Cover image for A book of reasons
A book of reasons
Vernon, John, 1943-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
Physical Description:
xii, 272 pages ; 22 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


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Material Type
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PS3572.E76 Z465 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
PS3572.E76 Z465 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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"History in its minute particulars touches us all, and in the least expected ways." Every family has its odd character, the one member who never seems right with the world. In his brilliant pairing of family history with the history of civilization, John Vernon discovers the extraordinary sources of ordinary things in the life of his reclusive brother, Paul. When Paul died and John was charged with settling his affairs, he came face to face with a life he had never suspected. His brother's house in southern New Hampshire was in a state of squalid, shocking disrepair: piled high with a lifetime of trash, unheated and decrepit, pitifully unlivable. An assembly worker and an amateur inventor, Paul had managed to keep his sad and strange world hidden. The story of this troubled soul is at once fascinating and tragic. And more: it cries out for reasons. Why does a childhood full of promise turn wrong? Why do we clutter our lives with things? How do we make and understand our world? Vernon seeks answers in the most unexpected places. Buying a hammer and thermometer at Wal-Mart, that icon of consumerism, inspires a short history of tools and the discovery of mercury. Paul's wake occasions an investigation of blood circulation and embalming. Vernon voyages through science and physiology, culture and mythology, on a search "for a way to comprehend a life that left behind not splendid monuments but ordinary wreckage." The result is a book of reasons: reasons for his brother's way of life, reasons for his own response to Paul's death. Bringing to bear the narrative powers that distinguished his acclaimed historical novels Peter Doyle and All for Love, Vernon links the story of one odd individual to the surprising and irregular upheavals of history. In the process, he discovers how reasons, for all of us, are one means of learning to accept things that can never be explained.

Author Notes

John Vernon is the author of the novels "La Salle, " "Lindbergh's Son," "Peter Doyle," & "All for Love: Baby Doe & Silver Dollar." He lives in Vestal, New York, & Estes Park, Colorado.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

As a novelist (La Salle, etc.), Vernon brings structure and meaning to his art. As an observant man, however, he sees more than enough chaos and apparent meaninglessness in real life. In this erudite memoir of how he tried to understand the life and death of his reclusive older brother, Paul, he embarks on a highly discursive exploration of how "history in its minute particulars touches us all, and in the least expected ways." The thrust of the book lies not so much in the narrative of Paul's life as in Vernon's fascination with everyday objects and their histories. As Vernon uses a Chap Stick that he finds in Paul's car, or hammers a nail, each action triggers a meditative reaction. En route to the house left him by his brother, Vernon stops at a Roy Rogers and, chewing a rubbery sandwich, ponders Ptolemy, William Blake and Hero of Alexandria. The simple act of buying a thermometer sparks Vernon's investigation into the history of the object at hand, which, in turn, sparks an investigation into the history of God and the nature of reason, which leads, finally, right back to brother Paul. And remembering Paul's funeral calls forth a treatise on the history of embalming, decomposition, spirituality, the body, the roots of physiognomy. As Vernon's prose ricochets from Paul's possessions to his own and to the many ideas that fill his head, he gives readers both a description and an example of how a writer's mind forges a web of connections among the objects and ideas of the world. It is a beautiful performance lit by stark, revealing bursts of language and delivered with the gravity of liturgy. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

Novelist Vernon's fine nonfiction book is simultaneously a moving tribute to his late brother, a heartfelt exploration of grieving, and a deeply philosophical examination of the process by which we construct the meaning of life for ourselves. When Vernon's eccentric brother Paul died, Vernon became responsible for cleaning up and selling Paul's dilapidated house. As he sorted through his brother's belongings, he attempted to reconcile his memories of Paul with the portrait that arose from the belongings Paul had left behind, to understand the forces that shaped Paul's life, and to identify the workings of those forces in his own life. Cleverly combining fascinating historical vignettes with probing personal narrative, Vernon reminds us of our mortality. He also reminds us to look at the way we use reasons to justify, support, and obscure the meaning of our lives. --Bonnie Johnston

Library Journal Review

