good luck

“All such good things as excite envy are, as a class, the outcome of good luck. Luck is also the cause of good things that happen contrary to reasonable expectation: as when, for instance, all your brothers are ugly, but you are handsome yourself; or when you find a treasure that everybody else has overlooked; or when a missile hits the next man and misses you; or when you are the only man not to go to a place you have gone to regularly, while the others go there for the first time and are killed. All such things are reckoned pieces of good luck.”

(Aristotle, Rhetoric, book I, chapter 5, 1362a 5–12, trans. W. Rhys Roberts.)

november 16–november 24

Books

Films

  • The Devil Is a Woman, directed by Josef von Sternberg
  • Three on a Match, dir. Mervyn LeRoy
  • Female, dir. Michael Curtiz
  • Ins blaue hinein (Into the Blue), dir. Eugen Schüfftan
  • Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht (Looking for His Murderer) dir. Robert Siodmak
  • The Flame of New Orleans, dir. René Clair
  • Nico Icon, dir. Susanne Ofteringer
  • Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Every Man for Himself), dir. Jean-Luc Godard

Exhibits

  • “Body and Soul: Masterpieces of Renaissance and Baroque Sculpture,” Moretti Fine Art
  • “Fred Otnes: A Retrospective,” Kouros Gallery

robert walser, “answer to an inquiry” / franz kafka, “blumfeld, an elderly bachelor”

Two small books this time: the first, an illustrated edition of a short Robert Walser piece, the second, an illustrated edition of a long short story by Franz Kafka. The Kafka came out last year though I only recently found a copy; the Walser is from this year, and it’s a new translation, unlike the Kafka. In terms of purely textual content, there’s not much here that the devoted reader of either author wouldn’t already have in some other form; but both of these small books take short pieces and stretch them out to book length, forcing the reader to slow down, an impulse that I find interesting.


Robert Walser
Answer to an Inquiry
(trans. Paul North; illustrated by Friese Undine)
(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010)


There seems to be a lot of recent Walser projects: I still have a copy of Microscripts on the pile of things to be read, and I know of a couple of other projects in the works. But this little book was near the counter of the St. Mark’s Bookshop last night; I generally like Ugly Duckling if I don’t follow them as obsessively as I might. This is a small book – 64 pages, the majority of the book is illustrations – short enough to be comfortably read on the subway. The text of this book is Walser’s “Answer to an Inquiry” from 1907; it’s followed by an essay by translator Paul North of about the same length. The text felt familiar; Golden Rule Jones points out that it’s previously been translated (as “Response to a Request”) by Christopher Middleton as part of Selected Stories and The Walk. In those editions, the text takes less than three pages: it’s also the lead-off piece in those collections, where it’s presented as a short story. It’s a fine piece, and one can understand why it would be presented first: before so many other stories, though, it’s likely to be forgotten by most readers.

Here it’s primarily expanded through Friese Undine’s illustrations. Walser’s story, as its title suggests, is in the form of a letter; illustrated and given enough room to stretch out (a sentence every two pages), it becomes a sort of handbook; or perhaps a strange expressionist children’s book detailing how to live in an unforgiving world. Undine’s illustrations, which might be pencil drawings, seem to depict a theatrical production put on by bureaucrats; but the characters are ever-changing, and the production leads to the world: satellites circle the earth, a library full of anguished people, a bar, a mother with a homely baby. Screens (television, computer, outdoor advertising) are everywhere; and finally, things begin happening which shouldn’t be happening in the theater: a snake wriggles from a man’s mouth, another sticks a knife through his eye until it comes out his throat, at which point he smokes a cigarette. Walser’s text was published in early 1907; but the atrocities of the twentieth century seem to be predicted in this version of the book. “Whenever humans have progressed beyond the mere struggle for physical existence,” Undine writes in his brief introduction, “there has been theater and the drive towards self-destruction.” Undine finds Max Ernst (The Elephant Celebes) and Antonin Artaud in Walser: this Walser is full of coiled violence and seems newly foreign, different from the dreamy man we thought we knew.


