Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Of Numbers and Nicfits

So I'm abstaining from cigarettes again; so far, successfully. This has been day five.

Problem: over the last few years my smoking habit has so thoroughly integrated itself with my writing habit that when I stop smoking, I stop writing. I can usually pull myself back together after a week or two, but for the time being sitting down to write just makes me think of cigarettes (AND HOW MUCH I WANT THEM), and so I'm too preoccupied to string cogent thoughts together.

In the interim I'm keeping the muscles in my brain active with math. Between my torrid love/hate relationship with calculus, some of the stuff I've been reading lately, and my ongoing casual fling with astronomy (though our trysts have lately been much less frequent than I'd like), I've got numbers on my nicotine-starved brain.

How the hell did this happen?

A couple of years ago I began playing with math again during my initial foray into astronomy following the my arrival at an existential crossroads via Final Fantasy XIII. The Astronomy Today textbook gave me problems to solve; I had to remember how to do algebra and geometry again in order to get the correct answers.

Eventually I hit a point where I realized I'd have to at least acquaint myself with more advanced mathematics if I intended to get any sort of grasp on the physics upon which astronomy is founded; so then I began screwing around with a calculus textbook I inherited. The book is still open and I'm still slogging through the massive chapter on derivatives.

It's hard as hell. I was never much good at math, and it's taken me months to cover what probably would have occupied only a few weeks in a university-level course. But I keep coming back to it. And what's scary is that I think I'm learning to love math for its own sake.

I don't know why. That's the funny thing. There's something about it -- about pure mathematics, the Queen of the Sciences (as Gauss called it) -- that's so elegant and perfect, but I can't pin it down without resorting to the same old platitudes. For instance: as a writer, whose art deals with the subjective, ambiguous, and imperfect, it's an alluringly exotic and satisfying thing to handle material for which is a clear solution, only one correct way. But that's a cliché. And however true it might be, it fails to penetrate the surface of the matter.

There's that notion that mathematics are a kind of cipher for the inarticulate "language" of existence. But here we have another cliché, and one that's too opaque. It could certainly be reduced to more fundamental terms, but I'll be damned if I know how that's done.

It is both frustrating and exquisitely fitting that my efforts to collocate my admiration and astonishment at mathematics' precision are so effectively stymied by the imprecision of my intellectual vocabulary.

When I was a senior in high school, a year or two after deciding that writing was something I wanted to pursue come famine or flood, I was driving down route 24 one afternoon. The person driving the car in front of me stuck his arm out the window and dropped a styrofoam Dunkin' Donuts cup. For about half a second the object seemed to move in slow motion, as through across the pages of a flip book. I decided then that the day I could appropriately call myself a writer would be when I was proficient to describe precisely how that cup bounced, spun, teetered, and rolled on the asphalt in such a way that a reader would know exactly and unambiguously what I saw.

Today I believe that this is impossible to do in any language other than mathematics -- not that I would know how, mind you. And even if I were capable of expressing the cup's motion as a series of functions (would functions even apply??), I imagine it would be far too difficult a read for most audiences. (Of course, this holds true for a lot of excellent writing.)

I feel I need to learn much, much more about mathematics. But as I type this I'm looking at the telescope in the corner and figuring that the astronomy textbook I've been using (and neglecting) is on track to becoming obsolete. And I'm thinking again about why I'm so floored by mathematics and wondering what is mathematics, what precisely is it, and accepting that it's not something I'll be able to answer without poring for months over philosophy texts. GOD DAMN IT THERE'S JUST TOO MUCH I DON'T KNOW.

It's a demoniac fact of human existence that ignorance, ultimately, is as settled a matter and inescapable as death.

Guess you can either learn to accept it or take up smoking.

(Yes, it's a binary choice.)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

rusty chain word write

Still alive. Pushed myself a bit hard last week. Got sick. Took a few days off and didn’t write anything, didn’t think about anything, didn’t do anything productive. Didn’t have any thoughts worth blogging about. Still don’t.

Picking up a pen (or sitting at a keyboard) again after a quiescent period is like riding a bike -- a bike whose chain has rusted and fused since you threw it under that tarp out back. It’ll be a few days until I’m ready to roll again.

So what comes next?

One problem with my new digs is that I don’t get wireless in my room. I can’t get online unless I pick myself up, unplug the laptop, and take it downstairs. The drawbacks are obvious: I can’t fall asleep listening to white noise or rain, watch MST3K, or hang out with the Socks crew on turntable.fm. But the inconvenience (like most) has been a blessing in disguise. When I have to deliberately relocate myself and my computer in order to get online, I’m much, much less likely to compulsively check my email and Twitter or spend forty minutes looking at silly things on YouTube just because I can. I’m reading more books. I’m interacting with the local human population more often. I don't hear about the election or pop music anymore, and so I rarely have to think about either.

Simultaneously: I don’t have a personal computer in the library where I spend most of my time. (My bosses transplanted me from my old office into the library office without realizing there’s no Ethernet jack. Whoops!) I can use the public computers, but these are often in use and there are always people coming and going, looking over my shoulder. As a result, I’m taking fewer (and shorter) Internet breaks. When I don’t have much to do (or am feeling lazy or groggy in the morning), I procrastinate by flipping through books instead. Not that I never had fun reloading Twitter on company time, but this is somehow more satisfying.

For most human beings, spending less time soldered to a screen would probably be an unblemished boon. I’m not surfing the web, I’m living my life. I am not a gadget. My Facebook profile is not my identity. I’M A HUMAN BEING, GOD DAMN IT. MY LIFE HAS VALUE. Etc., etc., etc….

For a wannabe writer who understands that uncirculating, inaccessible information is information that does not exist, this change in my habits inspires some concern.

I should be registering accounts on popular message boards, ingratiating myself to the local population so my comic/blog plug will be well-received. I should be adding more books to my Goodreads page. I should join Reddit and actively haunt /writing. I should post chapters of The Zeroes on Wattpad. I should be following and shooting @s to well-established writers on Twitter. I should be sucking up to more literature bloggers.