Novelist Vernon's tale is true: after his brother dies, he tries to discover why he had been living in squalor. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One PAUL I was driving to a Wal-Mart in southern New Hampshire to buy a thermometer the day the world grew unfamiliar. My mind unclogged, it seemed--as though whatever I'd previously known turned out to be some sort of a blockage in a drain. It started slowly, even coyly, with vague irritations: heavy traffic on Route 28, the bum air conditioning in the van my brother'd left me, the resulting open windows, the heat and humidity, the fumes from idling cars. I passed May's, where we'd ordered the flowers for his funeral, passed the mini-malls, Granite State Potato Chips, the rows of yellow construction equipment lined up like Tonka toys behind a chain-link fence.     The worst was over, I'd been thinking. I could indulge in a little complacency for a change. I'd be driving home soon, back to upstate New York. And I was heading toward a Wal-Mart, the ultimate sanctuary of choice in Emporium America.     A car behind me honked, but it barely registered. Stupid chatter began running through my head about the value of my brother Paul's house and his adopted state's 18 percent inheritance tax, which applied horizontally to siblings but not vertically to parents or children. How strange, I thought. A child has only half your genes, after all. This tax clearly favored hierarchies dimly remembered from English common law. I was explaining this to someone in my head, and explaining the fact that Paul had never married, when, of its own weight, a picture slid from a brain cell--jogged by these thoughts--of Paul as a boy holding in his hand the branch of an apple tree, half hung with apples. The rest, miraculously, had broken into blossom.     Memory works in the brain like brachiated lightning unloading its contents in faded afterimages. The picture weakened but still, in a sense, I remembered the memory, then something else happened. A line shooting up through walls of tissue guttered and caught, bisecting me vertically. It pulled on my heart like a cord on a tent: the first ache of sadness for my poor brother. And just an hour ago I'd been stupid with joy!     He held out the branch with fading reluctance like a boy who'd been bad. Was he returning it to someone? Other images drifted in, visual analogs of overlapping whispers--the double and triple exposures of memory. It felt like spilling water on a newspaper and reading tomorrow's weather through yesterday's scandal. Through Paul and his branch I saw my grandmother's house, smelled wet ashes in her driveway, felt the warmth of the rose quartz sitting in the recesses, tall and narrow, beside her front door. Ghosts more solid than the honking world around me. Where had that picture of my brother come from? He'd lived with my grandmother in central Massachusetts when I was growing up, and my parents and I had visited every weekend. By the time I was a child Paul was past his teens, and I thought of him more as an uncle than a brother. An uncle with a hobby--through the walls of Grandma's house I saw Paul's room hung with model airplanes, each suspended on a wire from the ceiling, each pieced together from balsa wood and cardboard with X-Acto knives and small, precise fingers.     Then I remembered. The picture of my brother was literally that--a newspaper clipping I'd found in his house three months ago, after his death. For twenty years he'd lived alone in New Hampshire, and his sudden death left me in charge of his affairs, including the obligatory sorting of remains. Most of it was junk, overwhelming trash, but I thought my mother would want this clipping, and she did in fact gaze at it wistfully before putting it in a drawer to be forgotten. Now it came back with urgent clarity: nine-year-old Paul offering to the viewer his amazing branch, half blossoms, half apples. So he'd been a child too, though beyond my witness--this was six years before my birth. And he hadn't been bad, hadn't stolen or broken anything, he was just camera shy: head tilted forward, dark gash of hair slung across his brow, black reluctant eyes not unlike a cautious dog's. He held the branch up like Liberty's torch, though faced with a camera Liberty looked slumped, and the torch was no higher than Paul's sunken chest.     The car honked again. I must have been Sunday driving. Past all the malls, I was still creeping along at 20 miles per hour on the two-lane highway. The car pulled out to pass me on a curve--a lipstick-red Grand Am--and a teenage male on the passenger side flipped me the bird , in our zoological slang.     Fuck you too, I mumbled--my atavistic twinge. I couldn't really get angry, though. I felt dazed, numb, saddened by the loss of an older brother whose life had barely left an imprint on the world. He'd been a recluse and a loner in a throwaway society, and here I was bent on the same course, driving to a store to buy something I didn't need, a cheap thermometer. I maintained my granny pace. Like a needle reading normal, I sat with one hand on the wheel, poised between distractedly complacent and obscurely annoyed. The Grand Am had thumped past like a war machine, with those booming woofers heard first in the bowels, and even now the sound lingered. I felt miles and months behind everyone else. Spring had arrived--summer was imminent--but me, I was still adjusting to winter, still wondering whether I needed a jacket. Once again, the revolutions were outpacing me, the wheels forever spinning, the days and weeks scrolling, but flapping like shades glued to the slower roll of the seasons--the earth itself cart-wheeling on its axis at a speed of 22,000 miles a day, and revolving around the sun at 18.46 miles a second ... Statistical Drano for sluggish minds. I smiled to myself. The cosmos is a giant flywheel, said H. L. Mencken--but at least we flies are permitted to think that the wheel was constructed to give us a ride.     What happened to that boy with the branch? Where do youth and potential go when a life unravels?     