Franz Kafka
Blumfeld, An Elderly Bachelor
(trans. James Stern & Tania Stern; illustrated by David Musgrave)
(Four Corners Familiars, 2009)


It’s easy to forget how enduringly strange Kafka is: he’s been canonized, and his fictional output was small enough that there’s the temptation to read it all at once. I don’t know that I’ve actually re-read The Castle and The Trial since high school; I’ve been better with the short fiction and Amerika. Expanding Blumfeld to book-length is an interesting idea: it’s not quite one of the canonical stories, certainly not in the English-speaking world, and as such Blumfeld is not as familiar a character as Josephine, Red Peter, or Odradek. “Blumfeld” is unfinished; there are no divisions in the text, but it seems to be the first two chapters, the first longer than the second, of a novel.

In the first, Blumfeld, who lives alone, though he wishes for a companion, is visited by a pair of animated balls: “two small white celluloid balls with blue stripes jumping up and down side by side on the parquet”. The magical element goes unnoticed by Blumfeld: “They are undoubtedly ordinary balls, they probably contain several smaller balls, and it is these that produce the rattling sound” (13). Blumfeld is slightly irritated by the dancing balls; they won’t leave him, and he wishes they would stop moving, or at least making noise. In the morning, the charwoman comes; Blumfeld is embarrassed of the balls, and tries to hide them from her. Leaving his apartment, he tries to pass the balls off to neighborhood children; for Blumfeld, the balls are something shameful, perhaps a sign of his status as a bachelor.

In the second part (which starts on page 57 of this edition), Blumfeld goes to work in the linen factory where he works. There’s nothing magical about Blumfeld’s life: the details of work swell up to take all available air, and his position (below his boss Ottomar, above two subordinates who don’t have names) is clearly delineated:

But what worries Blumfeld more than this lack of appreciation [from Ottomar] is the thought that one day he will be compelled to leave his job, the immediate consequence of which will be pandemonium, a confusion no one will be able to straighten out because so far as he knows there isn’t a single soul in the factory capable of replacing him and of carrying on his job in a manner that could be relied upon to prevent months of the most serious interruptions. (p. 63)

The narrative loses itself in the intricacies of the bureaucracy, moving finally to the perspectives of Blumfelds’s assistants, lowest in the office food chain, who have misbehaved:

They obey at once, but not shamefaced or with lowered heads, rather they squeeze themselves stiffly past Blumfeld, staring him straight in the eye as though trying in this way to stop him from beating them. Yet they might have learned from experience that Blumfeld on principle never beats anyone. But they are overapprehensive, and without any tact keept rying to protect their real or imaginary rights. (p. 86)

The two assistants seem to mirror the two balls in the first part of the story; or perhaps Blumfeld treats the balls deferentially because he’s used to treating his subordinates in the same way. “Blumfeld” seems to have been written in 1915; it seems impossible that Kafka would have known Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” or “The Paradise of Bachelors, and the Tartarus of Maids,” though both are suggested here, as might be any of a number of Walser’s works.

David Musgrave’s illustration of the story start with the endpapers of the book: blue and white vertical stripes interrupted by a circle of diagonal stripes, causing optical vibrations: one appears in the front of the book, one in the back, but it’s almost impossible to see both at once. Inside the book, glossy plates appear every eight pages: centered on the front and back of these are murky rectangular images that seem like they might be poorly reproduced photographs of archaeological relics. These images are small; they seem as if they might have accompanied an anthropological text of a century ago. (Samples of Musgrave’s work – I don’t think there’s any overlap with those that appear in this book, though they’re similar – can be seen at Luhring Augustine’s page for him.) The most recognizable seems to be a shark tooth with a stick figure of a person carved on it; but looked at more closely, it’s hard to tell if it’s actually a person at all, as it’s missing an arm, and the circle that should be a head is too big and vertically bisected. Others suggest animals, but aren’t quite recognizable; one feels that there’s an intelligence behind these relics, but it can’t quite be understood. If these were anthropological illustrations, they’re missing the necessary captions.

sergio de la pava, “a naked singularity”

Sergio De La Pava
A Naked Singularity
(Amante Press/Xlibris, 2008)


Scott Bryan Wilson told me that I should pick this book up (he’s reviewed the book here), so I did, though it did sit on the shelf for a while. That it’s published by Xlibris rings warning bells, of course, especially a large (almost 700 pages) book, which makes one wonder about the editing without opening it. But one can’t in good conscience accuse the big houses of over-editing these days. And one has to like a book which has a promotional website with an “about the author” section that simply says “Sergio De La Pava is the author of A Naked Singularity.”

