A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, August 14, 2009

What I'm Reading

In one house (the only building in Pompeii which no woman is now allowed to enter,) were the small rooms and short beds of solid masonry, just as they were in the old times, and on the walls were pictures which looked almost as fresh as if they were painted yesterday, but which no pen could have the hardihood to describe; and here and there were Latin inscriptions -- obscene scintillations of wit, scratched by hands that possibly were uplifted to Heaven for succor in the midst of a driving storm of fire before the night was done.
Twain writes around what he was not permitted to write about ("no pen could have the hardihood to describe"): the erotic art of Pompeii. It's too bad we don't have an unfettered Twain here. It's likely he could have produced something more eloquent than this mixture of moralizing ("hands ... uplifted to Heaven") and prurience ("no woman is now allowed to enter" -- wink wink, nudge nudge).

So after that, it's nice to turn to Twain in a more characteristic mode, the democrat irreverently tempted to an act of lèse majesté at a reception for Tsar Alexander II at Yalta.

To think that the central figure in the cluster of men and women, chatting here under the trees like the most ordinary individual in the land, was a man who could open his lips and ships would fly through the waves, locomotives would speed over the plains, courtiers would hurry from village to village, a hundred telegraphs would flash the word to the four corners of an Empire that stretches its vast proportions over a seventh part of the habitable globe, and a countless multitude of men would spring to do his bidding. I had a sort of vague desire to examine his hands and see if they were flesh and blood, like other men's. Here was a man who could do this wonderful thing, and yet if I chose I could knock him down. The case was plain, but it seemed preposterous, nevertheless -- as preposterous as trying to knock down a mountain or wipe out a continent. If this man sprained his ankle, a million miles of telegraph would carry the news over mountains -- valleys -- uninhabited deserts -- under the trackless sea -- and ten thousand newspaper would prate of it; if he were grievously ill, all the nations would know it before the sun rose again; if he dropped lifeless where he stood, his fall might shake the thrones of half a world! If I could have stolen his coat, I would have done it. When I meet a man like that, I want something to remember him by.
But nicely, Twain maintains a sense of his place in the scheme of things:

We spent half an hour idling through the palace, admiring the cosy apartments and the rich but eminently home-like appontments of the place, and then the Imperial family bade our party a kind good-bye, and proceeded to count the spoons.

No comments: