Thursday 11 September 2008

All the Strange Hours

One day, nothing to read. These bleak occasions in the bookshop always come; they always go. The best book yet is always yet to come. My latest best book yet is Loren Eiseley's memoir, All the Strange Hours. A beautifully, beautifully written book, a dream of a writer, hitherto unknown to me. Yet another example of how, while assiduously importing the worst of US culture, we often remain ignorant of the best.

It's a memoir complete and satisfying in its depth, not its comprehensiveness. Reviewers have made much of his remarkably few words about his wife of many years. Ready to resent this on her behalf, I somehow couldn't, since this is not so much the story of his life as an account of what it felt like to be Loren Eiseley, to be his mother's son, a young man in the Depression, an unlikely scholar and finally an eminent one. A large mind hovers over an aerial map of his memories and homes in on the pressure points, the deep wells and secret ways in.

Such writing. Just, wow.
" I am an evolutionist. I believe my great backyard Sphexes have evolved like other creatures. But watching them in the October light as one circles my head in curiosity, I can only repeat my dictum softly: in the world there is nothing to explain the world. Nothing to explain the necessity of life, nothing to explain the hunger of the elements to become life, nothing to explain why the stolid realm of rock and soil and mineral should diversify itself into beauty, terror, and uncertainty. To bring organic novelty into existence, to create pain, injustice, joy, demands more than we can discern in the nature that we analyse so completely. Worship, then, like the Maya, the unknown zero, the procession of the time-bearing gods. The equation that can explain why a mere Sphex wasp contains in its minute head the ganglionic centers of its prey has still to be written. in the world there is nothing below a certain depth that is truly explanatory. It is as if matter dreamed and muttered in its sleep. But why, and for what reason it dreams, there is no evidence."

" In the animal world lines of definition are not as severely drawn as in the civilized one we inhabit. This bird
[an African Crane in the Philadelphia zoo], under the impulse of spring, made some intricate little steps in my direction and extended its wings. Now I too believe in friendliness and spring festivities. I realised that the bird saw me as a vertical creature of the proper appearance to be a potential mate. To simplify things for her unlettered offspring, nature imparts, as in this case, a recognition of the vertical. After all, what is a face to a creature with a large bill?
... I extended my arms, fluttered and flapped them. After looking carefully up and down the walk to verify that we were alone, I executed what I hoped was the proper enticing shuffle and jigged about in a circle. So did my partner. We did this a couple of times with mounting enthusiasm when I happened to see a park policeman sauntering in our direction. I dropped my arms and came to a direct, meditative halt."

" Everything in the mind is in rat's country. It doesn't die. They are merely carried, these desperate memories, back and forth in the desert of a billion neurons, set down, picked up, and dropped again by mental pack rats. Nothing perishes, it is merely lost till a surgeon's electrode starts the music of an old player piano whose scrolls are dust. Or you yourself do it, tossing in the restless nights, or even in the day on a strange street when a hurdy-gurdy plays. Nothing is lost, but it can never be again as it was. You will only find the bits and cry out because they were yourself."


Dale said...

Such a marvelous book, yes! It came to help me at a particularly difficult time, when I was just out of college and utterly lost. He made being utterly lost seem like not such a bad thing.

And the whole book glows with the reverence for natural intricacies and mysteries that always illuminates my father. So it was home, that way.

litlove said...

This sounds wonderful and I had never heard of the author. Straight onto my wish list.

Jean said...

Litlove, don't you recognise this? It's the book that Vivian Gornick praises so highly in The Situation and the Story. So I have you to thank for sending me to Loren Eiseley.

Jean said...

Dale, how strange to think of you reading this not long after it came out (though after his death, I guess), while I discover it half a lifetime later. I wonder what I would have made of this when I was that age. Less than you did, I fear. I was so lost at that age, I didn't even know I was lost.

Lucy said...

That's bloody good, isn't it? I'd never heard of him either, but I want to find out more. You're very good at this...

Anonymous said...

Eiseley was the first real science writer that I encountered as a teen. Thank you for this sample voice, which never oversold the product as Asimov, Sagan and Dawkins could sometimes do.

Yes, Darwin covers the topic of life only in the sense that a total eclipse covers the sun. The beauty is all around the edges.