I tried conjuring more memories of Grandma's house. Wasn't there a Victrola in, of all places, the bathroom, and hadn't my brother taken it after her death? Possibly, but I hadn't seen it in his house, though it could have been buried under piles of debris. His remains were of the sort one might find in a cave. He must have had that victrola -- Paul, I knew, was especially attached to my father's mother. My parents were living with Grandma when he was born, having moved in with her after their marriage. But when Dad found a new job and he and my mother moved to South Boston, where I grew up, they left their seven-year-old fifty miles away in Wire Valley with Grandma. I'd heard various reasons. The prospect of moving frightened young Paul. Besides, he was cute, and Grandma loved him so much that she might as well keep him to relieve her solitude. Also, the new apartment was small, and my parents would visit every weekend, a practice that continued after my birth and throughout my childhood. Finally, this was 1937--the Great Depression--and many families split up to go where the work was. Or so I'd been told when I asked about those years. I realize now that no greater mystery exists than the time before our birth, always darkened by the shadow that we ourselves cast.     Later, when I was a zit-faced adolescent, Grandma died and Paul joined the army, then lived with us in Boston, sharing my room. He stayed there after I left home, never dating or marrying, until he purchased the house in New Hampshire for which I was now buying a thermometer.     In the Wal-Mart parking lot I found a slot, rolled up the windows, locked the doors. Outside, the knots of people drifting toward the entrance possessed the glow of families converging on a church. We searched each other's faces for signs of recognition, exchanging looks that said, I'm just buying an apron (or a thermometer), but isn't it indeed just, right, and meet? This Wal-Mart had been dropped beside an empty highway like a modern country Assembly of God; there was nothing else here, no other stores. Around it were pine trees and still naked birches, some returning to earth as though swung on by one of the boys in Robert Frost's poem, those too far from town to learn about baseball.     From Route 28 came the sound of screeching tires, but no crunch of metal. Robert Frost's farm, now a museum, was six miles up the road.     On the store's pale blue pediment, a sort of packaged, shrinkwrapped extract of sky, were the red words Wal*Mart , and at the apex, where the cross should have been, a yellow happy face. Jefferson was wrong, I thought: happiness is not a state to be pursued but an embalmed yellow decal to slap on buildings and T-shirts. In the twenty-first century we'll hold up happy faces to ward off vampires. I looked around for the Grand Am, mildly worried that the teenagers were here too, to stock up on guns, but not one car in the parking lot was red.     Inside, the store smelled of motor oil and popcorn. A kindly Saint Peter in a silly blue apron welcomed me to Wal-Mart. Behind him, the department known as Kids' Clothes resembled a landscape of dead bunnies. I was floating, not walking, still in a fugue state, past picture cubes, portable ab rollers, cylinders of cheese puffs, and bread-slicing "systems" -- past curling irons, Jockey shorts, 101 Dalmatians toothbrushes, CD storage towers, and electric massage mats, looking for the thermometers. And I marveled at our long and complex human history, at our evolution of an upright posture and grapefruit-sized brains, at our discovery of fire and burial rites, our development of language and ritual and dance, our paintings in caves, our invention of tools and farming and jewelry, our beautiful material cultures, our ancient cities, our aqueducts and looms and solar calendars, our models of the universe, our invention of the telescope, our discovery of the calculus, our balloon flights and steam engines and space stations and computers, and at the maze of mental and psychological organizations that trailed behind or pioneered these mounting stages of the past, all leading to this, to 101 Dalmatians toothbrushes and slipper socks and Cats in the Sun calendars and boxes of talking Michael Jordan dolls.     Amid designer thermometers with the circumference of basketballs and nice paintings of ducks and reeds on their faces, I found a plain outdoor thermometer for $2.59 and headed for the checkout.     Then I remembered I didn't have a hammer.     "Hickory," I said to the clerk in Hardware. It was stamped on the handle. "I wonder where they make these things." I was hefting it as hammer buyers do, to feel its forward weight. The heavy iron knot on the tip of the shaft makes one's blow more powerful.     "Right there." He pecked the handle. He possessed the sort of broadax face that barely turns and boom, it's a profile. Sunken eyes and teeth. He was anywhere between forty and sixty, and had a hard time mustering the Wal-Mart smile.     "Taiwan?"     "You want to buy American, try the Stanley, but it's more."     "I like the idea of hickory."     "They're all hickory."     The hammer was only $8.39. We were just chatting. "I was reading in the paper. You know Richard Reeves?"     He shrugged.     "Writes a column? He talked about buying hardwood furniture, early American, and it all turned out to be made in Malaysia. So he did some research and found out that Indonesia has thirteen thousand islands covered with hardwood, and they're all being clear-cut. I bet that's where they got the hickory."     "They got it from the moon for all I know. Sir."     I was tempted to tell him about the great cutover in Michigan and Wisconsin a hundred years ago--twenty-three million board-feet of lumber worth four billion dollars, clear-cut from the upper Midwest. They floated it down to Chicago and milled it for balloon frames to build the new America.     In Japan they mill the iron that makes the heads for hammers used to build the iron mills.     But he'd turned to tidy up the duct tape across the aisle. The large, small, and medium rolls each had their own horizontal skewer, and some rolls had been misplaced. "Look at that." He turned back and held out a box of allergy pills.     "Pharmacy," I said, then felt odd for saying it. "What's it doing here?"     He showed me it was empty. "They take out the pills and leave the box behind."     "Steal them, you mean?"     He looked at me with no expression at all. Back at my brother's house, I cleared away some thorn shoots beneath the kitchen window with a dull saw I'd found in the basement that morning. It was a crosscut saw made for carpentry, not brush, and didn't cut so much as mangle. My father, I'm sure, would not have approved of this misuse of tools.     The house was an older-style ranch, on one acre in Kingston. A dirt road forked behind the pie-shaped lot. The front door faced Twist Run Road.     Behind a field across the road were dozens of chicken sheds, all with smashed windows.     My brother's place was half boarded up where its windows were broken. Paul had lived in Boston with my mother the last two years, having abandoned his house to vandals and rats. It needed a new roof. The front-entry stairs were gone. The brown aluminum siding was in pretty good shape, though, despite some pits, perhaps made by hail. The trim everywhere--around windows, eaves, and doors--was peeling and rotten. And the landscaping surrounding the house consisted of weeds, shrubs, and thorn bushes. But the white pines towering over the place, also one spruce, were impressive. They might help to sell the property. And this southern New Hampshire town was rapidly becoming a bedroom community. A twenty-minute drive down Route 111 led to 1-93, thence to Boston, a mere hour away.     Thorn shoots kept getting caught in my pants--why on earth was I doing this? At last I was able to stand on a chair I'd salvaged from the house to nail up the thermometer. Entering the house made me uneasy, because of the smell, so the prospect of returning the chair was not something I looked forward to, but it had to be done. The real estate agent was coming today, and I'd have to show him through.     A cement truck drove past, heading for the new subdivision up the road, Kingston Estates. Bees flew in and out of the letterbox on the back porch, beside the lilac bush. I tore the cardboard backing off the plastic bubble and pulled out the nails and bracket for the thermometer. The nails had spiral grooves up and down their shafts.     Freeze the frame there. Why was I doing this?     I was doing it because my brother had died and left me his house, and I had to sell it. I was doing it because of the laws governing alienable property and inheritance in families in the United States and the state of New Hampshire, laws modeled on English common law and rooted in the end of feudalism and the rise of capitalism and the concept of property. I was doing it for money. What is money? A system of exchange. One pays $2.59 for a thermometer, $8.39 for a hammer, prices in America always end in nines. Money is a delicately balanced mechanism of credit and faith, a shared fiction made of paper and pixels of light on computer screens in banks.     But why was I doing this?     I hadn't been that close to Paul. It wasn't just the fifteen years between us. He was odd; some would say he wasn't normal, though he'd held down a job all his life and managed to function in a presumably normal world. By the time he retired, however, he'd withdrawn from that world's pervasive engine of arrangements and become a recluse. At his death, lacking his own family, he left me everything he possessed, and in sifting through this legacy I'd come face to face with the mystery of his life, and what I'd seen had frightened me. I'd thought about it a great deal since his funeral, and my thoughts had spread to include not only the way he'd arranged his solitude, but the way we all do--the strangeness of marriage or of living alone, of work and money, of the sorrow of possessions--the oddity of cars and streets and interstates, of owning houses, of central heating, of buying fast foods and paying bills and using hammers and selling property and nailing up thermometers outside kitchen windows.     I was doing it because we live in houses, having tried the alternative--living in caves--which didn't work. From caves and rock shelters we moved to pits, skin tents, brush shelters, cliff dwellings, thence to houses, villas, castles, and palaces. I was doing it because even beavers build houses, and snails carry them around. Because a house is a sign of our dominion over the earth. Be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth. Moderate extremes. Manage nature, don't let it manage you. Live in warmth where it is cold and in coolness where it is hot, and don't live like my brother, who wound up fouling his own nest.     Inside a warm kitchen, boiling up some Kraft macaroni and cheese for dinner, one reads the temperature outside and shivers not with cold but with a sort of frisson . "Let it freeze without, we are comfortable within," said Sir Walter Scott. This, I knew, was important in New England. In a word, it was homey. Who knows, it might even encourage a prospective buyer to become an actual owner. Although there was a hitch. One could not be cozy in Paul's house once winter came, nor boil macaroni in his kitchen, since neither the furnace nor the plumbing was functioning. No problem, I thought, some American do-it-yourselfer would fix them, someone who likes a bargain.     He might need a strong stomach, though. After the plumbing and heating stopped working, and the toilet became inoperative, someone began using the cold-air return in the living room as a urinal. The results of this practice were evident in the basement: the large rectangular duct of sheet metal leading to the furnace had been torn open by rust. And worse had been done. Since the floor grate covering the cold-air return was removable, this convenient repository in the living room contained human excrement as well. It must have been vandals, I told myself.     