Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Charles Darwin = Travis Bickle, cut, stato d'animo

Last night I was walking down the hallway, and for no particular reason I grabbed The Autobiography of Charles Darwin off the shelf. Well, perhaps there was a reason: I had recently watched Master and Commander with a feverish teenager, and the scenes in the Galápagos Islands--shot, to my amazement, on location, with authentically freaky lizards and flightless cormorants--must have stuck in my head. I opened the Darwin to page 10, and found this recollection of the author's trigger-happy youth:
When at Cambridge I used to practice throwing up my gun to my shoulder before a looking glass to see that I threw it up straight. Another and better plan was to get a friend to wave about a lighted candle, and then to fire at it with a cap on the nipple, and if the aim was accurate the little puff of air would blow out the candle. The explosion of the cap caused a sharp crack, and I was told that the tutor of the college remarked, "What an extraordinary thing it is, Mr Darwin seems to spend hours in cracking a horse-whip in his room, for I often hear the crack when I pass under his windows."
As any musket geek will tell you, this Victorian Travis Bickle was firing his weapon with a percussion cap, but no ammunition. The nipple is a hollow metal passage at the rear of the barrel, through which the flame from the percussion cap would ordinarily travel and ignite the main powder charge. Sigh. Later in life, a disgusted Darwin gave up hunting. It wasn't the sight of blood that turned him off. It was the discovery of a small bird on the forest floor, which had been shot the day before and was now just barely hanging on. Hope was not the thing with feathers. Darwin, who loved nothing better than to gun down an entire posse of snipe in one go, resolved to hunt no more.

For me, on the other hand, the sight of blood is an ongoing problem. Two weeks ago, I gashed my right pinky while washing out a drinking glass. The glass was an old one, from the Fifties, and came apart very neatly into two sharp-edged fragments. I bled and bled, even as I applied pressure with dozens of paper towels and tried to quell my racing, wimpy heart. A phrase from one of Randall Jarrell's letters came to mind--he had cut his own finger, and exclaimed at the cheerful red color of the blood. Do I live so vicariously through books that I really needed to borrow my reaction from somebody else? Perhaps. (I just thumbed through Randall Jarrell's Letters, and couldn't find the passage: drat. But I was floored once again by his 1951 letters to Mary Von Schrader, who he would marry the following year. Such love! Such elation! A small blaze of wit and metaphor-making seems to be burning continuously in his head--maybe an inspirational flame was traveling through a nipple at the base of his hypothalamus. It's a self-portrait of a happy man. You don't encounter so many of them. Plus this penetrating sentence, which made me wonder about myself: "Really complete egotism is so hard on you because you feel that everybody else is, essentially is or should be, like you--so you're alone, really alone.")

Anyway, I applied pressure. The bloody towels accumulated in the wastebasket. Nina got me to sit down, dabbled an antibiotic ointment on the gash, then dressed the whole thing very professionally with gauze and tape. A subsequent trip to the doctor was anticlimactic: no sutures necessary, the cut would close on its own (and it has, there's a pink, innocent, V-shaped patch of skin on my finger.) For a few days, however, I wasn't allowed to get the dressing wet. I showered with a plastic bag wrapped around my right hand, which I held aloft at all times, resembling a cranky, hirsute Statue of Liberty. And for some reason this ridiculous image began to strike me as meaningful. Representative of my stato d'animo. What was I doing? What did it all mean? I lift my lamp beside the golden door--also beside the perpetually stopped-up drain, which my 84-year-old father insisted on plunging the other week, in a nostalgic nod to his youthful stint as a plumber's assistant.

Since everybody may not care to have that image stuck in their heads for the rest of the day, I'll leave you with another. I already posted my micro-speech from the NBCC anniversary bash back in November. I just discovered that the video is now available, so I'll share it below. The audio is out of synch. At one point I have five o'clock shadow, then it disappears, in an eerie time-lapse effect, and I'll admit that the dime-store reading glasses are not flattering. Whatever. I had fun. At 1:06 you can see John Ashbery in the front row, wearing a jacket and tie:

James Marcus at NBCC's 35th from NBCC on Vimeo.

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