Wednesday, February 12, 2014

In a Brown Study

When I first encountered the phrase brown study in British authors of the early twentieth century I was ignorant of its meaning but imposed upon it the absurd notion that it must refer to a special room in a man’s house.  Even gross error confidently embraced is not easily dislodged and only later did I come to appreciate the idiom as defined by Brewer.  A brown study is a certain frame of mind, “apparent thought, but real vacuity.  The corresponding French expression explains it—sombre rĂ©verie.  Sombre and brun both mean sad, melancholy, gloomy, dull.”           

            I am always uneasy about starting an essay when, as now, I am unsure what it will be about—beyond being the product of a brown study, that is.  It might be a tribute to smart Jewish girls.  It might be a commendation of literary study.  On the other hand it might be of a more conventional, not to say tedious genre—grandparental chortling about cute things their grandchildren say.

            But no essay could be plagued by more “mixed messages” than the recent slice of life it will attempt to report.  About a week ago we learned that a very dear friend, Joanna Lipking, had died in her sleep in Evanston IL on February 1st.  Jo was married to Larry Lipking, my Princeton colleague in the sixties and seventies.  The Flemings and the Lipkings, who were still young, barely, hung out together and formed that bond of friendship that only the youthful can form.  Jo was brilliant, crackling with intellectual energy, and she expressed her strong opinions emphatically.  We were sad when the Lipkings moved on to Northwestern, where both were offered appointments in the English Department.  

            The friendship continued, of course, but in the distant and intermittent mode dictated by geography.  We had all been together fairly recently, when we discussed plans, long agreed upon in principle, to travel together in Sicily.  That, alas, can never happen.  The proposed trip must remain forever an emblem of many things undone and conversations not had.  That is how death works, or one of its ways.

            It will take me a while to wrap my mind around this latest evidence of our common mortality, though as one grows old one also becomes more familiar with the sting.  And if in the midst of life we are in death, it works the other way around, too.  The week before we had been in New York at a brunch to celebrate the eleventh birthday of our delightful granddaughter Lulu.  Lulu is another dark-haired beauty of fierce intelligence, interested in practically everything, and precociously talented in the pursuit of many of them.  She had already had a “real” party of her peers.  This was a ceremonial event mainly populated by her elders, including two of her godparents—two eminent academics, natch.

            Her godmother, who happens to live in the same apartment building, is Catharine (Kate) Stimpson, a prominent professor of modern literature and women’s studies, a novelist, and a past president of the Modern Language Association.  Those are some of the public externals one would find on her vita, to which those who know her even so slightly as I do would have to add achievements considerably more important, such as “fine woman” or “excellent person”.  What does one give an eleven-year-old for her birthday?  What does one give this eleven-year-old?  We had chosen a couple of nice little things for her, but Kate Stimpson gave her a copy of the Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson.

            I shall refrain from launching into an ill-informed encomium of Emily Dickinson, except to say of her short poems what Saint Gregory says about the Bible.  Here is a gentle stream in which the lamb may safely wade; here is a mighty river into which the elephant can plunge.  But I wondered if little Lulu was really “ready”?

            I knew I was.  When I heard the news of Jo Lipking’s death, one of the first things I did was to return to one of Dickinson’s most haunting and enigmatic poems, a poem about death and the “safety” or consecrated indifference of the dead.

                Safe in their Alabaster Chambers -
                Untouched by Morning - 
                and untouched by noon -
                Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection, 
                Rafter of Satin and Roof of Stone - 

                Grand go the Years, 
                In the Crescent above them -           
                Worlds scoop their Arcs - 
                and Firmaments - row -
                Diadems - drop -
                And Doges surrender -
                Soundless as Dots, 
                On a Disk of Snow.

I do not pretend fully to understand this poem, but I don’t know a more striking line in English than “Rafter of Satin and Roof of Stone”.  I believe the final lines—the silent dots on the disk of snow—make technical allusion to telegraphy, the cybernetic wonder of the nineteenth century, but again I am not certain.  Does any of my readers have an idea?

            “The mind is its own place,” as Milton’s Satan famously observed.  The mind is seldom wholly occupied with a single theme.  There is a jostling competition for the mind’s attention, and mine was settled on some electrical problems related to a recent ice storm when a few days ago I got an email from my daughter leaking what was pretty clearly the firstfruits of Lulu’s close encounter with the newest book in her library.  Lulu had written her own first poem.  It is not a Dickinsonian imitation, but it is certainly of Dickinsonian inspiration.  And it connects.

            What is Brown?

            Brown is the Forest Underground
            An otter resting
            In the lake
            And the swamp
            When it's about to wake.
            It's the smell of the old book shop
            When you come in
            And the queer silence 
            When you start to stop.
            A color like no other
            But it's always chosen last
            And you always realize it
            When the time has long been past.
            It's only just a shade
            Speaking like an artist,
            A bit of all the colors
            In a sweet-simple serenade.
                                    Lulu Fleming-Benite