Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Following Story

When, Herbert Mussert, narrator of Ces Nooteboom’s The Following Story, wakes in Lisbon after having gone to sleep the evening before in Amsterdam, he finds himself in the bedroom where he began a love affair 20 years earlier. A pedantic, elitist misogynist, Mussert—“Meatball” to his lover—taught classics in a Lisbon private school. Now mysteriously in Lisbon again, he tells us that he writes Dr. Strabo’s travel books, carefully withholding information about important writers from the “fools” and “sods” who buy the guides.

Dr. Strabo’s Portugal guide limits information about Ferdinand Pessoa to a description of Lisbon’s Brasileira, where the poet drank nightly. “For the rest I’d rather keep my mouth shut,” Mussert writes. He won’t “breathe a word about... the liquid multiform persona who still roams the streets of Lisbon in all his brilliance, who has insinuated himself invisibly in tobacconists, quaysides, walls, dark cafes…” Having left teaching decades before, Mussert has no interest in educating, especially the plebian readers of his guides. Travelers who had written about his failure to explain how to read the clock in the British Bar. “Ninety-one correspondents have so far explained to me that you can tell the proper time on the clock by looking in the mirror. Only they didn’t add ‘meatball’.”

The wall of the Lisbon bedroom holds a portrait of the “overestimated” Luis de Camoes, generally considered Portugal’s greatest poet, and an engraving of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. We may take the portrait as a sign of Mussert’s elitism and his greater admiration of Pessoa. The engraving is a reminder of a seminal event in Lisbon’s history, the earthquake that killed as many as 100,000 people.

The effects of the disaster extended far beyond Portugal, shaking many in Europe and America of their belief in God’s benevolent plan for the world. Most famously, Voltaire used the earthquake in Candide to attack the logic of Leibniz’s assertion that this is the best of all possible worlds. The tremors reached Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. in Boston a century after the quake. Holmes, a physician, had made important advances in containing communicable disease, coined the word “anesthetic,” and developed the stethoscope into a modern medical instrument. His was a scientific mind open to rationality and closed to “forms of speculation which involve an approach to the absurd.”

The quote comes from Holmes’ The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, a once hugely popular collection of mostly one-sided conversations between a narrator and guests at a boarding house. The Autocrat includes the poem about the “one-hoss-shay,” the story of a deacon’s futile attempt to build a buggy that will not wear out, as all buggies must. The deacon finishes building the buggy on the day of the Lisbon earthquake. The buggy disintegrates all at once exactly one hundred years later. “Logic is logic,” the poem concludes.

Written in mid-nineteenth century Boston, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table is unflaggingly optimistic about the power of rational thought to advance civilization. “All economical and practical wisdom is an extension or variation of the following arithmetical formula: 2 + 2 = 4,” the autocrat declares in the book’s opening paragraph. The deacon’s effort to build an everlasting buggy violates the universal, empirically verifiable logic implied by this formula, as do attempts to account for a deity who would prevent disaster in the face of forces that threaten catastrophe.

Faced with the carnage of the Civil War, Holmes’ son, who later would become one of the great justices of the United States Supreme Court, went further than his father, jettisoning logic and rationality for the time being because they were useless in explaining the war experience. Echoing his father’s arithmetical formula, Holmes Jr. wrote home from the battlefield, “I have you scout the possibility of the human reason ever conceiving that 1+1=3 and 2+2=5—and further deny the possibility of the truth of this proposition.” It can be true, the young Holmes argues, “wh.[en] our senses would present us of the juxtaposition of one perceptible to a second” that results in a third. The argument is cryptic, drawing upon the writings of a long-forgotten Dutch physicist, but it was important enough for Holmes to keep in the diary he heavily edited after the war.

The volumes that have been written about the sea change in rationality and faith since Holmes’ day would make a substantial private library in themselves. We, however, have no need to trace the meandering path that has led us to accept without a blink how space and time fragment and slip away from Herbert Mussert. Mussert is talking to us when he says of one of his fellow voyagers at the end of the novel, “he had been taken by how logically—that was the word he had used—his life had taken its course.”

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