1 / Forbidden Pleasure
I really started to read in earnest as my sight began to fail when I was twelve. I had learned how to read a few years earlier, as any kid would, but this became more of a secretive, obsessional delusion, a pondering over words that left me groping and gasping, wandering through the corridors of etymology and wondering about the consequences of language. These activities were strangely both unhealthful and unlawful for me at the time.
In fact, reading was forbidden. My eyes were just too sensitive to tolerate any light. I had spent the previous summer in a perpetual squint, unsuccessfully trying to lure potential playmates into innocently sandy pleasures under the boardwalk in Long Beach, Long Island, cool and protected from the blinding sun.
Two large brown doleful eyes: irritated, itching incessantly with a dry rasp. In the mornings, they were caked with a congealing discharge and had to be bathed with boric acid solution. My left eye was constantly at half-mast, its lid drooping like a punctured parachute. Often, when I was awake, my vision would be blurred by bitter, seeping fluids.
Any aversion to so fundamental a quality as light might suggest a metaphysical dimension. "Optics," the medical term for "sight," derives from the Greek word for "eye" and is the root of the word "optimism." We associate the light with everything positive in our world, with knowledge, happiness and nature's bounty. Indeed, although my condition was medical, it had spiritual origins of which I was unaware.
Afflicted by a rare condition known as vernal catarrh, a growth on the inner eyelids encroaching on the cornea, I was limited to radio, and eagerly anticipated each spooky episode of Lamont Cranston in The Shadow, or The Lone Ranger, the western adventures of the masked man on his white stallion who posed as an outlaw but always did the right thing. I could listen to early monologists like Jean Shepherd or even occasionally Lord Buckley, or tune in to Symphony Sid, who played jazz until dawn. There was a special license in this activity which was out of parental control and exclusively in mine. Except for the radio and the cooling, tranquil dimness, I had only the slow passage of moments. Living without shadows, behind venetian blinds which were taped into place so that even a breeze could not disturb them, and unable to see invited access to an interior space usually unfamiliar to twelve-year-old boys. One way to reach that space was through reading, which had been placed out of bounds for me because, of course, it required light and strained my eyes.
Disabilities can cause their curious compensations, but my case was a story of disobedience as well. I had announced that quality of troublesome prankishness at the age of four, when I threw my grandmother's hat out of the window.
My father's mother, Manya--a small, scowling woman who limped with a cane--suffered from an advanced case of diabetes which would end her life shortly. She had every right to be peevish and irritable. Her illness and consequent frailty provoked me, and by sending her hat with its artificial roses and veil cascading down to West End Avenue on a blustery afternoon, I was voting for health, my own at least. I admit the incident left me with a certain reputation for wildness in my family, and it did nothing for my health.
My bedroom prison was a place of safety, as every bedroom is a sanctuary of sorts. Reading, mostly at night when everyone else was asleep, defied the injunction of my mother and the ophthalmic surgeon who every few months decided he had to curtail the growth approaching my cornea. This operation, which Dr. Chamlin minimized as a "procedure," was the most frightening aspect of my childhood. Strapped on an operating table, I had to watch a needle delivering the anesthesia penetrate my inner eyelid, gradually piercing deeper, burrowing and slicing, while releasing its liquid. Years later, I saw a similar tableau of horror flash by in the opening moments of Un chien andalou, a short film by Bunuel in which, early in the film, an eye is sliced by a razor blade, its contents pouring out like an outsized tear.
All I would feel during the procedure was the dry scratching of the scalpel as the growth was being removed. A meticulous spider was trapped in my skull, engaged in a sort of paraplegic Kafkian crawl to freedom through the portal of my eye. Although the surgery lasted less than ten minutes, it seemed endless. Dr. Chamlin was a very short man resembling the actor James Cagney. Imperious, almost Napoleonic, radiating authority and control, he ordered me into my dark room after his seventh attempt at shaving my inner eyelid.