Promoting your work is just as time-consuming and tiring as producing work.

And I’m still much more interested in writing than networking. This is why my novels will never appear in bookstores. (also, they offend people who review books.) Fuck.

But what am I writing next, I wonder?

In the past couple of months I’ve written a novella and a short story. I probably have another couple of short stories in me. What I should really do is revise and finalize the short novel I finished last April so I can begin the process of trading personalized pitches to literary agents in exchange for impersonal rejection slips. And what I really, really need to do is finish one of the two unfinished novels I have sitting around, but just thinking about it makes me dizzy and weak.

Orwell once said:

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

But it’s gonna have to happen.

Today I smoked one cigarette -- the last one in the pack.

Cigarettes don’t fill the void. Cigarettes create the void. is what I’m telling myself. Let’s see how many days it is before I go out and buy more.

Borrowing a really nice Meade telescope from a co-worker on the condition that I give his daughters an exhibition at some point. Probably going to wait another couple of months so I can show them the Orion Nebula at a reasonable hour. But it resolves the moon's surface very nicely, and magnifies Jupiter enough to render the cloud bands (although just barely). When it gets colder and clearer (as I’m hoping it will), I’m hankering to try hunting down the Crab Nebula and the Triangulum Galaxy -- two Messier objects that have consistently eluded my binoculars.

Rusty chain. Bear with me, please.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Optimist and Two Pessimists

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.

-- Winston Churchill, as parroted by the stupid "Daily Words of Wisdom" toy on my boss's desk.

I never liked this aphorism. While it probably isn't untrue in and of itself, it and the reality it implies seem mendaciously oversimplified to me.

Why praise the optimist for seeing things one way and scold the pessimist for seeing things differently? A person's perceptions only matter inasmuch as how they inform how he acts.

The person who notices the silver lining isn't necessarily going to be a happy and successful go-getter as Churchill connotes. And the person who sees the cloud might not be a morose layabout.

Churchill presumes the pessimist's tendency to expect an undesirable outcome will paralyze him, inhibit him from running for the door when opportunity comes a-knocking. It very well could -- but the same logic, we can surmise that the optimist will commit himself too quickly, too eagerly. He'll be the guy who invests all his money in a tech start-up that never breaks even; the kid who doesn't do his homework because he's sure of a snow day, but gets a flurry instead of a blizzard.

Success is always sweeter when you were anticipating failure. And defeat is always more bitter when you took victory as an assurance.

The optimistic writer receiving a hundred rejection slips for his screenplay is likely to feel the blow more acutely than the pessimist, who expected as much anyway. When he finds out he didn't get the job after all, the optimist is crushed. The pessimist stopped thinking about it a week ago and has been sending out more resumes.

What irks me is the fat man's suggestion that seeing the difficulty in an opportunity is failing. Since when is foresight undesirable?

More than the optimist, the pessimist can be expected to have a backup plan. When he embarks on a course of action, he's anticipating speed bumps, roadblocks, and detours. That usually means he's planning and preparing for them.

The pessimist is a fellow more likely to be carrying an umbrella during the rainy afternoon following a cloudless morning. The pessimist keeps a spare tire. The pessimist's heart is less apt to be broken because he's more cautious about placing it in someone else's hands. The pessimist isn't baffled when the protest march fails to change the world or make history. The pessimist understands the tendency of plans to go awry, the persistent difficulty of achieving a desirable (let alone ideal) outcome from any endeavor, and that things seeming too good to be true usually aren't true.

In this world, optimists are apt to be disappointed. And when you're expecting to find gold at the end of the rainbow and end up with the contents of a leprechaun's chamber pot, you'll probably think twice about following the next one.

It is true that many pessimists are former optimists. I suspect it would be a universal and inevitable transition were it not for the fact that some people truly are lucky and others have no sense of pattern recognition.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of pessimists.

One is the sort who expects that things will go wrong and people will disappoint him, and then takes pleasure when he's proven correct. I kept saying that people suck, everything sucks, and you see I was right. Hah.

This kind of pessimist is called an "asshole." It's probably the kind Mr. Churchill had in mind. And I would think a high percentage of the most insufferable assholes are former optimists who failed one too many times to temper their expectations. Ain't no one more bitter than a burned idealist.

The other kind of pessimist believes that things will go wrong and people will disappoint him. But he commits to them anyway, and rightly doesn't view the outcome he expects as the desirable one.

He deposits a can in the recycling bin and then watches it gets thrown into the same dumpster as the rest of the garbage. He asks out the woman for whom he's harbored a crush for years, and he gets turned down. He quits his job at the cannery in order to follow his dream -- open a restaurant, record a folk album, pursue a career in standup comedy -- and he doesn't make it, he loses all his money, and ends up back at the cannery after three years, older and a few grand deeper in debt.

But at least he was true to himself. At least he answered the call. And whereas the optimist who never doubted he was ordained for the golden one in a million may well be wrecked, the pessimist who hoped for success while anticipating failure will put on the wipers and keep on truckin'.

Because the wise pessimist knows that the right thing to do, the things he ought to do aren't easy and will probably backfire, but he does them anyway.

This sort of pessimist acts like an unburned optimist. He sees the difficulty in opportunity, but says oh what the hell and runs after it anyway -- albeit with some prudent reservation, and with an eye for pitfalls that the callow optimist often lacks. He appreciates what it means to side with the angels in a world run by demons. He understands that survival is necessarily a upstream swim, and the current is a strong one. He is gentle with others because he knows how flawed and fucked up people generally are, and can't hold it against them because he himself is a flawed and fucked up person.

I'm not sure of the term for this stripe of pessimist.

The word "idiot" comes to mind.

The world could probably use a couple more idiots.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Let's Read Pierre: Books XXIV - XXVI

Pierre lies arbored in ebon vines, and we have finally arrived at The End.

