michael silverblatt on the end of books

(From an interview with Michael Silverblatt by Colin Marshall on The Marketplace of Ideas Thursday 19 March 2009; full interview available here.)

are we very stupid?

“The author of ‘The Golden Age’ and of ‘Dream Days’ has disappointed us. There is no getting away from that melancholy fact. He has written in ‘The Wind in the Willows’, a book with hardly a smile in it, through which we wander in a haze of perplexity, uninterested by the story itself and at a loss to understand its deeper purpose. The chief character is a mole, whom the reader plumps upon on the first page whitewashing his house. Here is an initial nut to crack; a mole whitewashing. No doubt moles like their abodes to be clean; but whitewashing? Are we very stupid, or is this joke really inferior? However, let it pass. Then enters a water rat, on his way to a river picnic, in a skiff, with a hamper of provisions, including cold tongue, cold ham, French rolls, and soda water. Nut number two; for obviously a water rat is of all animals the one that would never use a boat with which to navigate a stream. Again, are we very stupid, or is this nonsense of poor quality? Later we meet a wealthy toad, who, after a tour of England in a caravan, drawn by a horse, becomes a rabid motorist. He is also an inveterate public speaker. We meet also a variety of animals whoso foibles doubtless are borrowed from mankind, and so the book goes on until the end. Beneath the allegory ordinary life is depicted more or less closely, but certainly not very amusingly or searchingly; while as a contribution to natural history the work is negligible. There are neat and fanciful passages; but they do not convince. The puzzle is, for whom is the book intended? Grown up readers will find it monotonous and elusive; children will hope in vain for more fun.”

(E. V. Lucas, review of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows in the Times Literary Supplement, 22 October 1908, pointed out in the 17 October 2008 issue of the same publication. Lucas was also the co-author of the collage-novel What a Life!.)

the trouble with doctors

11. There is no doubt that all these doctors sought fame by means of some innovation, and irresponsibility trafficked with our lives. This accounts for those wretched arguments at the sick-bed when no two doctors give the same opinion for fear that a colleague’s diagnosis might appear to carry more weight. It also accounts for the sad inscription occurring on some monuments which says: ‘A gang of doctors killed me.’ The art of medicine changes daily and is constantly given a new look: we are swept along by the empty words of Greek intellectuals. It is well known that those who are successful speakers have the power of life and death over us, just as if thousands of people do not exist without doctors or medicine. The Romans did so for more than 600 years, although they are not slow to accept advances – and indeed were even avid for medicine until they put it to the test and rejected it!”

(Pliny the Elder in Book XXIX (“Medicine, Doctors and Medical Practice”) of Natural History; p. 263 in John Healy’s Natural History: A Selection.)

april 21–april 25


  • Charles Wright, Chickamauga
  • João Ribas, ed., Unica Zürn: Dark Spring


  • “Unica Zürn: Dark Spring”, The Drawing Center
  • “Hans Bellmer: Octopus Time”, Ubu Gallery
  • “Tacita Dean”, Marian Goodman Gallery
  • “E. O. Hoppé: Early London Photographs (1910–1939)”; “CLOUD 9: Imogen Cunningham, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston”; “André Kertész: In the Depths of Winter”, Bruce Silverstein
  • “Alfredo Jaar: The Sound of Silence”, Galerie Lelong
  • “Espèces d’espaces”, Yvon Lambert
  • “Ellen Driscoll: FastForwardFossil, Part I”, Frederiecke Taylor Gallery
  • “Sophie Calle: Take Care of Yourself”, Paula Cooper
  • “Nam June Paik: Live Feed: 1972–1994”, James Cohan Gallery
  • “Alex Katz”, PaceWildenstein
  • “\'flō\: art, text, new media,”, Center for Book Arts
  • “Yayoi Kusama”, Gagosian


  • 42nd Street, directed by Lloyd Bacon
  • The Gang’s All Here, dir. Busby Berkeley

how shells work

111. Some authorities state that groups of shells, like swarms of bees, have an especially large, old shell as their leader – one marvellously skillful at looking out for dangers – and that divers deliberately seek these shells, since, when they are caught, the rest wander aimlessly and are easily trapped in nets. Then they are heavily salted in earthenware pots; the salt eats away all the flesh, and the nuclei, as it were of their bodies, namely the individual pearls, sink to the bottom.”

(Pliny the Elder in Book IX (“Creatures of the Sea”) of Natural History; p. 136 in John Healy’s Natural History: A Selection.)

the decay of morality is caused by the produce of the sea

104. But why do I mention these trivial matters when shellfish are the prime cause of the decline of morals and the adoption of an extravagant life-style? Indeed, of the whole realm of nature the sea is in many ways the most harmful to the stomach, with its great variety of dishes and tasty fish.

105. But the foregoing pale into insignificance beside the purple-fish, purple robes and pearls. As if it were not enough for the produce of the seas to be stuffed down our throats, it is also worn on the hands, in the ears, on the head and all over the body of women and men alike! What has the sea to do with clothing, the waters and waves to do with wool? The sea receives us in a proper way only when we are without clothes. There may well be a strong alliance between the sea and our stomach, but what connection is there with our backs? Are we not satisfied by feeding on dangerous things without also being clothed by them? Do we get most bodily pleasure from luxuries that cost human life?”