The book is narrated by one Casi (Spanish: “almost”; Italian: “cases,” not in the legal sense, but both are applicable here), last name left blank, a 24-year-old public defender in New York. Casi is something of a wunderkind, having maintained a perfect record; over the course of the book, he loses his first case and is brought low by the injustice of the world. The year is 2002; he lives in Brooklyn Heights with a set of college students who seem like they might be a television-mad version of the brothers Karamazov. His family is Colombian; a cousin has been put away for selling hot dogs without a license. The city is obsessed with a pair of seven-year-olds who have murdered an infant; there’s a blackout. A mentally impaired prisoner, failed by the legal system in every possible way, is on death row in Alabama. And there’s a heist, which doesn’t go according to plan: crime is imperfect. Through it all is interpolated a recent history of boxing, having as its center the career of Wilfred Benitez.

The work is meant to speak for itself; there’s something comforting about being back in this space, though the era of the anonymous author has all but vanished. A Naked Singularity, however, loses no time in making clear its antecedents. The book this most resembles is William Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own, similarly entangled in the legal system; that book’s celebrated first line (“Justice? – you get justice in the next world, in this world, you have the law”) might serve as a theme for this one. De La Pava also shares Gaddis’s knack for unattributed dialogue. There’s an early invocation of the Pynchon of Mason & Dixon: “Now several acorns had successfully flown their sorties, cutting through the frigid air to form interrupted parabolas, when I began to conceive the inconceivable.” (p. 56) Like Gaddis’s and Pynchon’s books, this one is bursting at the seams: court transcripts, letters, and all manner of legal documents find there way in. There are cartoonish names, like in Pynchon, but the clownishness never fully escapes. The language is hyperactive and breathless and might bear the stamp of David Foster Wallace: the word “television,” for example, is always capitalized. But Wallace’s imprint might be found less in the language and more in the book’s deep sense of morality: De La Pava shares Wallace’s concern with how difficult it is to live in a flawed world. Bartleby is invoked, not surprisingly; Dostoevsky is never quite mentioned, though his presence floats through the book (Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, as well as the aforementioned Brothers Karamazov).

It becomes clear to the reader that this isn’t an ordinary work on page 14, when Casi goes off on a two-page digression about the history of Miranda rights, culminating thusly:

The ACLU grabbed the case and 976 days later they were in front of the court that never gets overruled with John Flynn saying, and this is a direct quote (no it isn’t): “look dudes, and I refer to you thusly because this is way pre-O’Connor/Ginsberg, your Fifth Amendment deal is only protecting the rich and powerful: those who are brainy enough to know what their rights are or who have the dough to rent a lawyer.” The Warren Supremes actually agreed and, in the kind of decision that makes maybe five people happy, held that before future police could torment some illiterate sap who nobody cares about into confessing his sins, real or imagined, they would have to inform him of certain rights not covered in your average eighth-grade Social Studies class. (p. 15)

The voice here is what’s astonishing: informed but colloquial, flippant but engaged (there’s a tenderness in “some illiterate sap who nobody cares about”). We can tell exactly what the speaker thinks about the justice of the law (“sins, real or imagined”); but his approach is also pragmatic: this is the America that he has to live in. The breathlessness drives the reader on: while the book is long, it’s never imposing. But most important is the quality of empathy: Casi cares about the illiterate saps in a believable way. This is a book deeply concerned with the preterite: those who don’t have the resources to get themselves represented by others. It’s refreshing to find a recent New York novel that doesn’t bother to mention Williamsburg or Park Slope; the Upper East Side or Upper West Side might be mentioned in passing, but the Village, the East Village, Chelsea, the Lower East Side, the neighborhoods of New York that are seen in movies and literary fiction are absent from this book. There’s plenty left over; but we don’t usually read this.

And this also stands out in that it’s a novel of work: Casi is a public defender, and spends most of his time at his job. The job isn’t lionized here: the protagonist is actively trying to be a good man, but he is decidedly not a hero by virtue of his work alone: the other occupants of his office are noticeably flawed, as he is. The criminal justice system is deeply flawed, as are the people that Casi is given to defend; but it is what there is, and Casi does the best that he can with them. But the job has an inexorable impact on him. This knowledge of one’s own imperfection in the face of the world expands to take over the book: Casi might be any bright young person coming to grips with the world: the heartbreaking career of Wilfred Benitez is made to serve as a sort of parable for the dissolution of dreams.

I’m also struck by how the book, comical as it often is, never has recourse to anything resembling magical realism, for my money one of Pynchon’s primary flaws. The world is often exaggerated in this book – as it well might be when described through a first-person narration – but the world described is always recognizably our own, with all of its horrific flaws. There’s a seriousness underlying this book’s comedy: the book draws its power from the outside world. The joking about the media circus around dead baby Tula that spans the book is funny because we know how sadly real this sort of thing could be.

One can’t help wondering about the author: has he actually worked as a public defender as the abundant legal detail – to say nothing of the clear feeling for the job that comes through – suggests? The effusive acknowledgments page thanks the NYCDS; and a cursory search of Google suggests that someone of the same name was working in legal aid in New York around the time the book is set. A more important question, though: how did the publishing industry fail this book? Someone should be paying Sergio De La Pava for the right to publish him; that work of this caliber is being published by a vanity press is depressing. The publishing industry prides itself on being a filter saving us from the mounds of garbage that are annually written; but honestly, this book could advantageously be pitted against almost any novel published in the past ten years by the big houses – especially the endless raft of New York novels. This is a book that deserves to be read more widely; in a better world, people would be reading this rather than Freedom.

noted

  • Ed Park on minor literature with reference to Garret Caples’s Quintessence of the Minor: Symbolist Poetry in English and John Ashbery’s taste.
  • Not disconnected: two new translations of Raymond Roussel are arriving in English next year: Mark Mark Polizzotti’s Impressions of Africa from Dalkey Archive (no publicity page yet) and Mark Ford’s New Impressions of Africa from Princeton.
  • Wu Ming pops up in the London Review of Books‘s blog, curious.

november 6–november 15

Books

Exhibits

  • “Blinky Palermo: Retrospective 1964–1977,” LACMA
  • “Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico,” LACMA
  • “Eye for the Sensual: Selections from the Resnick Collection,” LACMA
  • “Eva Hesse Spectres 1960,” Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
  • “Erwin Wurm: Gulp,” Lehmann Maupin
  • “Ana Medieta: Documentation and Artwork, 1972–1985,” Galerie LeLong
  • “To John J. O’Connor from Nam June Paik,” Curatorial Research Lab at Winkleman Gallery
  • “Do Not Abandon Me: Louise Bourgeois & Tracey Emin,” Carolina Nitsch Project Room
  • “Paul Thek: Cityscapes and Other Ideas / Peter Hujar: Thek’s Studio 1967,” Alexander & Bonin
  • “Adrian Piper: Past Time: Selected Works 1973–1995,” Elizabeth Dee
  • “Anselm Kiefer: Next Year in Jerusalem,” Gagosian
  • “Robert Rauschenberg,” Gagosian
  • “Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism,” Jewish Museum

Films

  • Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed), dir. Lotte Reiniger
  • Bathing Beauty, dir. George Sidney
  • Nothing Ventured, dir. Harun Farocki
  • Serious Games, dir. Harun Farocki
  • Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse), dir. Fritz Lang
  • Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, dir. Damien Chazelle
  • Max-Out, dir. Robert Kaylor
  • Derby, dir. Robert Kaylor
  • Hail the Conquering Hero, dir. Preston Sturges

george & weedon grossmith, “the diary of a nobody”

George & Weedon Grossmith
The Diary of a Nobody
(Oxford World Classics, 1998; originally 1892)


Somehow I have always mentally confused this book with W. N. P. Barbellion’s Journal of a Disappointed Man, which isn’t really a confusion that makes any sense at all, except that they’re both British and diaristic, and the mental pile of British diaries is not something that I tend to think very much about for whatever reason. So I picked this up thinking that it would be like Barbellion, which of course it is not even a little. Being vaguely astonished at how I could have managed not to have read this book, I did; probably it is a book I would have liked more if I’d found it in high school. This particular edition is an Oxford World Classics; I found myself most interested in the copious selection of notes, which range from the banal:

101 Worcester sauce: a sharp, spicy bottled condiment.

to the thoroughly confusing:

113 Brooklyn Bridge: designed by John Augustus Roebling and largely built by his son, Colonel Washington Roebling, between 1869 and 1883. It is 1,595 feet long, and spans the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan Island, New Jersey.