Those who stopped reading out of frustration for the novel's slothlike pace might be interested to know that it does gain momentum halfway through and continues accelerating. Problem is, the final chapters speed by almost too fast. The tension between the bizarre Pierre/Lucy/Isabel triangle doesn't have much time to simmer; Pierre is given little opportunity to mull over and soliloquize about Isabel and his fresh doubts regarding her origins; the situation with Cousin Glen barely conveys a sense of real menace before Pierre up and guns him down.

Actually, that last one works out rather well. The fact that Pierre just puts down his cousin's nasty letter, finds a couple of guns, and goes out looking for the jerk with hardly any reflection or deliberation at all demonstrates just how low our hero has been brought. He's snapped. He's angry at the world and his asshole cousin is good a scapegoat as any to take it out on. (If this were a novel written and set in a period with modern automatic weapons, Pierre would probably just start spraying bullets into everyone standing around Glen as well.)

"'Tis speechless sweet to murder thee!" is such a perfect line for an execution. I hope that anyone reading immediately flipped back to the first page of the book, as I did, to measure the depth of Pierre's plummet.

In these final chapters we also see the last of Pierre at his purgatorial writing desk. Melville's personal anguish is now, with no possibility for doubt, on full display.

Meantime Pierre was still going on with his book; every moment becoming still the more sensible of the intensely inauspicious circumstances of all sorts under which that labor was proceeding. And as the now advancing and concentring enterprise demanded more and more compacted vigor from him, he felt that he was having less and less to bring to it. For not only was it the signal misery of Pierre, to be invisibly -- though but accidentally -- goaded, in the hour of mental immaturity, to the attempt at a mature work, -- a circumstance sufficiently lamentable in itself; but also, in the hour of his clamorous pennilessness, he was additionally goaded into an enterprise long and protracted in the execution, and of all things least calculated for pecuniary profit in the end. How these things were so, whence they originated, might be thoroughly and very beneficially explained; but space and time here forbid.

At length, domestic matters -- rent and bread -- had come to such a pass with him, that whether or no, the first pages must go to the printer; and thus was added still another tribulation; because the printed pages now dictated to the following manuscript, and said to all subsequent thoughts and inventions of Pierre -- Thus and thus; so and so; else an ill match. Therefore, was his book already limited, bound over, and committed to imperfection, even before it had come to any confirmed form or conclusion at all. Oh, who shall reveal the horrors of poverty in authorship that is high? While the silly Millthorpe was railing against his delay of a few weeks and months; how bitterly did unreplying Pierre feel in his heart, that to most of the great works of humanity, their authors had given, not weeks and months, not years and years, but their wholly surrendered and dedicated lives. On either hand clung to by a girl who would have laid down her life for him; Pierre, nevertheless, in his deepest, highest part, was utterly without sympathy from any thing divine, human, brute, or vegetable. One in a city of hundreds of thousands of human beings, Pierre was solitary as at the Pole.

Melville acknowledges the novel's incongruities and apologizes for them, but he's also explaining himself. He wrote this the year after Moby Dick. Just one year later. Maybe Shakespeare could bang out masterpiece after masterpiece in his best years -- but Shakespeare was arguably a mutant of a more evolved strain than Melville, and his plays were much shorter than Melville's novels, besides. (Hamlet runs a little over 30,000 words, and is a rather long play. Pierre is five times that length, totaling something like 150,000 words.) It's much easier to shape a piece within the confines of a comprehensive vision when it's on the small side -- and when the exigencies of a breadwinner role aren't forcing you to rush the thing out the door.

If you're ever reading an S-tier literary masterpiece, it probably wasn't the result of a panicked rush job by an exasperated author at the end of his rope.

Melville was all too painfully aware of Pierre's shortcomings, but he couldn't do anything about it. He couldn't go back and change the beginning to better suit the shape taken by the end because he didn't have time. He had debts to pay, and this bizarre, imperfect, disturbing book was his only means of settling them.

The first two thirds of Pierre are an homage to Hamlet, but during the final third it shifts toward King Lear. This isn't about a prince's dilemmas and resolutions anymore. Now it's about bad things happening to good people. Now it's about the world beating down and deforming a noble soul with all the appearance of deliberate malice. Now it's about nothing working out for anybody. Now it's about the wanton gods killing Pierre and friends for their sport.

Toward the end of the Pierre's "Hamlet" section of the book, the Plinlimmon pamphlet acts as a sort of condensed, allegorical take on the plot. After the plot changes course, Melville uses the Enceladus hallucination to sum up the new state of things:

Nor did Pierre's random knowledge of the ancient fables fail still further to elucidate the vision which so strangely had supplied a tongue to muteness. But that elucidation was most repulsively fateful and foreboding; possibly because Pierre did not leap the final barrier of gloom; possibly because Pierre did not willfully wrest some final comfort from the fable; did not flog this stubborn rock as Moses his, and force even aridity itself to quench his painful thirst.

Thus smitten, the Mount of Titans seems to yield this following stream: --

Old Titan's self was the son of incestuous Coelus and Terra, the son of incestuous Heaven and Earth. And Titan married his mother Terra, another and accumulatively incestuous match. And thereof Enceladus was one issue. So Enceladus was both the son and grandson of an incest; and even thus, there had been born from the organic blended heavenliness and earthliness of Pierre, another mixed, uncertain, heaven-aspiring, but still not wholly earth-emancipated mood; which again, by its terrestrial taint held down to its terrestrial mother, generated there the present doubly incestuous Enceladus within him; so that the present mood of Pierre -- that reckless sky-assaulting mood of his, was nevertheless on one side the grandson of the sky. For it is according to eternal fitness, that the precipitated Titan should still seek to regain his paternal birthright even by fierce escalade. Wherefore whoso storms the sky gives best proof he came from thither! But whatso crawls contented in the moat before that crystal fort, shows it was born within that slime, and there forever will abide.

I have to read this as Melville licking the wounds in his soul -- or a very poetic act of self-flagellation. Either way, you're bogged in the filth and mud of the world. If you've got a noble spirit, well, sucks to be you: all you'll do is make things worse for yourself, and by your own nominal choice.

