Friday, December 28, 2012

I forgive you, False Attribution

In October, thinking of December and this project of forgiving, I thought maybe I might write a post about an empty shell, harking back to the snail shell I began with.  I was thinking it might be something exquisite and spare.

I was replaying in my mind a poem a friend had sent me before we lost touch.  My lost friend, with whom I used to engage in small contests of taste which we disguised as gift-giving.  She had the advantage on me: ten years older, European relatives, an East Coast education, money.  But I had fun trying.  The candy tin in a dusty secondhand shop of a blond flapper deploying her dapper squadron of mustachioed marionettes with a careless gesture. A necklace of colored Indian corn.  Obscure books (see Out-of-Printness).

We are lost to each other now, but her gifts and quotes keep showing up in forgotten corners and falling out of long-unopened books.  This summer a poem fluttered out printed up in her idiosyncratic hand.

If thou couldst empty all thyself of self,
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the Ocean shelf,
And say — "This is not dead," —
And fill thee with Himself instead.

But thou art all replete with very thou,
And hast such shrewd activity,
That, when He comes, He says — "This is enow
Unto itself — 'Twere better let it be:
It is so small and full, there is no room for Me."

By Sir Thomas Browne, my once-friend had printed at the bottom, Sir Thomas Browne whom I have often felt I ought to read.  After all, Borges loved Sir Thomas Browne, translated him into Spanish, patterned his own writing on the "complexity of his labyrinthine thought."   Julian of Norwich and Sir Thomas Browne had this and that in common.

But that quote above?  It's also to be found on a Googled site that says my friend was wrong in her attribution, as perhaps in other things.

The Brown who wrote my lost friend's poem is the author of such whimsies as the late Victorian "A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!" Not the Renaissance Browne who is "widely considered one of the most original writers in the English language . . . 'an instance of scientific reason lit up by mysticism'", who rubs shoulders now in Literary Heaven with Borges and Julian.

And maybe, too, the girl I was is not so shallow and surfacey, as she finally told me that I was, once my too-ready applause paused and my emulation turned mulish.  Maybe it was not even a friendship, so admiring on one side, so exquisite on the other.

Or maybe it was and maybe I am:  still admiring, still shallow, still surfacey.  Like water, reflecting.

We can't all be deep.  God wot. 


leebee said...

Doesn't sound very forgiving, my friend. Angry still? You've mentioned this particular pain before. Why does it still ache so?

Intrigued particularly -- all the images of reflection (applause, emulation, admire) even shallow and surfacey make me think of a pond, a reflecting pool.

Are you stuck reflecting this relationship where it sounds you were the passive, rather than the active partner? Maybe anger is good. Maybe it's a way to be active, to break the surface of that smooth reflection?

Kevin Faulkner said...

Forgiveness helps life move on instead of festering. At first I was very annoyed with this misattribution as an example of lazy scholarship. However i now view it a classic example of Chinese whispers and of how Americans will believe almost anything without checking. I tired of playing whack-a-mole with this one long ago, luckily there are also scholarly Americans who have put this one to bed.

Emma J said...

Thanks, Kevin Faulkner, for making explicit the link to the penelope.uchicago site. I enjoyed especially how they describe there the process they went through to seek out the true author.

Are Britons more apt to check before passing the whisper on? I had thought it was just a human laziness. Rather more hopeful to think it's cultural and thus adjustable.

Emma J said...

leebee -- yes, I think there is an ache there. I hadn't noticed the mirroring in the images. Now you have me thinking.

Thanks, friend, for allowing even my anger to be healthy.

Kevin Faulkner said...

You're welcome. Agreed, laziness transcends nationality, though sometimes it does appear as if Americans can be slightly more gullible in believing anything encountered on the hint-a-net. It would be an interesting psychological experiment to verify this though. Actually it's more of a narrow case of protecting my home-city's cultural heritage from being misrepresented. A game of whack-a-mole in which Brits are outnumbered 5 to 1 in internet usage to USA.

Related Posts