Sunday, March 29, 2009

Everything you know is wrong

Bear in mind that I haven’t fact-checked this yet, but Nin Andrews has a succinct, entertaining little primer on lies:

“Nero didn’t fiddle when Rome burned. (The violin was not invented until the 16th century.) The soil of Carthage was never sewn with salt. Marie Antoinette never said let them eat cake. Or brioche, as her enemies said, to inspire hatred of the queen. And Louis XVI did not have a tiny penis. (Quite the opposite. The letters suggest he was too large for the poor Marie.) Catherine the Great did not die when having sex with a horse. Nor did she die on the toilet. Napoleon was neither short nor impotent. Nor was he cured of his impotence by eating green beans. The Virgin Queen might not have been a virgin. And George Washington didn’t have wooden teeth. Roosevelt did not know the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor. Churchill was not an alcoholic, and his father did not have syphilis. Hitler was not an atheist, a social Darwinist, or a follower of Nietzsche. He believed the Bible was the history of man; he professed his beliefs in speeches, and encouraged Nazi soldiers to worship in churches. In short, like most leaders in this country today, he considered himself a good Christian.”

This is why I never worry about running out of stuff to write. The corrections to the general universe alone could occupy me for the rest of my life. It does, however, kind of inspire a millisecond-long wish to go back and be a middle-school Social Studies/History teacher. Then it passes.

The unspoken point is that these things are part of our pop culture heritage (and our intellectual heritage, to a degree), and drastic measures should always be taken. Arthur Miller summed it up thus:

"Data is a lot like humans: It is born. Matures. Gets married to other data, divorced. Gets old. One thing that it doesn't do is die. It has to be killed."

I love the idea of data getting married. (If we carry this metaphor forward, the internet is a brothel for data.) But probably the plague is a better metaphor. As long as it has one host (living or paginated), it’s still alive, if only dormant. [So you should stay away from squirrels.]

In this vein (the non-squirrel one), Philip Levine also has a great poem in What Work Is on the subject of veracity:


The bus station in Princeton, New Jersey,
has no men’s rooms. I had to use one like mad,
but the guy behind the counter said, “Sorry,
but you know what goes on bus station men’s rooms.”

If you take a ’37 Packard grille and split it down
the center and reduce the angle by 18 degrees and reweld it,
you’ll have a perfect grill for a Rolls Royce
just in case you ever need a new grill for yours.

I was not born in Cleveland, Ohio. Other people
were, or so I have read, and many have remained,
which strikes me as an exercise in futility
greater even than saving your pennies to buy a Rolls.

F. Scott Fitzgerald attended Princeton. A student
pointed out the windows of the suite he occupied.
We were on our way to the train station to escape
to New York City, and the student may have been lying.

The train is called “The Dinky.” It takes you only
a few miles way to a junction where you can catch
a train to Grand Central Station or—if you’re scared—
to Philadelphia. From either you can reach Cleveland.

My friend Howie wrote me that he was ashamed
to live in a city whose most efficient means of escape
is called “The Dinky.” If he’d invest in a Rolls,
even one with a Packard grill, he’d feel differently.

I don’t blame the student for lying, especially
to a teacher. He may have been ill at ease
in my company, for I am an enormous man given
to long bouts of silence as I brood on facts.

There are two lies in the previous stanza. I’m small,
each year I feel the bulk of me shrinking, becoming
more frail and delicate. I get cold easily as though
I lacked even the solidity to protect my own heart.

The coldest I’ve ever been was in Cleveland, Ohio.
My host and hostess hated and loved each other
by frantic turns. To escape I’d go on long walks
in the yellowing snow as the evening winds raged.

The citizens of Cleveland, Ohio, passed me sullenly,
benighted in their Rolls Royces, each in a halo
of blue light sifting down from the abandoned
filling stations of what once was a community.

I will never return to Cleveland or Princeton, not
even to pay homage to Hart Crane’s lonely tower
or the glory days of John Berryman, whom I loved.
I haven’t the heart for it. Not even in your Rolls.

This is the Levine I like. The acerbic, trickster one. (Not the schmaltz vendor.) The one of M. Degas Teaches Art And Science At Durfee Intermediate School and the immortal essay, “Part of the Problem” (available in The Breadloaf Anthology of Writers on Writing) where he insults just about everyone in a delightful fashion.

(I realize that I have strayed somewhat from the thesis of writers as corrective forces in the universe. Oh well. It felt very natural.)

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