There is a difference between the gist of this and of the Plinlimmon tract. "Chronometricals and Horologicals" is a sort of cheat sheet for understanding the protagonist's tragic situation. The Enceladus digression is about Melville's own foundations cracking under his thwarted ambitions, all projected onto Pierre.

I can't be certain I'm not plagiarizing Mr. Sedgwick, but I'd like to think the thought would have occurred to me anyway: what's most striking about Pierre's end is its absence of tragic grandeur. Hamlet went out having bested Laertes, taken out Claudius, and avenged his father. Timon manages poetical justice in death, making vast Neptune weep for aye on his low grave, on faults forgiven (partial quote). Ahab and the Pequod go down like Lucifer, although in torrents rather than flames.

Pierre commits suicide in ignominy and obscurity after failing completely at what he set out to do, which might have actually been done for nothing.

About that...

The real sand in the eye here comes from the revelation regarding Isabel. Should we even call it a revelation? It might more fairly be called a rethinking. Much earlier, savvy reader Ivan pointed out that Pierre accepted Isabel’s claims without the least incredulity. Now, the dispirited but wiser Pierre finds some reason to doubt that Isabel is truly his sister -- or at least to back up and reexamine the evidence he accepted as verification of her claims.

“Ambiguities” indeed. Maybe Isabel is Pierre’s sister; in which case the well-meaning brother gives his best shot to a right and true cause. And maybe is Isabel is just some confused orphan with no relation to the Glendinning family, and the whole drama was actually a magnificently sick cosmic joke.

To use one final analogy from Hamlet, this would be comparable to Hamlet’s discovering – after he's been poisoned by Laertes’s rapier, but before he takes out Claudius -- that the joking gravedigger sometimes likes to get loaded, dress up like a ghost, and go outside after dark to fuck with people's heads. It would admit the possibility that his enterprise of great pith and moment was all for nothing. Worse than nothing: it would have made him the undisputed villain of the story. As it is, Hamlet comes out responsible (directly or indirectly) for a pile of mostly innocent corpses, but at the last avenges a regicide that would have otherwise gone unpunished. Whether or not the ends justified the means is up for debate.

Pierre’s momentous choice sets off a succession of events and subsequent decisions leading to the deaths of Mary, Lucy, Isabel, Glen, and himself. If it was all for the sake of his sister’s honor, well – good intentions and the service to a just and true cause paved another road to hell. But if Isabel isn’t his sister...

What a frightful thought.

When a lot of people use the word "ironic," what they actually mean is something more like "ain't that some shit."

Lucy's reappearance. Ain't that some shit?

She sacrifices her honor and her well-being for her beloved Pierre's sake as earnestly as Pierre sacrificed his honor and well-being for his beloved Isabel's sake. She and Pierre truly deserve each other, don't they?

Too bad that weirdo Isabel is in the way now.

In the end, what are we to think of Isabel?

Melville, as we know, relishes metaphor, allegory, and symbolism. This is a drama carried out between walking, talking archetypes. We have Pierre the tragic prince, Mary the vain queen, Lucy the angel, Glen the spiteful rival, and so on. But in the equation of Pierre, what does Isabel quantify?

"Bad angel" and "dark lady" are not satisfactory answers. She's something more anomalous than that -- but I certainly can't guess what. And there's another ambiguity. Isabel the ambiguity.

What is ironic are Isabel's last words. "All o'er, and ye know him not!" Spoken about someone whom the reader knows pretty bloody well by now, and spoken by somebody who will always remain a mystery.

And the rest is silence!

That's it for Pierre. Thanks again for joining me if you've been reading along, and for bearing with me if you haven't. We'll be returning to our regularly-scheduled, haphazard content next week. After this, I think I need to read a cheerier and more contemporary novel. I'm thinking The Monkey Wrench Gang, maybe...?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

After failing as a writer, Herman Melville writes about failing as a writer (Pierre supplement)

Finished Pierre last night. And then I took a cold shower. What a bizarre, dark, disheartening book.

What I have for you today are two short stories written by Herman Melville and published anonymously by Harper's in 1854 (two years after Pierre). Taken with the understanding of Melville's circumstances after Pierre ruined his literary career and his aspirations, it's not hard to conjecture what he's getting at with these. It is, however, difficult to be sure. Are these efforts at self-consolation or reflections of a genuine change in his attitude?

*               *              *

The Fiddler

So my poem is damned, and immortal fame is not for me! I am nobody forever and ever. Intolerable fate!

Snatching my hat, I dashed down the criticism, and rushed out into Broadway, where enthusiastic throngs were crowding to a circus in a side-street near by, very recently started, and famous for a capital clown.

Presently my old friend Standard rather boisterously accosted me.

"Well met, Helmstone, my boy! Ah! what's the matter? Haven't been committing murder? Ain't flying justice? You look wild!"

"You have seen it then?" said I, of course referring to the critism.

"Oh yes; I was there at the morning performance. Great clown, I assure you. But here comes Hautboy. Hautboy——Helmstone."

Without having time or inclination to resent so mortifying a mistake, I was instantly soothed as I gazed on the face of the new acquaintance so unceremoniously introduced. His person was short and full, with a juvenile, animated cast to it. His complexion rurally ruddy; his eye sincere, cheery, and gray. His hair alone betrayed that he was not an overgrown boy. From his hair I set him down as forty or more.

"Come, Standard," he gleefully cried to my friend, "are you not going to the circus? The clown is inimitable, they say. Come; Mr. Helmstone, too——come both; and circus over, we'll take a nice stew and punch at Taylor's."

The sterling content, good humor, and extraordinary ruddy, sincere expression of this most singular new acquaintance acted upon me like magic. It seemed mere loyalty to human nature to accept an invitation from so unmistakably kind and honest a heart.

