The Public Figure

In 1956 Macedonian poet Venko Markovski was imprisoned under a fictitious name for circulating a poem critical of Marshal Tito.

Among the guards were individuals who were taking correspondence courses in an attempt to earn a degree. One of these guards, knowing I was a writer, came up to me one day and said: ‘I was told you are a writer. You have knowledge of literature. I have a request …’

‘Please, what do you want to know about literature?’

‘Tell me about Macedonian literature.’

‘Whom are you interested in?’

‘Venko Markovski.’

‘Is it possible you don’t recognize Venko Markovski?’

‘I don’t know him.’

There was an unpleasant pause. I felt sorry for this man who was ordered to guard someone without knowing whom he was guarding. I spoke to him as follows:

‘The best way for you to learn about Venko Markovski is to read his poetry written in Croatian. In this way you will understand Markovski the poet, the Partisan, the public figure, and you will pass your exam easily. But if you rely on me to tell you about Venko Markovski, you will find yourself — after you fail your exam — in the very place where Markovski now finds himself.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ the guard asked. ‘Where is he in fact?’

‘Right in front of you, here on Goli Otok.’

‘Can it be that you are really he?’

‘Yes, I am here under another name.’

The guard walked away silent and confused.

“The warden obviously thought that since he had physical possession of his prisoners he disposed of their minds and souls as well,” Markovski wrote after gaining his freedom in 1961. “But he was mistaken; the body is one thing and the soul is another. There is no way to bribe the human conscience once it has committed itself to the struggle for the rights of its people.”

(From Geoffrey Bould, ed., Conscience Be My Guide: An Anthology of Prison Writings, 2005.)

Loss

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From C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, a collection of reflections on the loss of his wife, Joy, in 1960:

It is hard to have patience with people who say ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter. I look up at the night sky. Is anything more certain that in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch? She died. She is dead. Is the word so difficult to learn? …

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

He published it originally under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk, a pun on the Old English for “I know not what scholar.”

Literate Art

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Spanish artist Jaume Plensa created El Alma del Ebro, above, for a 2008 exposition in Zaragoza on water and sustainable development. (The Ebro River passes through the city.) Visitors can pass in and out of the 11-meter seated figure, but no one has discovered a meaning in the letters that compose it.

lehmann print

Argentine artist Pablo Lehmann cuts words out of (and into) paper and fabric — he spent two years fashioning an entire apartment out of his favorite philosophy books. Reading and Interpretation VIII, above, is a photographic print of Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” into which Lehmann has cut his own text — a meditation on “the concept of ‘text.'”

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 2011, Buenos Aires native Marta Minujin built a seven-story “Tower of Babel” on a public street to celebrate the city’s designation as a “world book capital.” The tower, 82 feet tall, was made of 30,000 books donated by readers, libraries, and 50 embassies. They were given away to the public after the exhibition.

Parrot Talk

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At his death in 1880, Gustave Flaubert left behind notes for a Dictionary of Received Ideas, a list of the trite utterances that people repeat inevitably in conversation:

  • accident: Always “regrettable” or “unlucky” — as if a mishap might sometimes be a cause for rejoicing.
  • Archimedes: On hearing his name, shout “Eureka!” Or else: “Give me a fulcrum and I will move the world.” There is also Archimedes’ screw, but you are not expected to know what that is.
  • bachelors: All self-centered, all rakes. Should be taxed. Headed for a lonely old age.
  • book: Always too long, regardless of subject.
  • classics: You are supposed to know all about them.
  • forehead: Wide and bald, a sign of genius, or of self-confidence.
  • funny: Should be used on all occasions: “How funny!”
  • gibberish: Foreigners’ way of talking. Always make fun of the foreigner who murders French.
  • handwriting: A neat hand leads to the top. Undecipherable: a sign of deep science, e.g. doctors’ prescriptions.
  • jury: Do everything you can to get off it.
  • metaphors: Always too many in poems. Always too many in anybody’s writing.
  • original: Make fun of everything that is original, hate it, beat it down, annihilate it if you can.
  • pillow: Never use a pillow: it will make you into a hunchback.
  • restaurant: You should order the dishes not usually served at home. When uncertain, look at what others around you are eating.
  • taste: “What is simple is always in good taste.” Always say this to a woman who apologizes for the inadequacy of her dress.
  • war: Thunder against.
  • young gentleman: Always sowing wild oats; he is expected to do so. Astonishment when he doesn’t.

“All our trouble,” he wrote to George Sand, “comes from our gigantic ignorance. … When shall we get over empty speculation and accepted ideas? What should be studied is believed without discussion. Instead of examining, people pontificate.”

(Thanks, Macari.)

