Jul. 25, 2009

Miracle of Bubbles

by Barbara Goldberg

A woman drives to the video store
to rent a movie. It is Saturday night,
she is thinking of nothing in particular,
perhaps of how later she will pop popcorn
or hold hands with her husband and pretend
they are still in high school. On the way home
a plane drops from the sky, the wing shearing
her roof of her car, killing her instantly.
Here is a death, it could happen to any of us.
Her husband will struggle the rest of his days
to give shape to an event that does not mean
to be understood. Since memory cannot operate
without plot, he chooses the romantic — how young
she was, her lovely waist, or the ironic — if only
she had lost her keys, stopped for pizza.

At the precise moment the plane spiraled
out of control, he was lathering shampoo
into his daughter's hair, blond and fine
as cornsilk, in love with his life, his
daughter, the earth (for "cornsilk" is how
he thought of her hair), in love with the miracle
of bubbles, how they rise in a slow dance,
swell and shimmer in the steamy air, then
dissolve as though they never were.

"The Miracle of Bubbles" by Barbara Goldberg, from Cautionary Tales. © Dryad Press, 1990. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Nobel Prize-winning author Elias Canetti, (books by this author) born in Russe, Bulgaria (1905). He grew up a polyglot, speaking four languages by the time he was 10, and spent his life in exile.

Canetti's neighbors spoke Bulgarian, but his first language was Ladino, an antiquated form of Spanish spoken by exiled Sephardic Jews in Greece and the Balkans. It's what his parents spoke to him at home. But then when his parents wanted to be secretive and not be understood by any one else in the room, they spoke to each other in German. German was Canetti's third language, and the one that enchanted him the most. To him, German was the vehicle for conveying magical or secret knowledge; after all, that's what his parents had used it for. He chose German, his third tongue, as the language he'd write in, and he's now considered one of the great writers of modern German literature.

He spent parts of his childhood in England, Vienna, and Zurich. But then his father died, and his mother was worried that her son would get "soft," so she took him away from pleasant, neutral Zurich and into ravaged, war-torn Frankfurt, fresh from the devastation of World War I. His mother felt he should experience the harsh realities of the aftermath of war in Germany.

He later wrote, "I was reborn under my mother's influence to the German language, and the spasm of that birth produced the passion tying me to both the language and my mother. Without these two, basically one and the same, the further course of my life would have been senseless and incomprehensible." His mother also frowned upon his interest in literature, so he studied sciences and even did a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Vienna.

It was in Vienna, on July 15, 1927, that he experienced what he described as the "most crucial day" of his life. He was walking near the Palace of Justice that day, and angry demonstrators were out front protesting a verdict the court had just handed down. Canetti said, "I had become part of the crowd, I fully dissolved in it, I did not feel the slightest resistance to what the crowd was doing." The protesters set the Palace of Justice on fire, and the great building burned down. Canetti was a week and a half shy of his 22nd birthday.

He became obsessed with crowd mentality. He spent 30 years working on a single book about it, a sociological study that analyzed in scientific ways the psychology of mobs, interspersed with personal anecdotes and framed into a story-like historical narrative. This book, translated into English as Crowds and Power (1960), is one of his two masterpieces; the other is his novel Die Blendung (1935), translated into English in separate publications as The Tower of Babel and Auto-da-Fe.

He's considered one of the great intellectuals of the 20th century, and he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1981.

Elias Canetti said: "There is no such thing as an ugly language. Today I hear every language as if it were the only one, and when I hear of one that is dying, it overwhelms me as though it were the death of the earth."

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