During the circus performance I kept my eye more on Hautboy than on the celebrated clown. Hautboy was the sight for me. Such genuine enjoyment as his struck me to the soul with a sense of the reality of the thing called happiness. The jokes of the clown he seemed to roll under his tongue as ripe magnum bonums. Now the foot, now the hand, was employed to attest his grateful applause. At any hit more than ordinary, he turned upon Standard and me to see if his rare pleasure was shared. In a man of forty I saw a boy of twelve; and this too without the slightest abatement of my respect. Because all was so honest and natural, every expression and attitude so graceful with genuine good-nature, that the marvelous juvenility of Hautboy assumed a sort of divine and immortal air, like that of some forever youthful god of Greece.

But much as I gazed upon Hautboy, and as much as I admired his air, yet that desperate mood in which I had first rushed from the house had not so entirely departed as not to molest me with momentary returns. But from these relapses I would rouse myself, and swiftly glance round the broad amphitheatre of eagerly interested and all-applauding human faces. Hark! claps, thumps, deafening huzzas; the vast assembly seemed frantic, with acclamation; and what, mused I, has caused all this? Why, the clown only comically grinned with one of his extra grins.

Then I repeated in my mind that sublime passage in my poem, in which Cleothemes the Argive vindicates the justice of the war. Aye, aye, thought I to myself, did I now leap into the ring there, and repeat that identical passage, nay, enact the whole tragic poem before them, would they applaud the poet as they applaud the clown? No! They would hoot me, and call me doting or mad. Then what does this prove? Your infatuation or their insensibility? Perhaps both; but indubitably the first. But why wail? Do you seek admiration from the admirers of a buffoon? Call to mind the saying of the Athenian, who when the people vociferously applauded in the forum, asked his friend in a whisper, what foolish thing had he said?

Again my eye swept the circus, and fell on the ruddy radiance of the countenance of Hautboy. But its clear honest cheeriness disdained my disdain. My intolerant pride was rebuked. And yet Hautboy dreamed not what magic reproof to a soul like mine sat on his laughing brow. At the very instant I felt the dart of the censure, his eye twinkled, his hand waved, his voice was lifted in jubilant delight at another joke of the inexhaustible clown.

Circus over, we went to Taylor's. Among crowds of others, we sat down to our stews and punches at one of the small marble tables. Hautboy sat opposite to me. Though greatly subdued from its former hilarity, his face still shone with gladness. But added to this was a quality not so prominent before: a certain serene expression of leisurely, deep good sense. Good sense and good humor in him joined hands. As the conversation proceeded between the brisk Standard and him——for I said little or nothing——I was more and more struck with the excellent judgment he evinced. In most of his remarks upon a variety of topics Hautboy seemed intuitively to hit the exact line between enthusiasm and apathy. It was plain that while Hautboy saw the world pretty much as it was, yet he did not theoretically espouse its bright side nor its dark side. Rejecting all solutions, he but acknowledged facts. What was sad in the world he did not superficially gainsay; what was glad in it he ! did not cynically slur; and all which was to him personally enjoyable, he gratefully took to his heart. It was plain, then——so it seemed at that moment, at least——that his extraordinary cheerfulness did not arise either from deficiency of feeling or thought.

Suddenly remembering an engagement, he took up his hat, bowed pleasantly, and left us.

"Well, Helmstone," said Standard, inaudibly drumming on the slab, "what do you think of your new acquaintance?"

The two last words tingled with a peculiar and novel significance.

"New acquaintance indeed," echoed I. "Standard, I owe you a thousand thanks for introducing me to one of the most singular men I have ever seen. It needed the optical sight of such a man to believe in the possibility of his existence."

"You rather like him, then," said Standard, with ironical dryness.

"I hugely love and admire him, Standard. I wish I were Hautboy."

"Ah? That's a pity, now. There's only one Hautboy in the world."

This last remark set me to pondering again, and somehow it revived my dark mood.

"His wonderful cheerfulness, I suppose," said I, sneering with spleen, "originates not less in a felicitous fortune than in a felicitous temper. His great good sense is apparent; but great good sense may exist without sublime endowments. Nay, I take it, in certain cases, that good sense is simply owing to the absence of those. Much more, cheerfulness. Unpossessed of genius, Hautboy is eternally blessed.

"Ah? You would not think him an extraordinary genius, then?"

"Genius? What! such a short, fat fellow a genius! Genius, like Cassius, is lank."

"Ah? But could you not fancy that Hautboy might formerly have had genius, but luckily getting rid of it, at last fatted up?"        

"For a genius to get rid of his genius is as impossible as for a man in the galloping consumption to get rid of that."

"Ah? You speak very decidedly."

"Yes, Standard," cried I, increasing in spleen, "your cheery Hautboy, after all, is no pattern, no lesson for you and me. With average abilities; opinions clear, because circumscribed; passions docile, because they are feeble; a temper hilarious, because he was born to it——how can your Hautboy be made a reasonable example to a handy fellow like you, or an ambitious dreamer like me? Nothing tempts him beyond common limit; in himself he has nothing to restrain. By constitution he is exempted from all moral harm. Could ambition but prick him; had he but once heard applause, or endured contempt, a very different man would your Hautboy be. Acquiescent and calm from the cradle to the grave, he obviously slides through the crowd."


"Why do you say Ah to me so strangely whenever I speak?"

"Did you ever hear of Master Betty?"

"The great English prodigy, who long ago ousted the Siddons and the Kembles from Drury Lane, and made the whole town run mad with acclamation?

"The same," said Standard, once more inaudibly drumming on the slab.        

I looked at him perplexed. He seemed to be holding the master-key of our theme in mysterious reserve; seemed to be throwing out his Master Betty, too, to puzzle me only the more.

"What under heaven can Master Betty, the great genius and prodigy, and English boy twelve years old, have to do with the poor commonplace plodder, Hautboy, an American of forty?"

"Oh, nothing in the least. I don't imagine that they ever saw each other. Besides, Master Betty must be dead and buried long ere this."

"Then why cross the ocean, and rifle the grave to drag his remains into this living discussion?"