(Pliny the Elder in Book IX (“Creatures of the Sea”) of Natural History; pp. 134–5 in John Healy’s Natural History: A Selection.)

the decay of science and the spread of avarice

3. Yet, in all conscience, people who know much of what has been published by earlier writers cannot be found. The research of men of former times was more productive, or their industry was more successful, a thousand years ago at the beginning of literature, when Hesiod began to expound his principles for farmers. His research was followed by several writers, and this has resulted in more work for us, since now we have to investigate not only subsequent discoveries but also those made by earlier authorities, because men’s laziness has brought about a complete destruction of records.

4. What cause for this shortcoming could there be other than the state of world affairs generally? The thing is that other customs have crept in; men’s minds are preoccupied with other matters and the only arts practised are those of greed. In earlier times people had their power limited to their own boundaries, and for that reason their talents were circumscribed; there was no scope for amassing a fortune, so they had to exercise the positive quality of respect for the arts. Accordingly they put the arts first, when displaying their resources, in the belief that the arts could bestow immortality. This was the reason why life’s rewards and achievements were so plentiful.

5. The expansion of the world and the growing extent of our resources proved harmful to subsequent generations. Senators and judges began to be chosen by wealth, and wealth was the only embellishment of magistrates and commanders; lack of children began to exert the highest influence and power, and legacy-hunting was the most profitable occupation. In such a climate the only pleasure consisted in possession, whereas the true prizes of life went to rack and run and all the arts that were called ‘liberal’ – from liberty the greatest good – became quite the opposite. Obsequiousness began to be the sole means of advancement. Different men worshipped greed in different ways and different contexts, although every man’s prayer had the same goal – namely, the acquisition of material possessions. Everywhere even distinguished people preferred to cultivate others’ vices rather than their own good qualities. The result is, I declare, that pleasure has begun to live, while life itself has come to an end.”

(Pliny the Elder in Book XIV (“Vines and Viticulture”) of Natural History; pp. 182–3 in John Healy’s Natural History: A Selection.)


America is a fun country. Still, there are aspects of it which I would prefer not to think about. I am sure, for instance, that the large “chain” stores with their big friendly ads and so-called “discount” prices actually charge higher prices so as to force smaller competitors out of business. This sort of thing has been going on for at least 200 years and is one of the cornerstones on which our mercantile American society is constructed, like it or not. What with all our pious expostulations and public declarations of concern for the poor and the elderly, this is a lot of bunk and our own president plays it right into the lap of big business and uses every opportunity he can to fuck the consumer and the little guy. We might as well face up to the fact that this is and always has been a part of our so-called American way of life.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of people here who are sincerely in love with life and think they are on to something, and they may well be right. Even the dogs seem to know about it – you can tell by the way they stick their noses out of the car windows sometimes to whiff the air as it goes by. Old ladies know about and like it too. In fact, the older an American citizen gets the more he or she seems to get a kick out of life. Look at all the retirement communities and people who mow their own lawns and play gold. They surely have more pep than their counterparts in Asia or Europe, and one mustn’t be in too much of a hurry to make fun of such pursuits. They stand for something broader and darker than at first seems to be the case. The silver-painted flagpole in its concrete base surrounded by portulacas, the flag itself straining in the incredibly strong breeze, are signposts toward an infinity of wavering susceptible variables, if one but knew how to read them aright. The horny grocery boy may be the god Pan in disguise. Even a television antenna may be something else. Example: bearded young driver of pickup truck notes vinyl swimming pool cover is coming undone and stops to ask owner if he can be of assistance. Second example: groups of business people stranded in stalled elevator sing Cole Porter songs to keep their spirits up, helping each other recall the lyrics. Third example: a nursing home director convicted of a major swindle goes to the federal penitentiary for a period of not less than five years. Fourth example: you are looking down into a bottomless well or some kind of deep pool that is very dark with the reflected light so far in the distance it seems like a distant planet, and you see only your own face.

(John Ashbery, from The Vermont Notebook, pp. 381–3 in Collected Poems 1956–1987.)

the truth about camels

“A camel never travels beyond its normal daily mileage or carries more than a prescribed load. They are not so fast as horses for which they have an inborn hatred. Camels can endure thirst for four days and, when they have an opportunity to drink, fill themselves to make up for the time they have gone without and for their future needs; they stir up the water by trampling in it, otherwise they do not enjoy their drink. Camels live for fifty years, some even for a hundred, although even camels are liable to contract rabies.”

(Pliny the Elder in Book VII of Natural History; p. 117 in John Healy’s Natural History: A Selection.)

previously men had lived on acorns

191. It seems not inappropriate, before leaving our discussion of man’s nature, to point out what different people have discovered. Bacchus introduced buying and selling, the crown, the royal emblem and the triumphal processions. Ceres discovered corn; previously men had lived on acorns. She also invented milling and the making of flour in Attica (or, according to some authorities, in Sicily). This was the reason that Ceres was judged to be a goddess. Ceres was also the first to give laws – or, as others think, it was Rhadamanthus.”

(Pliny the Elder in Book VII of Natural History; p. 104 in John Healy’s Natural History: A Selection.)