[ Return to the review of “Man of My Time.” ]
I loved glass because it didn’t want to be defined. Was it solid molten earth or a liquid that moved so slowly that it seemed not to move at all, like the earth itself? I loved it, too, because through it I learned to see—the world appearing to me not as a smooth continuum but as a series of erratic shapes, reflected and refracted, changing color according to the time of day or the light in the sky. And I knew, besides, the heartbreak everyone experienced at the sound of shattering glass. A chipped pitcher, a splintered breakfast bowl, a shattered mirror—no other broken thing triggered such sorrow.
My father, believing that I was exhibiting the characteristics of glass, offered me a book, John Amos Comenius’s Orbis Pictus—a children’s pictorial encyclopedia from the seventeenth century—which he hoped would inject me with a dose of reality and make me more solid, less translucent. The full title was Visible World, or a Nomenclature, and Pictures, of All the Chief Things That Are in the World, and of Men’s Employments Therein. It was, said my father, the forebear to all subsequent children’s picture books, and pulling it out of his suitcase after a business trip to London, he placed it in my hand with the reverence one may devote to a prayer book. “Take good care of it,” he said, and kissed my forehead. Thinking that we might be performing some kind of religious ritual and hoping to live up to the moment’s gravity, I brought the book to my lips and kissed it. My father watched me for what felt like a very long time. “What is this nonsense?” he said, as he poured himself a glass of Cointreau. “Sentimentality, as Oscar Wilde observed, belongs to one who wishes to have the luxury of emotion without paying for it.”
That a book could contain the “visible world” seemed to me like an undeliverable promise. And soon I found that like all things in the visible world, this book could not fulfill its pledge: already in the second chapter there was a discussion of God, the most absent of all absentees, described as “a Light inaccessible . . . Everywhere and nowhere.” The accompanying drawing was nothing like the paintings of the white-bearded old men of Michelangelo and Benvenuto Tisi printed in my father’s reference books, but a sun with a triangle inside, along with letters in some undecipherable, extinct language. After an initial sense of betrayal, during which I convinced myself that I had been the victim of an inexcusable lie, I gradually came to admire the book’s lapse. Allowing the absent to enter the tyrannical assembly of the present was a silent concession by the author that the dead are not very far away, and it assured me that my own marble, with its snow owl cracked since birth, remained, despite my father’s casual murder of it, somewhere in this world.
After much deliberation I accepted John Comenius as one undertakes a new friendship. For many afternoons I sat fully clothed in the bathtub under the bottles and read his book, cover to cover, discovering its catalog of a seventeenth-century world, which had remained largely unchanged from my own—fire, air, clouds, water, earth, metals, stones, trees, flowers, corn, shrubs, singing birds, ravenous birds, water fowl, laboring beasts, wild beasts, serpents and creeping things, sea fish and shell fish, the outward parts of man, the head and the hand, the flesh and the bowels, the channels and bones, the outward and inward senses, the soul of man, husbandry, the making of honey, bread baking, fishing, fowling, butchery, cookery, the shoemaker, the carpenter, the mason, a house, a mine, the blacksmith, the traveler, the horseman, carriages, passing over waters, swimming, shipwreck, writing, paper, the book binder, a book, a school, geometry, the aspects of the planets, moral philosophy, prudence, diligence, temperance, fortitude, patience, humanity, justice, liberality, the tree of consanguinity, a city, judgment, the tormenting of malefactors, a burial, a stage play, the kingdom and the region, the army and the fight, the besieging of the city, religion, the last judgment, the close.
I didn’t initially grasp that the book was in Old English, and for weeks afterward I recited my favorite passage, which I dutifully memorized in my very poor English, to anyone who would listen, never understanding why it garnered so many laughs from the adults—namely my parents and my father’s associates from the Ministry—whom I had hoped to impress rather than amuse. The passage, which I still remember, was in the section describing man, and went as follows:
The inward Senses are Three:
The Common Sense, (under the forepart of the head),
apprehendeth things taken from the outward Senses.
The Phantasie, under the crown of the head judgeth of
those things, thinketh and dreameth,
The Memory, under the hinder part of the head, layeth
up every thing and fetcheth them out: it loseth some, and
this is forgetfulness.
Sleep is the rest of the Senses.