"Absent-mindedness, I suppose. I humbly beg pardon. Proceed with your observations on Hautboy. You think he never had genius, quite too contented, and happy and fat for that——ah? You think him no pattern for men in general? affording no lesson of value to neglected merit, genius ignored, or impotent presumption rebuked?——all of which three amount to much the same thing. You admire his cheerfulness, while scorning his commonplace soul. Poor Hautboy, how sad that your very cheerfulness should, by a by-blow, bring you despite!"

"I don't say I scorn him; you are unjust. I simply declare that he is no pattern for me."

A sudden noise at my side attracted my ear. Turning, I saw Hautboy again, who very blithely reseated himself on the chair he had left.

"I was behind time with my engagement," said Hautboy, "so thought I would run back and rejoin you. But come, you have sat long enough here. Let us go to my rooms. It is only a five minutes' walk."

"If you will promise to fiddle for us, we will," said Standard.

Fiddle! thought I——he's a jiggumbob fiddler, then? No wonder genius declines to measure its pace to a fiddler's bow. My spleen was very strong on me now.

"I will gladly fiddle you your fill," replied Hautboy to Standard. "Come on."

In a few minutes we found ourselves in the fifth story of a sort of storehouse, in a lateral street to Broadway. It was curiously furnished with all sorts of odd furniture which seemed to have been obtained, piece by piece, at auctions of old-fashioned household stuff. But all was charmingly clean and cozy.

Pressed by Standard, Hautboy forthwith got out his dented old fiddle and, sitting down on a tall rickety stool, played away right merrily at "Yankee Doodle" and other off-handed, dashing, and disdainfully care-free airs. But common as were the tunes, I was transfixed by something miraculously superior in the style. Sitting there on the old stool, his rusty hat sidways cocked on his head, one foot dangling adrift, he plied the bow of an enchanter. All my moody discontent, every vestige of peevishness, fled. My whole splenetic soul capitulated to the magical fiddle.

"Something of an Orpheus, ah?" said Standard, archly nudging me beneath the left rib.

"And I, the charmed Briun," murmured I.

The fiddle ceased. Once more, with redoubled curiosity, I gazed upon the easy, indifferent Hautboy. But he entirely baffled inquisition.

When, leaving him, Standard and I were in the street once more, I earnestly conjured him to tell me who, in sober truth, this marvelous Hautboy was.

"Why, haven't you seen him? And didn't you yourself lay his whole anatomy open on the marble slab at Taylor's? What more can you possibly learn? Doubtless, your own masterly insight has already put you in possession of all."

"You mock me, Standard. There is some mystery here. Tell me, I entreat you, who is Hautboy?"

"An extraordinary genius, Helmstone," said Standard, with sudden ardor, "who in boyhood drained the whole flagon of glory; whose going from city to city was a going from triumph to triumph. One who has been an object of wonder to the wisest, been caressed by the loveliest, received the open homage of thousands on thousands of the rabble. But to-day he walks Broadway and no man knows him. With you and me, the elbow of the hurrying clerk, and the pole of the remorseless omnibus, shove him. He who has a hundred times been crowned with laurels, now wears, as you see, a bunged beaver. Once fortune poured showers of gold into his lap, as showers of laurel leaves upon his brow. To-day, from house to house he hies, teaching fiddling for a living. Crammed once with fame, he is now hilarious without it. With genius and without fame, he is happier than a king. More a prodigy now than ever."

"His true name?"

"Let me whisper it in your ear."

"What! Oh, Standard, myself, as a child, have shouted myself hoarse applauding that very name in the theatre."

"I have heard your poem was not very handsomely received," said Standard, now suddenly shifting the subject.

"Not a word of that, for Heaven's sake!" cried I. "If Cicero, traveling in the East, found sympathetic solace for his grief in beholding the arid overthrow of a once gorgeous city, shall not my petty affair be as nothing, when I behold in Hautboy the vine and the rose climbing the shattered shafts of his tumbled temple of Fame?"

Next day I tore all my manuscripts, bought me a fiddle, and went to take regular lessons of Hautboy.

*               *              *

The Happy Failure
A Story of the River Hudson

The appointment was that I should meet my elderly uncle at the river-side, precisely at nine in the morning. The skiff was to be ready, and the apparatus to be brought down by his grizzled old black man. As yet, the nature of the wonderful experiment remained a mystery to all but the projector.

I was first on the spot. The village was high up the river, and the inland summer sun was already oppressively warm. Presently I saw my uncle advancing beneath the trees, hat off, and wiping his brow; while far behind staggered poor old Yorpy, with what seemed one of the gates of Gaza on his back.

"Come, hurrah, stump along, Yorpy!" cried my uncle, impatiently turning round every now and then.

Upon the black's staggering up to the skiff, I perceived that the great gate of Gaza was transformed into a huge, shabby, oblong box, hermetically sealed. The sphinx-like blankness of the box quadrupled the mystery in my mind.

"Is this the wonderful apparatus?" said I, in amazement. "Why, it's nothing but a battered old dry-goods box, nailed up. And is this the thing, uncle, that is to make you a million of dollars ere the year be out? What a forlorn-looking, lack-lustre, old ash-box it is."

"Put it into the skiff!" roared my uncle to Yorpy, without heeding my boyish disdain.

"Put it in, you grizzled-headed cherub——put it in carefully, carefully! If that box bursts, my everlasting fortune collapses."

"Bursts?——collapses?" cried I, in alarm. "It ain't full of combustibles? Quick! let me go to the further end of the boat!"

"Sit still, you simpleton!" cried my uncle again. "Jump in, Yorpy, and hold on to the box like grim death while I shove off. Carefully! carefully! you dunderheaded black! Mind t'other side of the box, I say! Do you mean to destroy the box?"

"Duyvel take de pox!" muttered old Yorpy, who was a sort of Dutch African. "De pox has been my cuss for de ten long 'ear."

"Now, then, we're off——take an oar, youngster; you, Yorpy, clinch the box fast. Here we go now. Carefully! carefully! You, Yorpy, stop shaking the box! Easy! easy! there's a big snag. Pull now. Hurrah! deep water at last! Now give way, youngster, and away to the island."

