Monday

Aug. 18, 2014

The Cabbages of Chekhov

by Robert Bly

Some gamblers abandon carefully built houses
In order to live near water. It's all right. One day
On the river is worth a thousand nights on land.

It is our attraction to ruin that saves us;
And disaster, friends, brings us health. Chekhov
Shocks the heavens with his dark cabbages.

William Blake knew that fierce old man,
Irritable, chained and majestic, who bends over
To measure with his calipers the ruin of the world.

It takes so little to make me happy tonight!
Four hours of singing will do it, if we remember
How much of our life is a ruin, and agree to that.

Butterflies spend all afternoon concentrating
On the buddleia bush; human beings take in
The fragrance of a thousand nights of ruin.

We planted fields of sorrow near the Tigris.
The Harvesters will come in at the end of time
And tell us that the crop of ruin has been great.

"The Cabbages of Chekhov" by Robert Bly, from The Night Abraham Called to the Stars. © Harper Collins, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of French virologist Luc Montagnier (1932). He was born near Tours and became interested in science at a young age, due to the influence of his father; Montagnier Senior was an accountant by trade, but he had a makeshift laboratory set up in the basement, where he would conduct amateur experiments. When Luc Montagnier's grandfather died after a long battle with colon cancer, the boy decided to pursue a medical career.

In the 1960s and '70s, he became interested in a possible link between retroviruses and cancer. When the AIDS epidemic began to receive wide attention in the early 1980s, he applied his retrovirus research to a search for the cause of the syndrome. Along with his colleagues, he isolated a virus that was present in patients with a pre-AIDS condition of persistent swollen lymph nodes; they called it LAV: lymphadenopathy-associated virus. It was later renamed HIV, human immunodeficiency virus, and once they had isolated the virus, they could develop a test for it, which they did. Montagnier and his colleagues were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2008.

On this date in 1958, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita was published in the United States (books by this author). First released in France in 1955 by a publisher that specialized in erotica, the story of middle-aged Humbert Humbert and his obsession with his landlady's 12-year-old daughter was met with mixed reviews. Graham Greene named it one of the best books of 1955; E.M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, and Edmund Wilson disagreed. A contemporary New York Times review pleaded with readers to ignore the word-of-mouth and keep an open mind: "He is not writing for the ardent and simple-minded civil-libertarian any more than he is writing for the private libertine; he is writing for readers, and those who can read him simply will be well rewarded." The Los Angeles Times reviewer wrote, "Lolita is a small masterpiece, an almost perfect comic novel, a rare thing in these days when we have lost sight of the purgative and pleasurable effects of comedy and when tragedy has become the small and poverty-stricken province of southern effetes and New England housewives." The National Review was more critical of modern society than it was of the book: "Lolita, in the context of the reception it has been given, remains nevertheless a savage indictment of an age that can see itself epitomized in such horror and run to fawn upon the horror as beauty, delicacy, understanding."

On the other side of the debate, Kingsley Amis wrote in The Spectator: "There comes a point where the atrophy of moral sense, evident throughout this book, finally leads to dullness, fatuity and unreality (...) The only success of the book is in the portrait of Lolita herself." And the Village Voice's reviewer wrote: "Three hundred pages of sex in the head. A good number of them funny pages, I admit. Even delicately Joycean. But too many, and too much."

In the novel's postscript, Nabokov attempts to explain why he wrote Lolita: because he had to. "Once or twice," he writes, "I was on the point of burning the unfinished draft ... when I was stopped by the thought that the ghost of the destroyed book would haunt my files for the rest of my life."

On this date in 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote. There had been strong opposition to woman suffrage since before the Constitution was drafted in the first place; people (mostly men) believed that women should not vote or hold office because they needed to be protected from the sordid world of politics. Abigail Adams asked her husband, John, to "remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors," but to no avail. A more organized woman suffrage movement arose in the 19th century, hand in hand with the abolitionist movement, and in July 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized a women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Stanton drafted a Declaration of Sentiments, modeled after the Declaration of Independence, demanding the right of women to have an equal say in their government if they were to be bound by its laws; attendees — women and men — signed the Declaration of Sentiments to show their support, although some later asked that their names be removed when they experienced the media backlash.

In the latter half of the 19th century, states began gradually loosening restrictions on voting rights for women. Wyoming was the first state to grant women the full right to vote, which it did when it gained statehood in 1890. The first national constitutional amendment was proposed in Congress in 1878, and in every Congress session after that. Finally, in 1919, it narrowly passed both houses of Congress and was sent to the states to be ratified. Most Southern states opposed the amendment, and on August 18, 1920, it all came down to Tennessee. The pro-amendment faction wore yellow roses in their lapels, and the "anti" faction wore red American Beauty roses. It was a close battle and the state legislature was tied 48 to 48. The decision came down to one vote: that of 24-year-old Harry Burn, the youngest state legislator. Proudly sporting a red rose, he cast his vote ... in favor of ratification. He had been expected to vote against it, but he had in his pocket a note from his mother, which read: "Dear Son: Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don't keep them in doubt. I noticed some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don't forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the 'rat' in ratification. Your Mother."

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