Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Things that You'll Like and that Are Good for You Too.

Things that You'll Like and that Are Good for You Too
-Pilgrim's Way, by John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir. This was President
Kennedy's favorite book. He gave a copy to Jackie when they were first dating. It is a
wonderful book. This is Public Occurrences.

twenty-five years ago i read an obscure book by an obscure author, for the most venal of reasons. the book was Pilgrim's Way by john buchan also lord tweedsmuir and the reason was that it was john f kennedy's favorite book.

jfk was and remains one of my heroes, a very tired and unfashionable position, for hero-worship and jfk-worship have long been the objects of derision. there was a pop song several years ago that contained the refrain, "we don't need another hero." i can agree with that sentiment on literal grounds. we don't need "another" hero because there are so many available to us already. rather we need more people open to hero worship, who recognize that this isn't an "i'm ok, you're ok" world. such a view is seen as being agreeably modest and tolerant. it is not. it is coddling of the mean and a denial of the exceptional. if the human spirit is about quest, about the journey rather than the destination, then inspiration can encourage us to take the next step into the unknown and that inspiration can come from individual human beings as well as heavenly ones.

so i read Pilgrim's Way to gain insight into jfk, thinking that reading a favorite book could give insight into the one who favored it.

for twenty-five years that book has stayed with me. among the books that had the greatest impact on me it was one of two or three, but its effect was distinct and puzzling. i could remember nothing of its content. it is a semi-autobiography, its subtitle is "an essay in recollection," yet beyond recalling that buchan had been a british m.p., outdoorsman, author, i could not fill in the blanks--what positions he held, what he had written, what he had to say of his contemporaries, many of whom were giants in american and british letters and politics.

instead when i thought of Pilgrim's Way, there was a feeling, a spirit that i got. it is difficult to describe an emotion without using goofy language and sounding pretentious. professor robert greenberg said one time that although it was easy to deride the florid language used by connoisseurs to describe wine, e.g. "a hint of raspberry with overtones of young tobacco," and the like,that such descriptions are necessary to make distinctions that we could not otherwise make. how DO you describe what something tastes like?

literature can produce great emotion. there are famous passages familiar to many like the fear and drama of jean valjean's race through the sewers of paris in Les Miserables, or the bitter resignation of the dying man in hemingway's Snows of Kilimanjaro, but i couldn't remember a specific scene or chapter from Pilgrim's Way. it was the book as a whole that produced the effect which was something close to peace, a metaphysical, ultimate peace, a calm.

i never had a book do this and often thought about what it was or what it was like. schopenhauer believed that music was the most perfect art because it bypassed our minds and went straight to our emotions. that is the way Pilgrim's Way is felt by me. some of modern and contemporary art strives for this effect. i once read that to appreciate abstract art you shouldn't ask "what is it about," because it isn't about anything, it just is. it would be like looking at a tree and asking what is it about. it's not about anything. it's just a tree. mark rothko's field paintings can have this effect. i remember someone writing that there's a zen quality produced by his colors, their juxtaposition and their indistinct borders.

music is so prevalent in our lives that all of us have been moved by a particular piece of music at one time or another but it's very hard to describe that effect. i have seen dozens of rothko's and could understand the zen point and the colors and so on but i never felt it until i saw a reproduction of the canvasses in the apse of the rothko chapel in houston, texas. then i felt the effect, i "got" it.

if you cut the painting in half and looked at one of the color fields in isolation the effect would obviously be lost.
that there are human beings who are better it's inspiring to greatly admire another person because of extraordinary traits and heroes are not less so because they are human with human frailties.

Sunday, June 08, 2003

twenty-five years ago i read an obscure long book, Pilgrim's Way, by an obscure author, john buchan also lord tweedsmuir.

i had gone through a jfk phase in graduate school and somewhere along the way i had read that Pilgrim's Way was his favorite book so i picked up a copy with the thought that a favorite book could give insight into the one who favored it.

i have read a lot of books since and can remember them in the usual way, by a memorable scene like jean valjean's escape through the sewars of paris in les miserables or a particularly well-written passage, like hemingway's description of francis macomber's death.

but Pilgrim's Way stayed with me in a different way. I remembered nothing about it's content, none of its scenes, none of the writing. but for 25 years when someone asked me what my favorite book was Pilgrim's Way was it. it was memorable because it produced in me a "feeling", a lot like looking at a mark rothko painting does. it's not the descriptive quality of either of the works that hits you but the "feeling" produced.

no other book has ever effected me in the same way. it was embarrasing to be asked why it was my favorite. i never replied with the truth, a "feeling" being too swishy and precious a reason, and i really couldn't remember even a single chapter that i could weave a memorable half-truth from. saying "well, it was jfk's favorite" had the disagreeable and untrue ring of pretention, of a quest for reflected glory and besides jfk had been out of style for most of my adult life. and, if i was then asked the natural follow-up question, "well, why was it jfk's book" i couldn't answer that either in which case it could be reasonably concluded that i had never even read the damn book, adding a lack of cleverness to pretention in my developing image to the questioner. i don't know, maybe by that time i had already won the girl's heart and any answer i gave would have been satisfactory.

most vexingly i didn't have the book to answer these questions for myself. i believe i lent it to my girlfriend kathy and with several moves and life changes in the interim just never got it back and i couldn't just conveniently pick up a replacement when i found myself in a bookstore. it was written in 1940 and was long out of print.

finding myself in the midst of another life change, i went online and tracked down a copy.

Friday, June 06, 2003

Bobby Kennedy

Look at this picture. Twenty-five years ago today I was a child on vacation and American lost one of its greats. Our country would have been a better place with him as president. He was the greatest of the Kennedy brothers. I often wonder "what if" of this extraordinary person and am sad at his loss. I am Benjamin Harris.