One of the compensations of being an insomniac in a snowbound house full of books is that I can always find something to read and distract myself from whatever mood I’m in. When it gets real bad, I roam the dark house with a flashlight like Hamlet’s father’s ghost, pull books off the shelves, open them at random or thumb the pages until I find something of interest, and after reading it, either go back to bed happy or grope for another book.
I read only a passage or two, and at the most a page, because if I read more than that, I’m in danger of staying up half a night. All I require, to use a culinary term, is an amuse-bouche that leaves a pleasant aftertaste. Have you ever tried poetry, buster? The reader may be wondering. As a snooze-inducer, nothing comes close. Thanks to it, millions have slept like newborn babies over the centuries. Alas, being a poet myself and one of the muse’s darlings, I’m immune to her opiatic charms.
Here, instead, are the diaries of Hugo Ball, the avant-garde theater director and, with Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco, one of the founding members of Dada who on February 5, 1916 (ninety-nine years ago), opened the soon-to- be-famous Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. It was located in a disreputable neighborhood of bars, variety shows, and cheap hotels in an outwardly squeaky-clean and irreproachable city where many expatriate artists, writers, journalists, actors, and intellectuals running from the draft in their native countries were then living, as well as numerous war profiteers and spies. Lenin was renting a room in a narrow alley near where Joyce was working on Ulysses. The cabaret had room for only fifty people and a small stage where figures wearing masks and dressed in colorful costumes made from cardboard and poster paint, and accompanying themselves with drums, pot covers, and frying pans, enacted skits and recited poems in a language of their own invention that sounded like this:
Gadji beri bimba
Glandridi lauli lonni cadori
Gadjama bim beri glassala
Glandridi glassala tuffm Izimbrabim
Blassa galassasa tuffm Izimbrabim.
The members of the audience either headed for the door or rolled on the floor with laughter. The carnage of World War I was the backdrop and the target of the mockery was the European civilization that allowed it to happen. “We were celebrating both buffoonery and a requiem mass,” Ball wrote in his diary. History, as a tragic farce would not be out of place in a Broadway theater today and would be a welcome change, I thought once I was back in bed and fell asleep imagining its delights.
What I need to look at, I told myself another night, is Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, which the respected scholar and statesman wrote while awaiting execution in 524 in Pavia on trumped-up charges. It’s a story of a man, unjustly suffering and bemoaning his fate, having extended conversations with Philosophy, who appears to him as a highborn lady and tells him that wisdom and happiness may be found even in adversity, since it frees us from bondage to transient, earthly things, or something like that. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the book, so I had to console myself with David Hume, the famously obese eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher of whom his admiring contemporaries said that he cracked every chair he sat in. Leafing through hisOn Human Nature and the Understanding, I found this little parable:
Should a traveler, returning from a far country, bring us an account of men wholly different from any with whom we were ever acquainted, men who were entirely divested of avarice, ambition, or revenge, who knew no pleasure but friendship, generosity, and public spirit, we should immediately, from these circumstances, detect the falsehood and prove him a liar with the same certainty as if he had stuffed his narration with stories of centaurs and dragons, miracles and prodigies.
Hmm, I thought to myself after I read it, this reminds me a bit of those reports of Soviet Union under Stalin penned by some Parisian intellectual or a description by one of our own politicians of American Exceptionalism. As a sedative, however, it wouldn’t do. I’d get so excited thinking about the various ways Hume’s parable could be rewritten to make it more suitable to our present circumstances and I’d be up for a week.
Luckily, I found one of Barry Hannah’s books next. As Chamfort, the great French eighteenth-century wit observed: “That of all days is the most completely wasted in which one did not once laugh.” As a cure for melancholy, laughter beats philosophy, and the stories and novels of the late Mississippi writer are of the kind liable to cheer up even a man condemned to die.
Here, to give you an idea, is the beginning of a story called “Water Liars” from a collection of them called Airships:
When I am run down and flocked around by the world, I go down to Farte Cove off the Yazoo River and take my beers to the end of the pier where the old liars are still snapping and wheezing at one another. The line-up is always different, because they are always dying out, or succumbing to constipation, etc., whereupon they go back to the cabins and wait for a good day when they can come out and lie again, leaning on the rail with coats full of bran cookies. The son of the man the cove was named for is often out there. He pronounces his name Fartay, with a great French stress on the last syllable. Otherwise, you might laugh at his history or ignore it in favor of the name as it’s spelled on the sign.
I’m glad it’s not my name.
This poor dignified man has had to explain his nobility to the semiliterate of half of America before he could even begin a decent conversation with them. On the other hand, Farte, Jr., is a great liar himself. He tells about seeing ghost people around the lake and tell big loose ones about the size of the fish those ghosts took out of Farte Cove in years past…
Having previously read the story and knowing what was coming, reading this far was all that was required for my purpose, which was to close my eyes and go to sleep with a smile on my face.