Sunday, July 7, 2013

Bringing Home the Bacon

“Grub first, then aesthetics”
            Bertolt Brecht*

I am not sure if you have ever felt this way before, but if you should find yourself in possession of an appetite and a few hours to fritter away on seventeenth century literature some night after supper, I would like to recommend this book.

The perfect time to read it is when you are twenty-four and still foolish enough to take the things you read seriously.

The perfect place to read it, of course, is in Boston: in the evening, around seven, sitting on a cool and comfortable concrete pilaster on the banks of the River Charles; in between paragraphs, perhaps, puffing a cigarette, watching the smoke drift off—like the white sails on the rentable boats from the Community Boathouse, those you see scudding across the copper-plated water. I found myself in this situation once, twenty years ago, in the waning days of the twentieth century, when History was on the verge of being abolished.

Even though History continued—in some quite shocking, though entirely foreseeable ways—I did give up smoking, I am pleased to say, and eventually took up running. And for that, I thank History. I am also proud to note that Boston has continued being beautiful in the summer—much more beautiful than New York. So, if you are twenty-four and are in the Back Bay today—or if you are able to make such an imaginative leap—and if the breeze is right, and the angle of the sun is correct at dusk, you may be able to reconstruct some of what I call “The Bacon Effect” even now. Think of it as a thought experiment.

A lot of ifs there, I know. The cumulative effect of all of these contingencies may seem a bit daunting for someone in his early twenties. Dark as it seems, do not let yourself be deterred from a dip into uncertainty: the future belongs to those who show up for it without preconceptions.  I am here to testify to that fact. So is Bacon. And Bacon is worth a try. Recipes involving bacon usually are.

One phrase from Bacon’s essay ‘Of Studies’ has never been very far away from my thoughts since the day when I first read it:

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.

“Weigh and consider.” That phrase took on a new and more painful meaning for this writer a few years ago when he was laid off and found himself carting large portions of his library off to The Strand Bookstore to be sold to pay for food and rent. I think I might have earned $2000.00 from the sale of those books that summer. I have no idea what I paid for them originally. But it frightens me to think about it.

To what conclusion does this wretched anecdote lead? Probably a shrug, if you are lucky. Still, it said something to me in very practical terms—something I had always suspected about poetry, but I had never fully internalized, as a poet, until I actually started looking at the worth of words in terms of how effectively they feed you. Hence the title of this essay, ‘Bringing Home the Bacon’.

Because, bringing home the bacon, more than any dubious truth or heart-rending beauty you wish to express, is all that really matters in the end. If you eat. Or pay rent.


I run my index finger down each spine
in my apartment, choosing books to sell:
Collected Tales and Sketches of Mark Twain,
Pierre and the Piazza Tales, Melville;

A fine translation of Montaigne’s Essays;
The Plays of William Shakespeare, bound in green.
A dozen pages flutter from Rabelais’
Gargantua: a paperback so lean

it looks like Deathall skin and bones. It’s best
to leave him here. Now, Giovanni’s Room,
I take; and To the Lighthouse, Tacitus,
and Mr. Gibbon’s history of Rome.

Thats everything, I guess, but poetry.
Nobody seems to buy that shit, but me.

*Bertolt Brecht, sort of.


beektur said...

Damn. Good read.

When I was twenty four i smoked a lot, I slept in park benches on weekends -- weekdays I slept in my auntie's sofa, too poor to pay rent. I had an illusion of a nice job and a bright future that I was always eager to show up for. Now I have books, tons of them. Maybe one day, i will pack them all, sell them and start sleeping in benches again.

Eric Norris said...

Maybe we can share a bench...

beektur said...

old friends. old friends. sharing a park bench like bookends...

Eric Norris said...

There are worse places we could wind up together. (And we both know it, because we have both been there.)