Thursday, July 19, 2012

real brows turn smoother for our sake

Aelian's myth is the myth of sudden action, it is a dream, it is nature by advertisement, his strange bird takes the place of the child, his triton is the mother with the crumpet, his gods drive the car that is too efficient to be real, his stork is the sad customer whose life is affected by one primary misfortune, which is this: the bats won't stay away from its eggs.

[O]ne touch from the bats turns them to wind-eggs and makes them infertile.

The solution is a leaf. "They lay the leaves of a plane-tree on their nests and and directly the bats come near the storks they are benumbed and become incapable of doing harm." Aelian is revising Nature into the shape of a machine, with a leaf for a button or lever, the stork presses that button, the machinery glides into action, the end product appears, and the bird writes Nature a letter that ends with the words, "From a satisfied customer."

Swallows are faced with almost the same problem but their enemy is the cockroach. You notice in Aelian's lists of animals hating each other that the hatreds normally occur in pairs, not threesomes or complicated integrations of dislike, not the bat hating the -- say the dog -- and then the dog hating the mouse, the mouse hating the cockroach, the cockroach hating the bat, the mouse also hating the bat, but the bat not hating the mouse -- nothing tangled like that, it's very straightforward.

Nature fits beautifully together, for each reaction an equal and opposite -- and so on -- this idea sensed and extrapolated by Aelian in the early Anno Dominis, everything fits, and this is far away from the sensibility that created Balzac's Paris, with its jumble of objects piled up, and the excitement of that jumble, though there is no reason why a nineteenth-century guide-book to Paris might not be as clear as Aelian, and a different author writing about nature in Aelian's time might make the trees and animals sound like Paris in Balzac, with its clotted alleyways, small rooms, astonishing secrets up wooden stairwells, etc, all of this understood as the rugged forest path, the tree bole, the white maggots hugging in a corpse, and so forth, long ago, in the early Anno Dominis.

If you can state your problem in the Aelian universe you will be provided with a solution. Then the problem becomes, how do I describe the problem? Simple problems are the best. To state is to ask the universe a question, the universe sends back an answer, eg, celery leaves for cockroaches if you are a swallow. "Therefore the mother-birds protect their chicks with celery leaves and hence the cockroaches cannot reach them." A book is a problem for the author, the answer is sometimes first-person narration, or the right character, and Robert Browning on the opening page of Sordello says that dead people are useful when you are a poet looking for characters to carry your theme.

Confess now, poets know the dragnet's trick,
Catching the dead, if fate denies the quick,
And shaming her; 't is not for fate to choose
Silence or song because she can refuse
Real eyes to glisten more, real hearts to ache
Less oft, real brows turn smoother for our sake:
I have experienced something of her spite;
But there 's a realm wherein she has no right
And I have many lovers.

The city of Las Vegas, where I live, looked for a way to advertise itself and came up with the slogan, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," which worked as they wanted it to, the tourist numbers went up, though this slogan was not always the solution to that problem; in the 1980s they decided that they needed to appeal to families with children and hence the city built its themed hotels, the ones like fantasy parks, but now the aesthetic is nightclub, a little secretive, a little what the newspapers would call quirky, therefore the Cosmopolitan with its Art-O-Matic vending machines, and the towers of the Aria with its chairs like metal pigeons, so that I once saw a man sitting on the back of an unconcerned pigeon; he was wearing an expensive suit and holding his forehead in his hands as if he'd heard bad news.

But he was probably drunk, and for that there is Hangover Heaven, a mobile service staffed by medical practitioners who will attach an IV drip to your arm and feed you chemical solution for forty-five minutes, removing the ache in your head to some degree so that your attention can be shared among other phenomena and not concentrated there, on the pain, although when you are a child it is often beautiful, the way you feel when your attention is claimed by specifics; and they have an ad for this cure too, a photograph of a handsome man, mostly naked, looking in a mirror under these two sentences (Aelian and this copywriter are both under the influence of pairs): "The good news: you're alive. The bad news: you're alive."


  1. "...removing the ache in your head to some degree so that your attention can be shared among other phenomena and not concentrated there, on the pain, although when you are a child it is often beautiful, the way you feel when your attention is claimed by specifics..."

    That lovely line evoked a memory I'd not thought about for years (a sort of collapsing together of the line's elements), in which the initial moment of perceiving that one of the intense migraines I had as a child was noticeably starting to ebb would send me into a sense of the world being almost unbearably beautiful. With my head still throbbing, I'd hop on my bicycle and ride ecstatically and deliriously through the streets, enjoying even the pain itself since I knew it would not last.

    1. That sounds fabulous. You've made me want a migraine and a bicycle.

  2. Ah, now is it that "simple problems are best" or that we should state problems simply.

    To be really prosaic, I have just watched the Masterchef Finale and the young guy had to make a complicated dessert, way out of his comfort zone. He looked at one complicated component and thought it looked way too tricky, but then looked at it more carefully and realised he could break it down into component parts, making as it were, one complicated problem into several simple problems. He won! And here endeth the lesson ...

    1. Clever man. (Is that Andy Allen? I've found an Age article that calls him handsome.) A reader who didn't know that Aelian had taken his material from other peoples' stories (he lets you know, but say the reader missed it) could guess that he wasn't writing from first-hand experience just by the absence of complicated problems in his formulae. He's not a man trying to sort out a personal explanation for some strange phenomena he witnessed. He does not belong on Masterchef. He knows the problem immediately, without any kind of corroborative detail. There's no sign of him sorting down to those "component parts." It comes pre-sorted. Which means that he gives you these strange conclusions without explaining (the biggest mystery) how anyone could ever arrive at them. How would you know that bats made stork eggs infertile? How could you tell?