annoyance and anger when I shoved my lists and stacks aside for book and bowl - but it's hard to stay coiled around one's own self-pity after absorbing passages like these:
[Warner:] I have always disliked Newman's Newman, the Apologia makes me grind my teeth. But I had the curiosity to read a new life of him, that takes him on into his career as a Roman Catholic; and his adversities were so ludicrous, and he bore them so handsomely; and the slights put upon him were so outrageous; and he took them with so much dignity and ease; and he lived among third rate minds and his own mind was enlarged by it; altogether, he turned from a trumpery little silk purse into a honest respectable pig's ear.
There's also the solace of perspective to be had from witnessing two old troupers carrying on. It reassures me that I will (someday) be able to return my attention to old loves when I read Maxwell's brave announcement to Warner:
I hardly know how to tell you and yet I feel that tell you I must: I am taking piano lessons. I have picked up where I left off, forty-two years ago. If I am I, which is certainly open to question.And then there's the spectacle of Maxwell's anguish over the results of another election. Earlier, he'd observed that "It is very strange--everybody whose brains or talent or principles I admire is for Adlai Stevenson, and everybody whose money I admire is for Eisenhower. Which outnumbers which is the thing." Plus ca change... I will say that what is going down in Washington today is very disagreeable to me indeed, but it is oddly consoling to realize that I'm not nearly as crushed as Maxwell seems to have been (make no mistake - I am very angry - but it's a cold, stubborn, manageable rage that I can channel):
I think we are in for four years of the human touch, and when I woke up this morning I thought I couldn't bear it. Really. It was like a traumatic shock. But hatred has been helpful. I got very drunk last night and used abusive language to a number of Republican ladies and one or two gentlemen. The waste of four years in the life of a great man is insupportable, and probably will have to be supported. I am not alarmed lest the General, on his much advertised trip to Korea, be killed by a passing shell, blessing us with Senator Nixon, because I think the General is an ignorant hypocritical bastard, and sufficiently worthy, in his own right, of loathing...The grasping, the ignorant, the simple minded are all complacent today.
Thirteen years later, Maxwell reflects on his uncharacteristic behavior:
I was so angry at the election of Eisenhower in 1952 that I went to a party up the road and simulated drunkenness in order to behave badly. The hostess was a Democrat who had voted for that old goat, and that was what I couldn't bear. I used gross language, I believe I brought the children to the head of the stairs to listen, and I was treated with such forbearance that I eventually shut up, because, after all, when your heart is broken you might as well.
To which Warner replied:
Oh, how I wish I had been at the party up the road where you simulated drunkenness in order to behave badly. It is a very strategic idea--so much better than just getting drunk when you would have had less control over your behaviour and might have been quite inoffensive.
Another recent diversion has been observing anew the hysteria that infects Tennesseans whenever snow is in the forecast. Toto, I don't think we're in Detroit anymore. It's a good thing I know how to bake bread (though we eat more rice and bulgur at my house anyway). Anyway, it is going to be a fine weekend chez mechaieh - the snow actually brightens the daylight coming into the house, which will make it a good day to tackle chores - and then tonight we've tickets for The Flying Karamazov Brothers, and tomorrow a pair of friends are coming over to celebrate Chinese New Year. So it's off now to washing and scrubbing and the anticipation of delight...
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