One is reminded here of Kafka’s Amerika, where Boston is across the bridge from New York. Some of the other notes are, admittedly, useful; but one wonders who this particular edition is for: ignorant students who want to know about Victorian hijinks? Is this book assigned in class? I particularly like the Brooklyn Bridge note, which takes the opportunity of a mention in the text (a timid man, one character says, will never build a Brooklyn Bridge or an Eiffel Tower; the latter is dutifully footnoted as well) to hold forth on the history of the Brooklyn Bridge, ending, of course, in nonsense. I have a weakness for editorial apparatuses, especially when they seem to have slipped all control.

I don’t know that I have anything particularly interesting to say about this book; it’s a satire of suburban British middle class life in the late nineteenth century, and those more knowledgable than I could discern what, exactly, the attitude that it takes is. Charles Pooter seems to be presented as a buffoon; but he is also, in his way, a solid citizen, and it’s difficult for me to know, at this distance, whether he was intended to be read positively or negatively. Part of my confusion is the problem of not knowing how the intended audience of this book was: it would make a difference, for example, if the book were intended to be read by the London smart set or if it was marketed to those who might be considered Pooter’s peers, whether the book was laughing at or with its protagonist. Here, for example, Pooter finds himself in a quarrel with one of his son’s friends, Burwin-Fosselton, who fancies himself a comedian and has been imitating a famous actor for the company’s amusement:

Once we had a rather heated discussion, which was commenced by Cummings saying that it appeared to him that Mr Burwin-Fosselton was not only like Mr Irving, but was in his judgement every way as good or even better. I ventured to remark that after all it was but an imitation of an original.
     Cummings said surely some imitations were better than the originals. I made what I considered a very clever remark: ‘Without an original there can be no imitation.’ Mr Burwin-Fosselton said quite impertinently: ‘Don’t discuss me in my presence, if you please; and, Mr Pooter, I should advice you to talk about what you understand’; to which that cad Padge replied: ‘That’s right.’ (p. 71)

How can this be unpacked? This is, of course, ostensibly Pooter’s diary; he is trying to present himself in the best possible light. Burwin-Fosselton has previously been established as ridiculous and pretentious (he insists on being referred to as “Burwin-Fosselton” rather than “Fosselton”) even outside of Pooter’s taste; Pooter doesn’t generally understand the humor of his son Lupin and his friends, which doesn’t seem to be of a particularly high caliber. Maybe the original remark of Cummings is a joke misunderstood by Pooter, who takes the suburban view that an original must be better than a copy; Cummings, of course, comes from exactly the same environment. Maybe youth have always tried to be edgy (advancing counterintuitive ideas) and always ended up sounding ridiculous. Pooter’s response isn’t especially clever, of course: he’s pointing out the obvious and assuming a consequence (that because a copy requires an original, the original must be better than the copy) that doesn’t have to follow (though it generally does). Burwin-Fosselton might sense the assumption but understands that it’s not worth arguing about. Logic is boring to the youth; they are impertinent. Nobody here comes off especially well: it’s a quarrel of idiots.

Pooter’s relations with his twenty-year-old son, who has ditched “William,” his given first name, for “Lupin,” his middle name, perhaps in an effort to rile up his father, are complex. Pooter is a straight arrow: he’s a solid citizen, well behaved, does his work as he’s supposed to. Lupin is rebellious and doesn’t do work he doesn’t like; he takes risks (he loses a great deal of money with poorly thought-through investments) and generally hasn’t turned out quite the way his doting father would have liked. Lupin is more thoroughly a capitalist than Pooter is: given a place at Pooter’s firm, he throws over stability for a chance at more money, which, at the end of the book, seems to have been a smart move. Lupin is reckless and stupid; Pooter notes this with chagrin. Lupin disregards Pooter’s judgment to his own gain: by being flippant, he ends up with a better job than his father has, and at the end of the book, Lupin seems to be about to marry up. Pooter’s way of life won’t work for him; but Lupin’s way seems wolfish, even when presented through his father’s rose-tinted lenses. The reader finds Pooter ridiculous; but given the alternative, we sympathize with him.

charles macomb flandrau, “viva mexico!”

