A Book In The Darkness

Charles Simic in NYRB blog:

Vallotton_jpg_250x1111_q85One 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.

…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.

Read the rest here.