Spotted

Ian Fleming never describes James Bond’s physical appearance in any detail, so in December 1962, before the release of the first Bond film, Dr. No, Playboy art director Arthur Paul sent an inquiry to his office. He received this reply:

Dear Mr. Paul,

As Mr. Fleming is away from London I sent him your letter and here now is his description of James Bond:

Height: 6 ft 1 in.
Build: Slim hips, broad shoulders
Eyes: Steely blue-grey
Hair: Black, with comma over right forehead
Weight: 12 stone 8 lb.
Age: Middle thirties

Features:

Determined chin, rather cruel mouth.
Scar down right cheek from cheekbone.
Cleanshaven

Apparel:

Wears two-button single-breasted suit in dark blue tropical worsted. Black leather belt.
White Sea Island cotton shirt, sleeveless.
Black casual shoes, square toed
Thin black knitted silk tie, no pin
Dark blue socks, cotton lisle.
No handkerchief in breast pocket
Wear Rolex Oyster Perpetual watch

I hope this information is sufficient for your purpose.

Yours sincerely,

[unsigned]

Secretary to Ian Fleming

From Henry Chancellor, James Bond: The Man and His World, 2005.

Grist

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A few adventures of Dashiell Hammett, who worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency before turning to fiction:

  • “I know a man who once stole a Ferris-wheel.”
  • “I was once engaged to discharge a woman’s housekeeper.”
  • “I was once falsely accused of perjury and had to perjure myself to escape arrest.”
  • “A man whom I was shadowing went out into the country for a walk one Sunday afternoon and lost his bearings completely. I had to direct him back to the city.”
  • “Three times I have been mistaken for a Prohibition agent, but never had any trouble clearing myself.”
  • “I know an operative who while looking for pickpockets at the Havre de Grace race track had his wallet stolen. He later became an official in an Eastern detective agency.”
  • “I know a detective who once attempted to disguise himself thoroughly. The first policeman he met took him into custody.”
  • “In 1917, in Washington, D.C., I met a young woman who did not remark that my work must be very interesting.”
  • “The chief of police of a Southern city once gave me a description of a man, complete even to a mole on his neck, but neglected to mention that he had only one arm.”

Interestingly, he notes that “the chief difference between the exceptionally knotty problem confronting the detective of fiction and that facing the real detective is that in the former there is usually a paucity of clues, and in the latter altogether too many.”

(“From the Memoirs of a Private Detective,” The Smart Set, March 1923.)

Something New

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The eminent tragedian [William Charles Macready] opened in Lear, our property-man received his plot for the play in the usual manner, a map being required among the many articles (map highly necessary for Lear to divide his kingdom). The property-man being illiterate, read ‘mop’ for ‘map.’ At night the tragedy commences; Macready in full state on his throne calls for his map, a ‘super’ noble, kneeling, presents the aging king a white curly mop. The astounded actor rushed off the stage, dragging the unfortunate nobleman and his mop with him, actors and audience wild with delight.

— Edmund Stirling, Old Drury Lane, 1881, quoted in Ralph Berry, ed., The Methuen Book of Shakespeare Anecdotes, 1992

Fluke Encounter

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How does Ahab find Moby-Dick? On more than 11 occasions in Melville’s novel we are given cardinal points, the accurate location of well-known cruising grounds, and changes in the ship’s direction as the Pequod follows a “zig-zag world-circle” in search of the great white whale. But we are never told how he hopes to find it, a task that seems flatly impossible.

In writing the book, Melville consulted maps, guidebooks, charts, and logbooks to lay out a route typical of a three-year whaling voyage. Ahab, as an experienced captain, might have known the migratory patterns of sperm whales, their feeding grounds, the ocean currents, and the locations of previous sightings. “But even with this seasoned knowledge, he is not guaranteed to track down an entire pod of whales, let alone one eccentric loner,” writes Eric Bulson in Novels, Maps, Modernity (2007).

Ishmael notes that “though Moby-Dick had in a former year been seen, for example, on what is called the Seychelle ground in the Indian ocean, or Volcano Bay on the Japanese coast; yet it did not follow, that were the Pequod to visit either of those spots at any subsequent corresponding season, she would infallibly encounter him there. … For as the secrets of the currents in the seas have never yet been divulged, even to the most erudite research; so the hidden ways of the Sperm Whale when beneath the surface remain, in great part, unaccountable to his pursuers.”

At one point Melville contends that the Pequod‘s circumnavigating route “would sweep almost all the known Sperm Whale cruising grounds of the world,” a conceit that the New York Albion called “more than sufficient motive” to justify the otherwise “intolerably absurd” idea of “a nautical Don Quixote chasing a particular fish from ocean to ocean.”

But even Ahab himself seems helpless in his task until the whale’s unexplained appearance at the novel’s end. In a dramatic address to the sun, he says, “Thou tellest me truly where I am — canst thou cast the least hint where I shall be? Or canst thou tell where some other thing besides me is this moment living? Where is Moby-Dick?”