Yet everything I'd found in the house before having it cleaned--the enormous piles of trash, the scarred and splintered walls, the garbage, the twenty-plus years of utility bills and junk mail, the mildewed photos, the damp stacks of lurid magazines, the charnel house rot of a life in pieces--suggested it wasn't vandals, it was Paul.     And none of these things, not even the grate, was the source of the smell.     I held the bracket to one side of the window and nailed the first nail in.     Why was I doing this? Chapter Two REASONS Reason are not answers. Reasons are recipes for making sense of the world's arrangements and accidents. They are explanations of why things are, how they work, what they mean, where they came from, how they began. We need reasons when we feel dislocated, when ordinary things seem unfamiliar and contingent, when there are no easy answers. Why is that tree there, who invented the nail, how large is the universe, what happens after death?     As a pundit observed on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer , "Americans think everything can be explained." In one respect this is true, but in others, not. We are a practical people, we love information, but living as we do in a cornucopia of commodities, we tend to feel that things are their own explanation, and so take them for granted. In a world of Wal-Marts, a world of juxtaposed goods arranged on shelves by category--"Appliances," "Hardware," "Stationery"--reasons seem neither possible nor necessary. Wal-Mart is not a narrative or sequence, not a system of cause and effect, but a self-replenishing material utopia of the useful and useless, cunningly integrated so that the useless seems useful and the useful an array of indulgent treats. We are not intended to reflect on the merchandise, which is why our stores have the feel of anthills, assemblages of parts whose origins are irrelevant. In a world of Wal-Marts, we attend to the local, as unaware of reasons as of the oxygen we breathe.     In other words, we disconnect. We are the revenge of Descartes's pineal gland, his bottleneck connection between mind and body. A friend of mine once sat on her Exercycle, then discovered that an hour had passed and she couldn't remember whether she'd exercised or not. That has happened to me while driving to work. We occupy a world in which the things we do or use are taken for granted, and so are done or used mechanically--but then again, so do pigs.     Yet tools did not show up full-blown at Wal-Mart like fruit picked off trees; they have a long history. Nor was the thermometer of recent invention, like the cellular phone. And to understand that every step we take, every act we perform, is woven into networks connected to both the past and the stars can be positively breathtaking. I'd liken it to the time my father first thumbed the back off his pocket watch and I stared at the spinning wheels and ticking levers. Reasons may vary from culture to culture and century to century, sometimes even from decade to decade--still, they are the lifeblood of cultures. They enable us to cross the street, read a newspaper, conduct a ceremony, name a newborn, and perhaps even comprehend our suffering or happiness. When we brush our teeth, when we sit down to eat, when we stare into a fire, we live, one could say, among leftover reasons. Like our furniture and homes, they probably preceded us, and will undoubtedly survive us.     Sitting down to eat, for example. In the Middle Ages, people ate with knives and sometimes spoons, though both implements merely supplemented fingers. The individual fork--as opposed to a large meat fork with two prongs--wasn't introduced until the sixteenth century, and, slow to catch on, was considered by some to be "a diabolical luxury," in Fernand Braudel's words. A German divine quoted by Braudel pointed out that God would not have given us fingers if he wished us to use such an instrument as a fork. Even Louis XIV was praised by Saint-Simon for his skill at eating chicken stew with his fingers without spilling a drop. It took a long time for fingers to be replaced by forks, and during that time they were often used together. Fashionable Greeks in the eighteenth century helped themselves to olives with their fingers, and with their fingers impaled them on forks, in order to eat them as the French did. As for the blunt-tipped knife of today's table settings, it was introduced by Cardinal Richelieu in the seventeenth century when he noticed a guest picking his teeth with a knife. Richelieu flew into a rage and ordered the tips of all knives in his household filed down to rounded ends.     I first became interested in reasons and their arcana when I was given by my father-in-law a deteriorating leatherbound 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica , twenty-eight volumes of tissue-thin paper still perfectly white inside covers that pebbled and smeared in one's hands. A dubious gift, I thought at first--then I started using it. The 1911 Britannica is said to be especially reliable in its literary and historical entries but outdated in its science and technology. I found both assessments to be off the mark. The literary and historical entries often turned out to be Western imperial ethnocentrism at its worst---the white man's burden--whereas the science and technology were a cabinet of wonders, a window into the ingenuity of the human mind when its information is insufficient and it must therefore chew more than it can bite off.     Our information is also insufficient, of course. There are things we don't know that others will know in the future, and one hundred years from now our encyclopedias will also be quaint. "We can easily imagine," says Vladimir Nabokov, "people in 3000 A.D. sneering at our naïve nonsense and replacing it by some nonsense of their own." Consequently, reasons have to be ingenious. They are machines tacked together with the resources at hand, like the box kite and bicycle that became the first airplane. I like to think of our legacy of reasons as eloquence rooted in the human vernacular.     