"The island!" said I. "There's no island hereabouts."

"There is ten miles above the bridge, though," said my uncle, determinately.

"Ten miles off! Pull that old dry-goods box ten miles up the river in this blazing sun!"

"All that I have to say," said my uncle, firmly, "is that we are bound to Quash Island."

"Mercy, uncle! If I had known of this great long pull of ten mortal miles in this fiery sun, you wouldn't have juggled me into the skiff so easy. What's in that box?——paving-stones? See how the skiff settles down under it. I won't help pull a box of paving-stones ten miles. What's the use of pulling 'em?"

"Look you, simpleton," quoth my uncle, pausing upon his suspended oar. "Stop rowing, will ye! Now then, if you don't want to share in the glory of my experiment; if you are wholly indifferent to halving its immortal renown; I say, sir, if you care not to be present at the first trial of my Great Hydraulic-Hydrostatic Apparatus for draining swamps and marshes, and converting them, at the rate of one acre the hour, into fields more fertile than those of the Genesee; if you care not, I repeat, to have this proud thing to tell——in far future days, when poor old I shall have been long dead and gone, boy——to your children, and your children's children; in that case, sir, you are free to land forthwith."

"Oh, uncle! I did not mean——"

"No words, sir! Yorpy, take his oar, and help pull him ashore."

"But, my dear uncle; I declare to you that——"

"Not a syllable, sir; you have cast open scorn upon the Great Hydraulic-Hydrostatic Apparatus. Yorpy, put him ashore, Yorpy. It's shallow here again. Jump out, Yorpy, and wade with him ashore."

"Now, my dear, good, kind uncle, do but pardon me this one time, and I will say nothing about the apparatus."

"Say nothing about it! When it is my express end and aim it shall be famous! Put him ashore, Yorpy."

"Nay, uncle, I will not give up my oar. I have an oar in this matter, and I mean to keep it. You shall not cheat me out my share of your glory."

"Ah, now there——that's sensible. You may stay, youngster. Pull again now."

We were all silent for a time, steadily plying our way. At last I ventured to break water once more.

"I am glad, dear uncle, you have revealed to me at last the nature and end of your great experiment. It is the effectual draining of swamps; an attempt, dear uncle, in which, if you do but succeed (as I know you will), you will earn the glory denied to a Roman emperor. He tried to drain the Pontine marsh, but failed."

"The world has shot ahead the length of its own diameter since then," quoth my uncle, proudly. "If that Roman emperor were here, I'd show him what can be done in the present enlightened age."

Seeing my good uncle so far mollified now as to be quite self-complacent, I ventured another remark.

"This is a rather severe, hot pull, dear uncle."

"Glory is not to be gained, youngster, without pulling hard for it——against the stream, too, as we do now. The natural tendency of man, in the mass, is to go down with the universal current into oblivion."

"But why pull so far, dear uncle, upon the present occasion? Why pull ten miles for it? You do but propose, as I understand it, to put to the actual test this admirable invention of yours. And could it not be tested almost anywhere?"

"Simple boy," quoth my uncle, "would you have some malignant spy steal from me the fruits of ten long years of high-hearted, persevering endeavor? Solitary in my scheme, I go to a solitary place to test it. If I fail——for all things are possible——no one out of the family will know it. If I succeed, secure in the secrecy of my invention, I can boldly demand any price for its publication."

"Pardon me, dear uncle; you are wiser than I."

"One would think years and gray hairs should bring wisdom, boy."

"Yorpy there, dear uncle; think you his grizzled locks thatch a brain improved by long life?"

"Am I Yorpy, boy? Keep to your oar!"

Thus padlocked again, I said no further word till the skiff grounded on the shallows, some twenty yards from the deep-wooded isle.

"Hush!" whispered my uncle, intensely; "not a word now!" and he sat perfectly still, slowly sweeping with his glance the whole country around, even to both banks of the here wide-expanded stream.

"Wait till that horseman, yonder, passes!" he whispered again, pointing to a speck moving along a lofty, river-side road, which perilously wound on midway up a long line of broken bluffs and cliffs. "There——he's out of sight now, behind the copse. Quick! Yorpy! Carefully, though! Jump overboard, and shoulder the box, and——Hold!"

We were all mute and motionless again.

"Ain't that a boy, sitting like Zacchaeus in yonder tree of the orchard on the other bank? Look, youngster——young eyes are better than old——don't you see him?"

"Dear uncle, I see the orchard, but I can't see any boy."

"He's a spy——I know he is," suddenly said my uncle, disregardful of my answer, and intently gazing, shading his eyes with his flattened hand. "Don't touch the box, Yorpy. Crouch! crouch down, all of ye!"

"Why, uncle——there——see——the boy is only a withered white bough. I see it very plainly now."

"You don't see the tree I mean," quoth my uncle, with a decided air of relief, "but never mind; I defy the boy. Yorpy, jump out, and shoulder the box. And now then, youngster, off with your shoes and stockings, roll up your trousers legs, and follow me. Carefully, Yorpy, carefully. That's more precious than a box of gold, mind."

"Heavy as de gelt, anyhow," growled Yorpy, staggering and splashing in the shallows beneath it.

"There, stop under the bushes there——in among the flags——so——gently, gently——there, put it down just there. Now, youngster, are you ready? Follow——tiptoes, tiptoes!"

"I can't wade in this mud and water on my tiptoes, uncle; and I don't see the need of it either."

"Go ashore, sir——instantly!"

"Why, uncle, I am ashore."

"Peace! follow me, and no more."

Crouching in the water in complete secrecy, beneath the bushes and among the tall flags, my uncle now stealthily produced a hammer and wrench from one of his enormous pockets, and presently tapped the box. But the sound alarmed him.

"Yorpy," he whispered, "go you off to the right, behind the bushes, and keep watch. If you see anyone coming, whistle softly. Youngster, you do the same to the left."

