26 November 2014

Five Authors, a Plagiarist, and a Prophet

ow that I am bereft of my library (collected over half a century), my notes (some going back to childhood), and my photocopies (going back at least to high school), I find myself constantly going back to the sometimes dubious resources of Wikipedia. Mind you, it’s improved enormously since I first looked at it years ago, when its articles appeared to be written by junior high school kids doing unwelcome assignments and off-base more often than on.
Looking over the piece on the day (26 November) I was struck by how many people I have some interest in happened to be born today. (That’s probably true of virtually any day, really; today just happened to strike me for whatever reason.) Thus we see that Theophilus Cibber, Colley Cibber’s son, was born on this date in 1703. Among other things he adapted Romeo and Juliet for the tastes of the Restoration theater. His is not the famous adaptation (that would be Otway’s Caius Marius) nor the one that held the stage the longest (that would be Garrick’s version), but it is part of the era’s dramatic history. I remember making a special trip to read it years ago in some library’s rare book room; now you can download it from Google Books.
On this date in 1731 William Cowper was born. This guy was a poet, whose seminal work The Task would influence writers as diverse as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Jane Austen. There’s a passage in it where he talks about “sober dreamers, grave and wise” who, for example, “write a narrative of wars and feats | of heroes little known, and call the rant, | An history.” (Guilty.) He passes on to biographers who “disentangle from the puzzled skein | In which obscurity has wrapp'd them up, | The threads of politic and shrewd design | That ran through all his purposes…” And my favorite, geologists who “driill and bore | The solid earth, and from the strata there | Extract a register, by which we learn | That he who mamde it and reveal'd its date | To Moses, was mistaken in its age.” (I love his confidence that it is the geologists who are mistaken, rather than those who vainly imagine that an ancient anthology of the folk tales of an obscure people is actually word from on high.) And then there are astronomers who “tell us whence the stars. Why some are fixt | And planetary some. What gave them first | Rotation, from what fountain flow'd their light.” (Their intellectual descendants have recently landed a probe on a comet. I wonder what Cowper would make of that.) It's all “learned dust” to Cowper: “And thus they spend | The little wick of life's poor shallow lamp, | In playing tricks with nature, giving laws | To distant world's, and trifling in their own.” I think we may well disagree about who was actually trifling here.
And speaking of triflers, it was on this date in 1827 that Ellen G. White, prophet and plagiarist, was born. It was during the wreckage of William Miller’s pipe-dreams in 1844 that she first came to notice with prophecies of reassurance for the scattered faithful. Largely copied from obscure pamphlets and forgotten tomes, they eventually grew into books themselves, such as the bizarre phantasmagoria The Great Controversy. (Although her copying of the works of others is well-documented, Wikipedia currently treats the fact as though there was some doubt about it. Power to the people, I guess.) White got a section in my lost book Doubtful History (a book to which I devoted countless hours of research and writing and which my family threw out like so much trash) due to her fantastic historical notions; when writing about the purely imaginary christians who supposedly kept her unhistorical faith she noted “The history of God’s people during the ages of darkness that followed upon Rome’s supremacy, is written in Heaven. But they have little place in human records. Few traces of their existence can be found ….” Faith like that moves mountains I guess—on paper, anyway.
On the other end of the human spectrum we have a true prophet, Norbert Wiener, born on this date in 1894. One of his books—I believe it must have been Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, was an enormous influence on my thinking when I was twelve or so. I never owned a copy of it, and the library refused to let me check it out (it’s too difficult for you, one librarian kindly explained), so I mostly read it there, taking notes and committing ideas to memory. I was originally interested in using feedback to design mechanisms that could mimic living organisms; I got intrigued with the whole notion of similarities among systems whether mechanical, organic, or social.
Also born on this date were Eugène Ionesco (1909), Frederik Pohl (1919), and Charles M. Schulz (1922)—a playwright, a novelist, and a cartoonist. Rhinoceros reflected my sense of detachment from the madness of surrounding society, Gladiator-at-Law (written with Cyril Kornbluth) my feelings abotut its power-structure, and But We Love You, Charlie Brown my impressions of the tragedy of life (“The laughter of little children” my ass). All of them moved me in some way to some degree during my (shall we say?) childhood. (Well, I think I was fourteen when I read Rhinoceros.)
None of these people maybe have anything real in common, only the false connection of sharing a common date of birth. But what the hell—it gave me something write about something to distract me from the horror of the present, during the dark hours when I should have been sleeping.

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