In my decaying Britannica , I read about Ludwig's stromuhr for measuring blood flow; about hatters who separated the finer fibers of furs by striking with a pin the string on a huge bow suspended above a worktable; about the alternatives to oral administration of mercury for syphilis patients--fumigation of the naked unfortunate huddled beneath a blanket while seated on a cane-bottomed chair, or injection of the mercury directly into his buttock; and about abiogenesis, the belief that animals and insects can be spontaneously generated from dew, piles of old clothes, the slime in wells, and mud. I read about the English "Jury of Annoyance," appointed by an act of 1754 to report on highway obstructions; about the Chorizontes, those ancients who believed that two different people wrote The Odyssey and The Iliad ; and about heart burial, defined with impeccable deadpan as "the burial of the heart apart from the body," an honor accorded to, among others, Louis XIV, Robert the Bruce, and Shelley.     Often the entries revealed a past quite different from that in history books, with their organized landscapes of dates, political alliances, and anonymous armies. The difference was like that between seeing the world from an airplane and walking around in a hallucination of close-ups, hideous and fascinating. It was the past through a microscope rather than a telescope. Occasionally, too, an entry revealed unexpected links between myself and the past. One of my earliest childhood memories had been of watching my father in his print shop pecking away on a Linotype machine, an apparatus whose ability to raise and lower itself with enormous thuds and clunks seemed at odds with the ordinary flitter of typing. What I didn't know was what I later learned in the Britannica article on "Typography": when my father finished a line and pulled the lever, inside the machine a jet of molten metal shot from a melting pot into a mold against the matrices of type, thus casting the slug, which he gave me to take home and store in my dresser drawer, my own cabinet of wonders.     From Linotype machines to sponges and other tunicates, to sections of the brains of turtles and sharks, from wombats and conveyors ("mechanical devices designed for the purpose of moving material in a horizontal or slightly inclined direction") to roofs and crustaceans, all illustrated in exquisite detail, the appeal of the Britannica gradually unfolded: it displayed the secret insides of things, their penetralia. It x-rayed and dissected, it cut things in half, it showed the inside and outside of life side by side. Its project was the same as the viscount's in Italo Calvino's novella about a man cut in half, The Cloven Viscount . "If only I could halve every whole thing like this," the viscount says while contemplating a divided octopus, "so that everyone could escape from his obtuse and ignorant wholeness. I was whole and all things were natural and confused to me, stupid as the air; I thought I was seeing all and it was only the outside rind."     In other words, most of the machinery of our daily lives operates beyond our senses, either buried in the ordinary or lost in the monstrosities of space and time. Take organic life itself. Life may be, as Samuel Beckett's uncle liked to say, a disease of matter--and we may enter matter from we know not where, go round in a circle several thousand revolutions, then depart whence we came--but the ride touches worlds far beyond the personal, worlds that have no experience of being us. The origins of life required the presence of carbon, with its bonding properties that enabled strands of DNA and RNA to exist. And carbon was born in the stars--in their nuclear reactions--then blown off as dust. Add to this the possibility that clay was a likely medium for the polymerization reactions that were necessary for life, and we have the prospect of life's origins spanning biblical clay and the outer reaches of space. Our human slime, smeared upon clay, is wired to the stars.     Webs and nets are much in the news these days--the Internet, the World Wide Web, our figures for illusory global villages. I see those particular webs as labyrinths of warehoused information not unlike Wal-Marts in their hash of the useful and useless. The web of reasons that enmeshes us, though, is not a digital toy but a medium as pervasive and invisible as air. It has countless strands that tie us to a world inconceivably large, and at the same time connect us to the other pinpricks of subjectivity in that world, our fellow human beings. Middle-aged man nails up a thermometer and feels the ripples spread through the universe . To see the ripples, I freeze the frame and step out of the picture. To illustrate the myriad connections, I trace a few of them.     And to unravel the question of why I was doing this, I develop the negative, inspect the shadows, search for hidden clues. Why nail a thermometer outside my brother's window? It undoubtedly began as happenstance, a whim. In my worked-up state, I believed that a thermometer would dignify the sorry house I inherited, would endow it, however superficially, with a civilized bearing. Perhaps I thought the thermometer, like a mark on the door, would spare my brother's house from destruction. It might even warm it, the way a burglar alarm makes possessions more valuable. Still, there's more. Even now, cut in half between the one writing this and the one standing on that chair, I can see the thermometer as my little pry-bar, my pick for unlocking Paul's place in the world.     