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Monday, March 26. 2012
From Life on the Mississippi (1883)
Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the sombre shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.
I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river's face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, in this fashion: "This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody's steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling 'boils' show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the 'break' from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark?"
No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty's cheek mean to a doctor but a "break" that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn't he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn't he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?
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And yet a scientist will tell you that knowing the myriad scientific details behind, say, a California golden poppy, makes it all the more attractive.
I am dubious.
Knowing the Linnaean binomial nomenclature (Eschscholzia californica) detracts from the wonder of the common name, which evokes visions of distant wealth and opium.
Who's the better for that?
A = Pi (r * r)
And for all that, her beauty still remains in my heart and memory.
The romance probably evaporates from a lot of "romantic" vocations. It sure did for me in trans-ocean flying and the travel that goes with it, way back when.
Las Vegas has a certain kind of magic the first time you see the lights of the Strip as a tourist... but after 20 years of residency, the magic's faded, a little.
--i think Twain is talking about women --or more specifically, the way he knows the arc of 'her' feelings --about him --must progress. Bittersweet, my faverite wurd
That's a good one, Bird Dog. Here's another Twain quote about the river that I've always liked. It's from his Life on the Mississippi:
I had myself called with the four o'clock watch, mornings, for one cannot see too many summer sunrises on the Mississippi. They are enchanting. First, there is the eloquence of silence; for a deep hush broods everywhere. Next, there is the haunting sense of loneliness, isolation, remoteness from the worry and bustle of the world. The dawn creeps in stealthily; the solid walls of black forest soften to gray, and vast stretches of the river open up and reveal themselves; the water is glass-smooth, gives off spectral little wreaths of white mist, there is not the faintest breath of wind, nor stir of leaf; the tranquillity is profound and infinitely satisfying. Then a bird pipes up, another follows, and soon the pipings develop into a jubilant riot of music. You see none of the birds; you simply move through an atmosphere of song which seems to sing itself. When the light has become a little stronger, you have one of the fairest and softest pictures imaginable. You have the intense green of the massed and crowded foliage near by; you see it paling shade by shade in front of you; upon the next projecting cape, a mile off or more, the tint has lightened to the tender young green of spring; the cape beyond that one has almost lost color, and the furthest one, miles away under the horizon, sleeps upon the water a mere dim vapor, and hardly separable from the sky above it and about it. And all this stretch of river is a mirror, and you have the shadowy reflections of the leafage and the curving shores and the receding capes pictured in it. Well, that is all beautiful; soft and rich and beautiful; and when the sun gets well up, and distributes a pink flush here and a powder of gold yonder and a purple haze where it will yield the best effect, you grant that you have seen something that is worth remembering.
I believe he wrote this in his later years. Perhaps he'd managed to recapture some of his youthful enchantment by then.
That was a good one, BD.
Enchantment or the melancholy of age, jhc. His mellifluous mind maundering much like his munificent and magnificent Mississippi.
Excellent use of alliteration, XRay! And poetic. It's a nice touch.
Excellent yourself, Jephnol. 5/7/5/. Perfect, and well done.
Leaving a current, or miasma of mystery, just adds.
How fascinating! I read "Life on the Mississippi" ages ago, and that passage has always enthralled me. I keep coming back to it every time that I see a beautiful sunset or fabulous vista; what we understand often loses its magnificence. In knowing all the details, we sometimes lose track of the big picture.
Literally, we "cannot see the forest for the trees"!
Richard Feynman would argue that knowing the scientific details did not remove the ability to appreciate the wonder and beauty of the flower, or a sunset, or a river, or....
Courtesy of Kottke.org
Twain ironically was one of the rare folks who could 'butter the parsnips' with that normally impractical exaltation of the divine sublime.
butter the parsnips
the divine sublime
You got me started on this, Buddy. Now I can't stop. I'm not angry. I'm just sayin'.
--o language, you is SUCH an intrigue --i did actually labor those two sets (not 'parsnips' --i think that may be a Churchill). But, already too late a night, already driving it in and breaking it off, so why not try to think up a synonym for the plain word 'normal'? Furthermore, since 'normal' is exactly the right word for 'normal', why scatter the meaning?
Well, normal is just not interesting, it's just not an interesting word, it's just too normal.
What? --"too" normal?
Whoa, doesn't that mean 'not normal enough'?
Yes but --oh heck --better have a slug of coffee and spark up a marlboro and muse some upon that English ineluctable modality of visible meaning --and also upon that inky apparition in silhouette over there cross coffee table beyond divan in the shadows round the window, the shabby, disheveled, worn-out doppelganger Myster Insomniak has now quit the Solitaire and being very still slowly inches his discard hand toward that damned butterfly net hanging on that damned moose head again
And you can no longer use the river for any of the things he saw back then. Don't try and live on it. Don't build anything around it (unless you are rich.) "The Road to Serfdom" talks about judging how free a society is by the activity. If you look at old pictures of life around a river, any river, the activity will astound you. Look at the same river now and it looks like an architect's drawing.
--by god, you're right --old pictures are just tumbling with river activity --now the riverside is like an art deco futurist drawing from the 30s --no people!
Twain, in my ever humble opinion, was and is the best American author. Sorry, nobody beats good old W. Shakespeare for best all world, English language author.
To what things can and cannot be done in this 'free' country. There are numerous former Soviet and East German residents who speak to the fact that America today is less free than the former east block was under communism. So, it's not a pretty picture.
I can tell you that a NJ resident was fined (heavily) and almost jailed for killing a rat several years ago. That's a fact. And I guess that says it all.
My image of a river has developed over many years. At first I saw it as a thing, like a hill or a tree. After giving it some thought I realized that it was a moving thing and was introduced to the notion that "no man can step in the same river twice" and that it was the water that was the river, and I saw the water as the thing. Years later, and many years ago I was driving through the southwestern desert, a flat unbroken plain with a line of brown hills in the far distance. The monotony was broken as the road dropped about 20' to another plane and then a signpost announced 'The Green River' and another dip of 20' or so. There was no water. There wasn't even a bridge. And then up 20' to a plane and up another 20' to the desert floor. Once every ten years or so there was water. So a river then became a place or a feature of the surface. It stayed so for many years but seemed incomplete. Add water and the river becomes an event in a place. This seemed to fit the temporal nature Heraclitus referred to. Then I began stretching the concept. A tree, a blade of grass became events. A particular description of cells at the junction of the sky and the ground. Just add water. Clouds are an event, as are storms, snow and rain. Raindrops. Snowflakes. Wind.
Wandering further, seemingly permanent features became events, hills and valleys, boulders and pebbles. Time went away and left only coincidence.