We obeyed; and presently, after considerable hammering and supplemental tinkering, my uncle's voice was heard in the utter solitude, loudly commanding our return.

Again we obeyed, and now found the cover of the box removed. All eagerness, I peeped in, and saw a surprising multiplicity of convoluted metal pipes and syringes of all sorts and varieties, all sizes and calibres, inextricably inter-wreathed together in one gigantic coil. It looked like a huge nest of anacondas and adders.

"Now then, Yorpy," said my uncle, all animation, and flushed with the foretaste of glory, "do you stand this side, and be ready to tip when I give the word. And do you, youngster, stand ready to do as much for the other side. Mind, don't budge it the fraction of a barley-corn till I say the word. All depends on a proper adjustment."

"No fear, uncle. I will be careful as a lady's tweezers."

"I s'ant life de heavy pox," growled old Yorpy, "till de wort pe given; no fear o' dat."

"Oh, boy," said my uncle now, upturning his face devotionally, while a really noble gleam irradiated his gray eyes, locks, and wrinkles; "Oh, boy! this, this is the hour which for ten long years has, in the prospect, sustained me through all my painstaking obscurity. Fame will be the sweeter because it comes at the last; the truer, because it comes to an old man like me, not to a boy like you. Sustainer! I glorify Thee."

He bowed over his venerable head, and——as I live——something like a shower-drop somehow fell from my face into the shallows.


We tipped.

"A little more!"

We tipped a little more.

"A leetle more!"

We tipped a leetle more.

"Just a leetle, very leetle bit more."

With great difficulty we tipped just a leetle, very leetle more.

All this time my uncle was diligently stooping over, and striving to peep in, up, and under the box where the coiled anacondas and adders lay; but the machine being now fairly immersed, the attempt was wholly vain.

He rose erect, and waded slowly all round the box; his countenance firm and reliant, but not a little troubled and vexed.

It was plain something or other was going wrong. But as I was left in utter ignorance as to the mystery of the contrivance, I could not tell where the difficulty lay, or what was the proper remedy.

Once more, still more slowly, still more vexedly, my uncle waded round the box, the dissatisfaction gradually deepening, but still controlled, and still with hope at the bottom of it.

Nothing could be more sure than that some anticipated effect had, as yet, failed to develop itself. Certain I was, too, that the waterline did not lower about my legs.

"Tip it a leetle bit——very leetle now."

"Dear uncle, it is tipped already as far as it can be. Don't you see it rests now square on its bottom?"

"You, Yorpy, take your black hoof from under the box!"

This gust of passion on the part of my uncle made the matter seem still more dubious and dark. It was a bad symptom, I thought.

"Surely you can tip it just a leetle more!"

"Not a hair, uncle."

"Blast and blister the cursed box, then!" roared my uncle, in a terrific voice, sudden as a squall. Running at the box, he dashed his bare foot into it, and with astonishing power all but crushed in the side. Then, seizing the whole box, he disemboweled it of all its anacondas and adders, and, tearing and wrenching them, flung them right and left over the water.

"Hold, hold, my dear, dear uncle!——do, for Heaven's sake, desist. Don't destroy so, in one frantic moment, all your long calm years of devotion to one darling scheme. Hold, I conjure!"

Moved by my vehement voice and uncontrollable tears, he paused in his work of destruction, and stood steadfastly eyeing me, or rather blankly staring at me, like one demented.

"It is not yet wholly ruined, dear uncle; come put it together now. You have hammer and wrench; put it together again, and try it once more. While there is life there is hope."

"While there is life hereafter there is despair," he howled.

"Do, do now, dear uncle——here, here, put these pieces together; or, if that can't be done without more tools, try a section of it——that will do just as well. Try it once; try, uncle."

My persistent persuasiveness told upon him. The stubborn stump of hope, plowed at and uprooted in vain, put forth one last miraculous green sprout.

Steadily and carefully pulling out of the wreck some of the more curious-looking fragments, he mysteriously involved them together, and then, clearing out the box, slowly inserted them there, and ranging Yorpy and me as before, bade us tip the box once again.

We did so; and as no perceptible effect yet followed, I was each moment looking for the previous command to tip the box over yet more, when, glancing into my uncle's face, I started aghast. It seemed pinched, shriveled into mouldy whiteness, like a mildewed grape. I dropped the box, and sprang toward him just in time to prevent his fall.

Leaving the woeful box where we had dropped it, Yorpy and I helped the old man into the skiff, and silently pulled from Quash Isle.

How swiftly the current now swept us down! How hardly before had we striven to stem it! I thought of my poor uncle's saying, not an hour gone by, about the universal drift of the mass of humanity toward utter oblivion.

"Boy!" said my uncle at last, lifting his head.

I looked at him earnestly, and was gladdened to see that the terrible blight of his face had almost departed.

"Boy, there's not much left in an old world for an old man to invent."

I said nothing.

"Boy, take my advice, and never try to invent anything but——happiness."

I said nothing.

"Boy, about ship, and pull back for the box."

"Dear uncle!"

"It will make a good wood-box, boy. And faithful old Yorpy can sell the old iron for tobacco-money."

"Dear massa! dear old massa! dat be very fust time in de ten long 'ear yoo hab mention kindly old Yorpy. I tank yoo, dear old massa; I tank yoo so kindly. Yoo is yourself agin in de ten long 'ear."

"Aye, long ears enough," sighed my uncle; "Æsopian ears. But it's all over now. Boy, I'm glad I've failed. I say, boy, failure has made a good old man of me. It was horrible at first, but I'm glad I've failed. Praise be to God for the failure!"

His face kindled with a strange, rapt earnestness. I have never forgotten that look. If the event made my uncle a good old man, as he called it, it made me a wise young one. Example did for me the work of experience.

When some years had gone by, and my dear old uncle began to fail, and, after peaceful days of autumnal content, was gathered gently to his fathers——faithful old Yorpy closing his eyes——as I took my last look at his venerable face, the pale resigned lips seemed to move. I seemed to hear again his deep, fervent cry——"Praise be to God for the failure!"