Or his lack of place. What most of us do is what Paul did not do. He had few friends, did not marry, cared little for appearances, seldom bathed or washed his clothes. His domestic arrangements were the daily adjustments of someone caught in a slow landslide. By the time he paid someone to board up his windows and moved in with my mother, his unheated house had become a calamity. So my cheap thermometer was a sad joke too, a comment on both the customary behavior we all take for granted and the latent arrangements of everyday life. We think of a thermometer as a sign of domesticity, of our victory over nature. Yet some, like Paul, lost. What was it he lost? What was at stake? I see my thermometer as an archive, a scroll sealed inside a jar. It contains its own chapter in the chronicle of the struggle humans have waged ever since the first tools, its branch of the story of how we tamed fire and turned cold into heat. In it I can see, like homunculi in a tube, the faces of those who still haunt us today, whether or not we think about history--floating faces, bulbous and thin, of those kitchen scientists who, tinkering in their pantries, whipped together our world: Galileo, Fludd, Pascal, Descartes. They haunted Paul too, even if he never knew it. Chapter Three A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE THERMOMETER In 1647, on one of his rare visits to Paris, René Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, looked up Blaise Pascal to inquire about his claim that he'd created a vacuum. Descartes was fifty-one, Pascal twenty-four. Descartes, by all accounts, was a mousy little man with a large head, projecting brow, long bony nose, eyes wide apart, and hair growing down his forehead nearly to his eyebrows. Pascal, on the other hand--the young upstart mathematician-cum-natural philosopher--was said to be handsome, with a prominent and manly nose, full mouth, and large eyes. As a child, he'd constructed from scratch Euclid's first thirty-two propositions. He'd written a treatise on conic sections at the age of sixteen and, the same year, invented the first calculator, to relieve his father of the burden of doing sums. His father was a tax collector.     Descartes brought with him three friends and three boys; Pascal had by his side Gilles Personne de Roberval, "the greatest geometrician in Paris and the world's most disagreeable man," according to a friend of the Pascals'. Pascal demonstrated his creation of a vacuum, a simple replication of the famous experiment of Evangelista Torricelli, performed three years earlier: he poured mercury into a basin and filled a narrow glass tube, closed at one end, with the same substance. Then, with his middle finger plugging the open end, he turned the tube upside down, plunged it into the basin, and removed his finger. The liquid in the tube dropped, leaving a space that had to be a vacuum.     No, said Descartes. Didn't Monsieur Pascal know that air was a substance finer than wool, and its fibers had penetrated the glass of the tube? Roberval ridiculed this idea. Later, when Pascal gave his friends an example of a fantasy for which obstinacy alone could win approval, he cited Descartes's opinions on matter and space--something like the story of Don Quixote, he said.     Descartes suggested an experiment. Pascal should climb a mountain with his basin and tube to see whether the mercury in the tube would be lower at the top than at the foot of the mountain. It should be lower at the top because, Pascal claimed, the weight of the atmosphere determined the level of the mercury, and on a mountain, the atmosphere would weigh less. Parenthetically, Pascal's creation of a vacuum was also evidence for the existence of an atmosphere.     But Pascal was too weak to climb a mountain. He suffered from intestinal tuberculosis and tuberculous pseudo-rheumatism, and could hardly walk. So Descartes advised him to stay in bed every day until he was tired of being there, and to drink a lot of bouillon.     Three years later Descartes died, before fulfilling his promise to the world to prolong a human life by several centuries.     Pascal did take Descartes's suggestion, however, by proxy. He instructed his brother-in-law to climb a mountain in central France, the Puy de Dôme, with his basin, tube, and mercury--an embryonic barometer, in fact--and register the mercury's level at the base and at the summit. At the foot of the mountain it was 26 ¼ inches; at the top, 23 ½ inches. Pascal had won.     After Descartes's death, in the 1650s, Pascal wrote in his Pensées, "the great Pan is dead." I like to think he was referring to Descartes. In the spirit of impish dismissal, it doesn't take much to see Descartes as Pan. Pascal called Cartesianism the "Romance of Nature," and Pan in mythology was nature, earth, body, intoxication, bestiality, sexuality, and worse, perhaps--obscurantism. The hairy goat-god with horns and hooves and a prominent chin, who lived in woods and caves and raced across mountains, whose sexual appetite was inexhaustible, may have looked like Descartes too, or a parody of him. Didn't Descartes inspire his adversaries with terror, just as Pan had done to mortals?--hence our word "panic."     Pascal, on the other hand, is best thought of as Mercury. One wonders whether he or his brother-in-law knew what the ruins were on the summit of the Puy de Dôme: a Roman temple dedicated to Mercury. He probably drained the mercury market in France when he was performing his experiments. Mercury was swiftness, flight, cleverness, air, commerce, mind, culture, and clarity of message. Descartes as Pan, the Calibanistic grotesque, and Pascal as Mercury. They could have been brothers.     All at once, on that chair, nailing up my thermometer, I saw my brother Paul hunched over an oscilloscope, as he'd once hovered over his balsa-wood airplanes. I'm not sure what he was doing--running tests, checking data. I'd found one in his attic after his death, the same oscilloscope he'd built when I was a teenager. Heavy and cylindrical, the size of a vacuum cleaner.     