Jan/Feb 2020  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Castaway's New Year's Resolution

Comments by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

I received a review copy of W. S. Merwin's recent translation of Dante's Purgatorio. It was the better part of a year ago now. How one reviews a translation of the Divine Comedy I cannot tell you. I allowed it to motivate me to add a PDF component to my Dante library shelf. Not surprisingly, the quality of my Dante volumes—already solid—was increased several times over.

Most of my paper volumes on the topic came to me during the years I lived as something of a hermit. Public and college libraries had begun to cull their stacks. With the advent of the Internet, the classics lost what little general audience remained to them. Library branches were closing. Those that remained built new Internet computer rooms rather than grow ghostly, populated by napping homeless people.

Thousands of books they received each year by way of donations waited in the boxes in which they arrived. Shrinking budgets received a boost from selling rather than expending funds cataloguing and shelving them.

Volumes that would have cost prohibitive amounts of money only a few years before appeared for 50 cents or a dollar in a landscape suddenly burgeoning with library book sales. Upon his passing, weird Uncle Dave's library—surprisingly many families still had one—was donated and appeared beside them. His Oxford English Dictionary became my own, on the shelf beside my Duden dictionaries, a growing row of dialect dictionaries and not so Petit Larousses.

Soon the market was so flooded with used books that prices of the overflow donated to thrift shops went down as low as 20 books for a dollar on sale. A gratifying number were books I never dreamed I'd have the chance to pull off my own shelves to read. Urquhart's Rabelais, Grote's History of Greece, Scott's Hermetica, hundreds more: there was no room for the flood of books arriving at the loading docks. Virginia Wolfe, Lavoisier, John Burroughs: they had to go.

I had haunted used book shops since before I was a teenager. This was a dream come true. I had essentially grown up among the cultural ruins left behind by World War I, knew the old- and avant-garde reading lists intimately well. Having escaped the madding crowd, I had the leisure to read them with attention, outside on fine days, inside beneath a dull yellow incandescent bulb on stormy nights.

Years away from the world of computer engineering, advancement through schmoozing and marginal competence, and joint tax returns, I was not particularly attentive, at first, to the appearance of the Internet. Fate brought my moldering computer skills together with free equipment, however.

Some years later, the technologies improved and Google Books (and, eventually, others) revealed another treasure trove of books I never thought I'd be able to put on my shelves (albeit digitally).

There had been a period during which I was in training, as it were, for the role of hermit. Mostly it involved resisting and trying to figure out a way around it. Little by little, I was spending more time reflecting upon the late afternoon sunlight in old Dutch neighborhoods in Upstate New York and the life that was led beneath it. A world was dying, it seemed in that light. We were determined to continue drawing on the principal accumulated by past generations—by the earth itself—and to call it the profit of our efforts.

The feeling has persisted now through years of pretty much normal joy and heartbreak. Our technologies continue to astonish and enrich. Around them we live in a dying world—always fading like the late afternoon sun, parts at times ominously collapsing.

The ends of worlds can be frightening if one hasn't spent a decade or so as a hermit. More likely, they will prove impossible to perceive, to accept. It is vitally important, however, that we hand along what resources are possible in order that the new world that must follow may have a chance to thrive.

For this to be possible, we must see past the end with its eat, drink and be merry, its financial and emotional credit cards, and its realpolitik. We must develop ways to husband what is left of the principal the past struggled so hard to hand along such that the new world has a fighting chance. In so many ways, there are profound reasons to think we have already failed at this and cannot help but fail far worse still.

So much that we have come to stand upon as solid earth, unquestionable principle, our profoundest truths, is little more than a brief, expensive illusion... than spending principal. The easy confidence we have in widely divergent truths that anyone of good will would acknowledge, the fury and despair we feel that others selfishly reject them, are signs of our dedication to spending said principal to the last penny.

Life forced me to have a gratifyingly small carbon footprint. I've improved upon it to a tiny extent as a matter of will. It made me occupy a smaller than average floor space. I've learned to fit a full life into it. It made me live the life of a castaway, and I've made it my responsibility to compose that harsh blessing into so many notes in so many bottles. Not so you will see one wash up onshore somewhere and discover the coordinates at which I may be rescued as much as that you will discover the coordinates at which you may.

It's an insidious habit, I know—offering perspective where none is asked. I work tirelessly for the love of it and you, traveling through wondrous kingdoms of Proust and ancient codicils, the library of Herculaneum and my own labyrinthine shelves, traversing vast expanses of apartment, mind-palace, and caliginous terabyte virtual halls.

These days, I occasionally allow myself a luxurious few evenings of reading the 1907 third edition of William Warren Vernon's Readings On The Purgatorio of Dante Chiefly Based on the Commentary of Benvenuto Da Imola. By and by I dip into the same canto translated by Merwin. In case of a dilemma, it's off to Charles Singleton's classic prose translation and commentary. I begin to think I may gradually be understanding a bit here and there. Toward what end I cannot say.

Of course, no one is truly tireless. This as every New Year I resolve to continue, to figure out new means to a better success. It promises to continue to be utterly discouraging. I can't imagine doing anything else.


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