Charles Macomb Flandrau
Viva Mexico!
(introduction by C. Harvey Gardiner)
(Illini Books, 1964; originally 1908)


Viva Mexico! is a book about Mexico from 1908 by Charles Macomb Flandrau, who was friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald, though he doesn’t seem to have lasted particularly well. His father, a Minnesota lawyer, merits mention in Wikipedia; the younger Charles Flandrau was briefly famous for his narratives of college life (Harvard Episodes, The Diary of a Freshman, Sophomores Abroad), which I have not seen, before writing this book about Mexico. His brother ran a coffee plantation north of Jalapa; Flandrau seems to have helped out, though exactly what he would have done is unclear from the book. A century-old American travelogue of Mexico isn’t particularly promising; I think I found a mention of this in Kenneth Gangemi’s The Volcanoes from Puebla, though I might be misremembering.

Eland Books put out an edition of this in the U.K. in 2004; there are countless print-on-demand editions available now, but this edition, from the University of Illinois Press in 1964, might be the most recent American edition, which seems a shame: with a new introduction, this would fit very nicely in the New York Review Books series. C. Harvey Gardiner declares at the start of his introduction that this “may well be the finest twentieth-century travel account of Mexico,” a bold claim to make with thirty-six years left in the century; but it’s defensible. Flandrau’s book is an odd one, and not what you’d expect an American to write in 1908, especially one well-to-do; there’s more resemblance than you might think to Eisenstein’s similarly titled ¡Que viva México!; it’s entirely possible that Upton Sinclair and Jay Leyda, involved in that project, would have known this book. Viva Mexico! probably betters D. H. Lawrence’s Mexican books; and it compares favorably to Sybille Bedford’s A Visit to Don Octavio. Gangemi’s book is better than all of them, for my money, but there’s an argument to be made for Flandrau.

Part of the appeal of this book is how Flandrau can float invisibly as an observer, not quite tourist – he seems to have spent nearly a decade in Mexico at the time he wrote this book – but clearly not a native. Tourism, he understands, is a dirty business which implicates everyone; after a discussion of the misbehaviors of American tourists (washing their hands in holy water in the cathedrals, cutting souvenirs of tapestry from the President’s palace) he ends with this passage:

Chiefly from constant contact with tourists, the cab drivers of the City of Mexico have become notoriously extortionate and insolent, and, for the same reason, Cuernavaca, one of the most beautiful little towns, not only in Mexico, but in the world, may soon – tourist-ridden as it is – be one of the least attractive. There, among the cabmen, the hotel employees, the guides, and the mozos who have horses for hire, the admirable native manner has lamentably deteriorated. Egged on by underbred Americans, many of them have themselves become common, impudent, and a bore. They no longer suggest Mexico. One might almost as well “see Naples and die.” (pp. 228–9)

There’s undoubtedly something patronizing about his seeing the “real Mexico” disappearing – this was written in 1908, after all – but it’s not as patronizing as one might expect. (Alberto Moravia’s book about Africa at the end of colonialism, the unfortunately titled Which Tribe Do You Belong To? also occupies this space.) There’s still truth in what Flandrau reports, though the details may have shifted: travel in the Yucatán, for example, which has a large tourism-based economy largely based on tourism, is considerably less pleasant than in Mexico City, mostly tourist-free. Ex-pats are as bad as tourists, if not worse – this book can’t have helped relations with his acquaintances:

It is not generally realized that the male inhabitants of Great Britain do not make a practice of wearing drawers, although such is the strange dissembled fact. Now, while the possession of underclothes is not necessarily indicative of birth and wealth, I have always assumed, although perhaps with a certain apathy, that the possession of wealth and birth presupposed underclothes. This, in England at least, does not seem to be the case, for my young friend, whose name is ancient and whose purse is well filled, announced to me in Mexico not long ago, with the naïveté that so often astonishes one in thoroughly sophisticated persons of his race: “I’ve knocked about a good bit and I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s usually something to be said for the peculiar habits of different peoples even if you don’t know exactly what it is. Since I’ve been in this country I’ve noticed that everybody seems to wear drawers – even the peons. There must be some reason for it – connected with the climate very likely – and I’ve taken to wearing them myself. I don’t particularly care for the things,” he hastened apologetically to add, “and I dare say they’re all rot, but I’m going to give them a try. Why don’t you!” (pp. 262–3)

