A Bamboo Palace

“This year Has been one painful Dream — I have done nothing!”

— An entry in the notebook of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 19 October 1803.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those fortunate enough to have read Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, and those who dwell in dark places. It is a book of the author’s responses to books and authors. But it is not simply another book about books. Literature is not an adjunctive commentary on life for Fadiman, but the genetic imprint of this curious condition of being human. When asked if she would help found Civilization (the Library of Congress journal) she agreed, amused and intrigued by the challenging title.

Ex Libris

Ex Libris: Confessions
of a Common Reader

BY Anne Fadiman
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000)

At Large and At Small followed, relating writing to life also, but in a different way. Ex Libris had books in mind. This later volume is concerned with the complex relations between writers, their lives when writing, and when not writing. The stumbling block for Fadiman (and for most of us) is that “great literature can be written by bad people.”

She cites Ezra Pound’s fascism, and Byron’s incest. It may be argued that Pound’s nature disqualified him from political activity in an age of extreme conflict. An intemperate man of fixed opinions, he was a great, if bullying, editor of Eliot and Yeats. Pound could yeild his red pen without thought of the hurt a writer may feel about the discarded words. Human beings are not words on the page. As for Lord Byron, he wrote of dark, romantic deeds, then he lived them. It is well to remember the Prince of Darkness was a gentleman. Incestuous and licentious, Byron was rash even when he was heroic. It was brave to take up the cause of Greek independence from Turkish — and to die for it — but it was not kindly.

If reading and writing do not make us good, we may ask what do they do? It makes us human. The cave painters of Lascaux were not sentient animals. They were conscious of who they were. They inscribed that consciousness in a pictorial language we can read because we are conscious, too. Anyone who objects that images are not language should consider the look of letters. Picasso as a child had difficulty learning to read because he concentrated on the visual quality of letters. His enthusiasm admonishes for supposing written language is no more than a mechanism. To repeat: writing makes us human in the intuitive, sensory, conscious understanding we have of being human.

We like to think that every living thing is as conscious as we are. Consider all those children’s stories which have animals behaving as humans. (Children will learn that humans behave like animals, but that is not the purpose of Beatrix Potter. She, and others, are perhaps trying to understand the natural world in human terms. Or they are gaining distance by the use of metaphor.)

Fadiman writes of Androsthenes, a scribe in the service of Alexander the Great. Androsthenes, so we may assume, observed many things on the travels he undertook (as far, it seems, as any European had ever been). That was the reason for his employ — to note what he saw. We think of conquerors as rapacious (as many are). Some show a sensitivity to the cultures they seek to possess. They are in quest of knowledge as well as gold. Androsthenes is remembered for his observations of the tamarind flower in India. It was closed at night, and open by day. This, for us in our world of scientific reason, is an observation of the motion of a biological clock, something natural. It was natural, in a different sense of the word, for an ancient scribe to believe the tamarind flower behaved as it did in accord with a sentient impulse: it worshipped the Sun. It could feel as we feel, think as we think. There is poetry in that presumption: the tamarind becomes not only a flower, but a metaphor.

How do we explain a metaphor except by the metaphor itself, or by another of its kind? Consider this: “Were I to dream of paradise, and in that dream someone handed me a flower, and on waking that flower were in my hand, what then?” It is a quotation of unusual and haunting lyricism, attributed to Coleridge. Yet in every attribution I have found there is no precise reference, nor is there a definitive version. Attributed but unlocated, it passes through the lore of English Romanticism so insistently that if Coleridge’s pen never wrote those words, nor did his mind ever think them, they are nonetheless his words. It may be that he did utter them in conversation, only to forget them. There is a letter of Keats which recounts a summary of Coleridge’s casual and brilliant talk. On that evening he had an amanuensis — as he had at other times — but in many conversations the brilliance evaporated, proving frailer than the flower of paradise in the poet’s waking hand.

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