2 / A Lowlands Confluence
It was under these compromised circumstances that I began reading Herman Melville's stories, a collection I borrowed from my parents' library. The magniloquence of Melville's embroidering reach, the clotted, sometimes coagulated syntax of some of his sentences, his capacity for a circular sentence strategy to accommodate one qualification after another all reflected the complexity of his thought. The richness of his diction and the Elizabethan reach of his language--the word "welkin" used three times for blue in Billy Budd, for example--did much to deter me in a quest I have already characterized as "delusional," fogged by uncertain vision and the limitations of being twelve. But I had a dictionary to help me like some monk in the medieval night, and the adventurous content of Melville's sea stories to sustain my interest.
But instead of the monk's candle and its telling scent, I had a heavy flashlight whose white beam meant focus. Reading is a form of decoding, an unscrambling of what are essentially a series of abstract signs with little organic or inherent significance, signs which need to be deciphered and then visualized for the sake of comprehension. Though we tend to take this process for granted, it is one of our most intelligent opportunities in the world. Most of us rush along while we read, eager to turn the page, conditioned to move in life as relentlessly as factory workers with a drone ethic. But the best readers are the slowest. Speed-reading--an American invention--turns out to be skimming, which is not reading at all.
Limited as I was, squinting and tearing because of the very light that illuminated my page, with the buoy of Melville's seriousness in my hand, I made deliberate and very slow progress, with time demarcated only by the prospect of the dawn and the fear of discovery.
At twelve I should have been reading Zane Grey, Black Beauty or Jack London's Call of the Wild, great stories written in a more accessible manner. I had been led to Melville because of a mutual Dutch background.
I was born in Antwerp, a port city about a half-hour drive south of the frontier with Holland. My father and his father had been born there before me, and from childhood I was taught about its European reputation as the "city of iconoclasts." The soul of that reputation had slowly evolved through the sixteenth century, a time of fierce repression of Protestants in Antwerp by Spanish Catholic overlords.
Belgium and Holland were separated by Spain after the Renaissance, trussed into tiny countries by a larger power. Flemish, a dialect related to Dutch, was spoken in the northern half of Belgium, the part contiguous with Holland. The Walloons were mostly Protestants in the South who spoke French, even though for centuries they were the butt of Parisian jokes which identified all Belgians as unrefined cartoons in a provincial backwater. Actually, although the Dutch get the official credit, the original settlers of the fort that became Nieu Amsterdam were thirty Walloon families, the clerks and accountants who administered the Dutch West India Company, which acquired New York.
The Walloons have had an abiding contempt for their Dutch cousins, and one index of European xenophobia, ever since modern Belgium was established early in the nineteenth century, has been the mutual disdain of the French and the Flemish in Belgium, who have generally refused to even speak the other's language.
The "nether-," or "lowlands," the rubric for the entire area, gets its name from the peculiar fact that much of its shoreline is below sea level, implying both a particular vulnerability to the ocean and a stoical, stubborn resistance to its perils. The people who live there tend to be imperturbable, stolid, full of a preservative, tough sanity that helps them to stare down the sea even when it is at its most turbulent, or when its presence ensures incessant rain, fog and dreary weather. The inhabitants of the lowlands accept their geography and, as all people must, allow themselves to be somehow shaped by it. It is the calm stare and placid pose Vermeer so often caught in his paintings, a beautiful certainty in static arrest. However, the implacable and indomitable North Sea can cause its particular creative backlash, a wild subterranean manic spirit struggling with the Dutch placidity that one can sometimes see in the cornices and Gothic arabesques carved on the outsides of buildings in Antwerp, or in the paintings of Breugel, Bosch, Van Gogh or Magritte.
The Dutch tend to be both cosmopolitan because they were a seafaring people and, inexplicably, smugly insular in their prosperity. In the seventeenth century, when they settled Nieu Amsterdam, they were reputed to be the most tolerant of different religious practice among the Europeans--which is why the English Puritans settled in Leyden before emigrating to Massachusetts---but a more cynical perspective may affirm that their true god was Mammon and trade was what they worshiped. Banks, as Simon Schama puts it in The Embarrassment of Riches, were the churches of Dutch capitalism.
Today, we know the Wall Street area in lower Manhattan as the central shrine of world finance, but originally it was the perimeter wall of a fort. Nieu Amsterdam, it is...
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