Flandrau was a sensitive observer; he was not, perhaps, very interested in organization, and the book moves from subject to subject almost at random, following what seems to be Flandrau’s consciousness. It’s a willfull book, and it’s hard to imagine what a contemporary audience would have made of it: Flandrau doesn’t seem to have been interested in satisfying anyone but himself. The book occasionally risks drifting into outright solipsism (in an extended passage about being along he confesses to occasionally doubting the reality of other people and cities when he’s not around to see them), but Flandrau’s grace is not exempting himself from his criticism:

I have grown rather tired of reading in magazines that “the City of Mexico resembles a bit of Paris”; but I have grown much more tired of the people who have also read it and repeat it as if they had evolved the comparison unaided – particularly as the City of Mexico doesn’t in the least resemble a bit of Paris. It resembles absolutely nothing in the world except itself. To criticise it as having most of the objectionable features and few of the attractions of a great city would be unfair; but first telling myself that I am unfair, I always think of it in those terms. In truth it is a great and wonderful city, and it grows more wonderful every day; also, I am inclined to believe, more disagreeable. (p. 280)

My quotations might give the impression of Flandrau as dour and disagreeable, which isn’t the case at all. He is a man resigned to his fate, which isn’t likely to be as bad as all that:

When the worst comes to the worst, as by an unforeseen combination of circumstances it sometimes does, and you are on the point of losing your reason or, what is much worse, your temper, the inevitable kind lady or kind gentleman, who is to be found in every country and who knows everything, always appears at the proper moment, asks if he can be of any assistance, and sends you on your way rejoicing. In any event, in provincial Mexico nothing unpleasant is likely to happen to you. (p. 193)

things you can do.

“The following Bubble-Companies were by the same order declared to be illegal, and abolished accordingly:

51. For importing beaver fur. Capital, two millions.

52. For making pasteboard and packing-paper.

53. For importing of oils and other materials used in the woollen manufacture.

54. For improving and increasing the silk manufactures.

55. For lending money on stock, annuities, tallies, &c.

56. For paying pensions to widows and others, at a small discount. Capital, two millions.

57. For improving malt liquors. Capital, four millions.

58. For a grand American fishery.

59. For purchasing and improving the fenny lands in Lincolnshire. Capital, two millions.

60. For improving the paper manufacture of Great Britain.

61. The Bottomry Company.

62. For drying malt by hot air.

63. For carrying on a trade in the river Oronooko.

64. For the more effectual making of baize, in Colchester and other parts of Great Britain.

65. For buying of naval stores, supplying the victualling, and paying the wages of the workmen.

66. For employing poor artificers, and furnishing merchants and others with watches.

67. For improvement of tillage and the breed of cattle.

68. Another for the improvement of our breed in horses.

69. Another for a horse-insurance.

70. For carrying on the corn trade of Great Britain.

71. For insuring to all masters and mistresses the losses they may sustain by servants. Capital, three millions.

72. For erecting houses or hospitals for taking in and maintaining illegitimate children. Capital, two millions.

73. For bleaching coarse sugars, without the use of fire or loss of substance.

74. For building turnpikes and wharfs in Great Britain.

75. For insuring from thefts and robberies.”

(Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, “The South Sea Bubble,” pp. 60–63.)

step 3: profit!

“But the most absurd and preposterous of all, and which shewed, more completely than any other, the utter madness of the people, was one started by an unknown adventurer, entitled ‘A company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.’ Were not the fact stated by scores of credible witnesses, it would be impossible to believe that any person could have been duped by such a project. The man of genius who essayed this bold and successful inroad upon public credulity, merely stated in his prospectus that the required capital was half a million, in five thousand shares of 100l. each, deposit 2l. per share. Each subscriber, paying his deposit, would be entitled to 100l. per annum per share. How this immense profit was to be obtained, he did not condescend to inform them at that time, but promised that in a month full particulars should be duly announced, and a call made for the remaining 98l. of the subscription. Next morning, at nine o’clock, this great man opened an office in Cornhill. Crowds of people beset his door, and when he shut up at three o’clock, he found that no less than one thousand shares had been subscribed for, and the deposits paid. He was thus, in five hours, the winner of 2000l. He was philosopher enough to be contented with his venture, and set off the same evening for the Continent. He was never heard of again.”

(Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, “The South Sea Bubble,” pp. 55–56.)