An Introduction to the Complete Works of David Blume (Part 1)

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If you presume to study English literature, even a little, at this technical institute (then first of all, get better at math or God help you, but never mind that for now), you will inevitably cross paths with Dr. Jonathan Stanton, and when you do, like the old Dickens tale everyone likes, you must understand two things, or nothing that will follow will seem wondrous: one, that the recently-tenured Dr. Stanton is the leading scholar in the world on the eighteenth-century English wit and memoirist David Blume, whose impressive collection of personal diaries and letters comprises his sole literary output. And two, obviously, that David Blume doesn’t exist, and never did.

Some time ago, who can say when, Dr. Stanton had a recurring dream, and in that dream he saw his massive collection of books on his bookshelf, gazed at it in wonder at its sheer size, immensely curious over the secrets they held, and anxious for enough time to read them all. Among them, he would always spot a certain dusty old book, published maybe fifty years ago and worn but still readable, blessed with those just-yellowed page tips and musty bookstore smell, with a clumsy jacket slightly torn at the corners, greenish with baroque red and purple flowers adorning the spine and edges. He would count the complete writings of David Blume among his prized volumes, but for one reason or another always account himself too busy or too preoccupied with another book to begin it. It would occupy a pleasant, if a little out of place, spot among the vast library of his dreams.

Most Freudians (and for all we know there probably are some left) might recognize the nuances of a recurring dream like this on many other dreamers, but whatever the causes or consequences, they will ultimately conclude that one day the dreamer will wake up and recognize that the dusty old green book he dreamed about was entirely a construct of that dream, and the longing to read it a construction of some other deep-seeded wish. Dr. Stanton, rather than count himself among those usual dreamers, one night, in his dream, picked up the book and read it. He had the dream many times, for many years, often enough to read David Blume’s memoirs once, then a second time, then more and more until he became an expert, indeed, the only expert, on Blume and his works.

All this and more I was told, all before I even once set foot in Dr. Stanton’s classroom, by the Dean for Liberal Arts in his office. I was surprised at first that he even bothered to call me in there so soon in the beginning of the school year, and that led to me panicking over that joint I shared with my roommate, which then led me to the natural question of why would the Dean be disciplining me on a joint I smoked with my roommate? It turned out the Dean did this one-on-one with every student who enrolls in a class with Dr. Stanton, without fail, as a way of explaining the “delicate situation”. Trigger warnings are the new thing these days, and usually are meant for the teachers to give to the student, but here was the Dean warning me not to trigger Dr. Stanton.

He told me, as he does everyone, the whole story. Stanton was fired mysteriously at his last job, and never published the only two novellas he had written pre-Blume. He came to them all of a sudden with some research that, in his words, no scholar in English lit yet had attempted or ever will. I can imagine the Dean and his colleagues, upon reading the first sketches of what would become his voluminous criticism on Blume, wondering what to make of it. It was like all those bands, as the saying goes, who got started because they listened to the Velvet Underground for the first time and asked each other what the hell is this?! It’s chaotic, it’s a mess, it’s a little pretentious, it’s… it’s really good.

They were impressed, despite themselves, but they were genuinely fooled at first, and offered him a position as an adjunct for Creative Writing 101. He almost walked out of the Dean’s office in a huff, throwing his papers everywhere. If he wasn’t so mad, he would have seemed to them just as confused as they were: what are you talking about?! I’m a scholar, goddamn it! They shrugged and gave him exactly what he asked for, an Intro to Comparative Lit, to prove himself, and later an Intro to the Complete Works of David Blume. At worst, he’d fail miserably at teaching anything remotely coherent, and after they fire him they’d be embarrassed for a few months and then have a funny story to tell their colleagues at the next fundraising gala.

But he never did fail. He kept teaching Blume, and kept researching and writing about him, and the school kept publishing him. They never counted on his articles being so rigorously argued, so rigorously backed up by the works of Blume’s contemporaries as well as his own well-articulated, if nonetheless fictitious text. Never before, quipped one of the Dean’s colleagues, have I seen such a rock-solid, towering cathedral of criticism built on such a foundation of complete thin air.

