Mar. 13, 2014


by Wendell Berry

I know I am getting old and I say so,
but I don't think of myself as an old man.
I think of myself as a young man
with unforeseen debilities. Time is neither
young nor old, but simply new, always
counting, the only apocalypse. And the clouds
—no mere measure or geometry, no cubism,
can account for clouds or, satisfactorily, for bodies.
There is no science for this, or art either.
Even the old body is new—who has known it
before?—and no sooner new than gone, to be
replaced by a body yet older and again new.
The clouds are rarely absent from our sky
over this humid valley, and there is a sycamore
that I watch as, growing on the riverbank,
it forecloses the horizon, like the years
of an old man. And you, who are as old
almost as I am, I love as I loved you
young, except that, old, I am astonished
at such a possibility, and am duly grateful.

"VII." by Wendell Berry from Leavings. © Counterpoint, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of American astronomer Percival Lowell (1855). Percival Lowell studied mathematics and history at Harvard, and he went to work in the family's textile conglomerate. He wasn't happy in Boston, though; he spent a good deal of time traveling, especially in the Orient, and writing about his travels. In the 1890s, he became fascinated with Mars; astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had discovered what appeared to be canals on the red planet. Lowell decided to devote his fortunes to studying Mars, believing that the canals offered proof of intelligent life, and so he built a private observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. Even though scientists remained skeptical, Lowell's vision of intelligent life on Mars captivated the public and had a huge impact on the infant literary genre that became known as science fiction.

It's the birthday of George Seferis (books by this author), born Giorgos Seferiades in Smyrna, Asia Minor (1900). In addition to a long and successful diplomatic career, Seferis was a celebrated Greek poet, writer, and translator, who was awarded the 1963 Nobel Prize in literature. His lyrical, narrative poetry, collected in Mythistorema (Mythical Narrative) (1935), Tetradio Gymnasmaton (Book of Exercises) (1940), and a series of Emerologio Katastromatos (Logbooks), encompassed the great history of Greece as well as its mythical literary legacy.

It was on this day in 1891 that Henrik Ibsen's play Ghosts opened on the London stage (books by this author). Ghosts was considered a controversial play because it included content about incest and sexually transmitted diseases, and Ibsen refused to give his audiences the happy endings they were used to. When it premiered in London, the play had already been banned in St. Petersburg on religious grounds.

Henrik Ibsen predicted the public's negative reaction to Ghosts. He wrote in 1882: "It may well be that the play is in several respects rather daring. But it seemed to me that the time had come for moving some boundary-posts. And this was an undertaking for which a man of the older generation, like myself, was better fitted for than the many younger authors who might desire to do something of the kind. I was prepared for a storm; but such storms one must not shrink from encountering."

Henrik Ibsen wrote in Act 2: "I almost think we're all of us Ghosts ... It's not only what we have invited from our father and mother that walks in us. It's all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we can't get rid of them. Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see Ghosts gliding between the lines. There must be Ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sand of the sea. And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light."

It's the birthday of journalist Janet Flanner (books by this author), born in Indianapolis (1892). Her first "Letter from Paris" appeared in The New Yorker in October of 1925, and she continued writing it for 50 years. It became a biweekly feature of the magazine in which she wrote about how public political news affected private lives. Without telling her, editor Harold Ross gave Flanner the penname Genêt, which he thought was the French name for Janet, but is actually a variant of the French word for female donkey.

She wrote slowly and painstakingly, spending four of five full 12-hour days on a 2,500-word letter. She said: "I keep going over a sentence. I nag it, gnaw it, pat and flatter it." Her letters were witty, elegant, and humorous, which suited well the New Yorker style. She also wrote many profiles, including ones of Hitler, Queen Mary of England, Isadora Duncan, Matisse, Picasso, Edith Wharton, and Dr. Thomas Mann, many of which were collected in An American in Paris: Profile of an Interlude Between Two Wars (1940). She wrote one novel, Cubical City (1926), published a few books of essays — including London Was Yesterday (1975) — and translated several French books into English.

She said, "I act as a sponge. I soak it up and squeeze it out in ink every two weeks."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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