The chair was so shaky I couldn't absorb the recoil of the hammer without bringing it to the verge of collapse. I had to tap the nails lightly. This didn't seem to matter. I could have pushed them in with my thumb, it seemed, the window frame was that rotten. The bracket was flimsy, the thermometer plastic, and neither of them would last the first windstorm, I suspected.     Chaney Instruments in Wisconsin. White thermometer, red liquid. Markings for both Fahrenheit and centigrade. Sixty-nine in the shade.     Around the front of the house, a school bus drove past. I just caught the yellow blur.     What was that red liquid that indicated the temperature? Not mercury, surely. Perhaps colored alcohol, or maybe ethylene glycol, something that can't freeze up. It resembled a thin line of blood, I thought. My Britannica tells me that in their early incarnations every conceivable liquid was tried in thermometers: water, spirit of wine, linseed oil, mercury, l'eau second --an acid solution of copper nitrate produced in refining gold--turpentine, alcohol, petroleum, l'eau de vie (brandy), saturated salt, olive oil, oil of chamomile, and oil of thyme. Food appears to be a theme in the history of thermometers; no wonder we mount them outside kitchen windows.     The liquid in the tube had been sealed inside a vacuum, or so I assumed. Light and heat pass through vacuums, air and sound do not. We take vacuums for granted today, or, to be more accurate, partial vacuums; the perfect vacuum is still somewhat elusive. Light bulbs and picture tubes operate in vacuums, we vacuum pack coffee, we've even coined a verb: to vacuum means to clean. But vacuums were once hotly debated, for religious as well as scientific reasons, and the history of the thermometer is hopelessly entangled with that bitter debate. DEATH OF THE GODS As it turns out, Pascal was not the one who formulated the epithet "the great Pan is dead." It had wide currency in European history. Milton used it, as had Rabelais earlier, and Eusebius before him, and other Christian apologists. Of modern thinkers, Nietzsche mentioned it in The Birth of Tragedy . It can be traced back to Plutarch's De defectu oraculorum , "The Decline of Oracles" an essay written about claims that the years are getting shorter, the ancient oracles and religions are withering away, and the gods are really demons. As Plutarch tells the story, a ship was passing the island of Paxi when someone shouted that the great Pan was dead, and those onboard should announce it to the mainland.     Christian apologists fastened on this story as a passing of the torch: the death of the old gods, the birth of Christianity. Pan was paganism incarnate, the god of nature, the universal god of the pre-Christian era. Furthermore, it's clear in Plutarch's essay that his point is a shocking one: the gods in fact can die, since the gods are really demons.     And what happens when they die? "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me," said Pascal in the Pensées . He answered himself in the same work by declaring that the Nothing depended on the All, and one leads to the other. Just as Pan's death coincided with Christ's birth, so Pascal's vacuum--his Nothing--was really a proof of Christ's existence, since Christ is our All. But this was dangerous territory. The Church disapproved of vacuums. The notion of a vacuum had been championed by such atheists as Epicurus and Lucretius, both enemies of religion. And a vacuum, most philosophers thought, was simply illogical. It posited nothing where something--space--existed. And if a vacuum did exist, neither light nor sound could pass through it, and we could never detect it.     They were right about sound, at least. Experiments conducted in the early seventeenth century, with bells inside vacuums rung by a magnet outside, confirmed that a sound couldn't pass through airless space. HERO Pascal's interest in vacuums was encouraged by his father, Étienne, who'd given him a copy of Hero's Pneumatics . Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria, a first-century A.D. contemporary of Plutarch, was famous for constructing machines that provided miracles for temples. In the Pneumatics he describes pipes and vessels from which wine and water alternately flow, or from which wine flows when water is withdrawn, or from which wine flows when water is poured into a neighboring vessel. He describes a machine for producing the sound of a trumpet when a temple door is opened, figures made to dance by fire on an altar, and statues that pour libations on a fire lit between them, thus extinguishing it. His best-known device was a machine for opening the doors of a temple when a fire is lit on an altar outside them. All these contrivances work by means of gears, secret tunnels, heated air, and siphons created by vacuums. And all of them were hidden behind false walls or underneath floors-- vide the Wizard of Oz.     Some accounts say that Hero worked in Ptolemy's museum at Alexandria, whose library became the most famous in the world. If so, we can guess how far the gods had fallen by Hero's and Plutarch's time. They'd become museum pieces, relics and statues and toys and automata. Chants of their priests had been exchanged for blueprints for building mechanical birds that pipe and flap their wings and lay wooden eggs. And mortals were left to buy dream books, and leave offerings at a rock whose significance escaped them, and dance around a pole without remembering what it meant. (Continues...) Copyright © 2000 John Vernon. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. xi
I Heatp. 1
II Toolsp. 37
III Bodyp. 83
IV Corpsep. 127
V Housep. 165
VI Originsp. 201
Codap. 25?
Works Consultedp. 259