Any of the usual questions I might have asked during the meeting were answered by the Dean as he told the story. What would happen, for example, if someone just confronted him and told him he was crazy, that he made up David Blume all along? Some people do, and it goes about as well as it did when he originally offered Stanton a job in writing workshops. To him, suggesting David Blume never existed would be like trying to convince someone else that the Canterbury Tales were never written and there was no Geoffrey Chaucer to write them. Just as how that simply would not compute for you, a world without Blume will never stick with Stanton.

Well then, why keep him around? What’s the value in letting him make up an entire literary discipline? Look around you, was the answer to this question I really didn’t have to raise, to be honest. We’re a technical institute. Our liberal arts program used to be only there for the handful of engineering students who maybe wanted to pass a fraction of a semester reading a book a little lighter than ten pounds. People who take a couple courses here go on to literature classes in other schools and are surprised to learn that you can’t cite Sparknotes as a source. But after Dr. Stanton came aboard, we finally have a real liberal arts department.

Finally, I shook his hand and got up to leave. Welcome aboard, he said, and also, don’t fuck this up for us.

*

I’m no Medievalist, but I do know that Aquinas argued that one can know God, but only if one meditates on what God is not. Similarly, one can certainly try to know David Blume, the man and his writing, but only in so far as Stanton has already written about him. I’ll do my very best here:

David Blume, born September 3, 1749, died on his fiftieth birthday, just barely missed the coming of a new century, a Londoner his whole life, comfortable in his modest flat, except when he was eager to travel all over Europe, the Middle East and even as far as India. He worked as a man of letters, and depending on the Stanton article you’re referring to it’s hard to decide if he was apprenticed into his father’s bookbinding business or else ambled into journalism in general (Stanton would claim in one article, for example, that he so often quarreled with his father that it was unlikely he would willingly work for him, and yet in another Stanton would report with glee the witty bon-mots Blume would employ to send up the famous Grub Street hack-writers, which meant he probably didn’t spend much time associating with them).

Whatever his career, it gave Blume time and ample opportunities to read, anything and everything. I would call Blume a professional fan, the greatest admirer in the history of literature. He never really developed any new ideas, but the way he commented on them, admired them, was infectious and impossible to ignore. He was a vociferous proponent of the Enlightenment, endlessly fascinated by Newton’s continuing discoveries and the burgeoning scientific revolution in general. He espoused the social values of the Enlightenment as well, applying empiricism and practicality to moral issues, skeptical of religion and superstition but warm and friendly to many religious acquaintances and even admiring of religious contemporary writers.

I never really liked Voltaire much, until I got into Blume. To me, he is the gateway drug for edgy atheist alt-right shitposters who wander around internet forums, like old bored kung-fu adepts, in search of their next opponent to “destroy” with “logic bombs”. But to Blume, Voltaire was a religious revelation in itself. In his dialogues with Father Boyle, you can almost tell how out of breath he is as he writes how the Philosophical Dictionary excited him, such as his parody of the parable of the sheep and goats: Voltaire’s God separates, not merely the virtuous and wicked, but those who helped their fellow man through virtuous actions on one side, and on the other, mystics, monks, fasters, flagellants, fakirs, those who spent their lives in deep spiritual contemplation, and yet did nothing:

Voltaire has routed the forces of Ockham, and that whole confederacy of stodgy Medieval theologians. The age of confessing to the sin of even thinking of coveting one’s wife is now at a quite welcome end. Now, in this new age of reason and practical virtue as king, the whole of holy scripture can be reduced to the single verse of ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. I’d like to see Blume the Elder try to bind and peddle my single-page King-George-translation of the New Blume Bible!

Blume’s Christianity was a complex thing: he believed in God, never once worshipped Him, but almost always thought about Him, usually as an eccentric but wonderful friend not above the occasional ribbing. Accused of blasphemy at one of these ribbings, Blume remarked:

I am assured so often by so many of God’s remarkable sense of humor: if He so wants to use my life as a thing of jest for the angels in heaven, as I can attest He has many times before, surely He will then see the sense of humor in me, when I on occasion return the favor to Him.

His travel memoirs were remarkable in their equal parts fascination and deep respect, if not complete reverence, to the cultures and customs of peoples vastly different from Enlightenment-era London. For example:

Old Constantinople, now and forever to be called Istanbul, is no mere city, no mere center of arts and culture and history, but a city still in conflict; though the house of Osman is no longer besieging the forces of the last Palaiologos, yet the remnants of old Rome, of Christianity in its infancy, are ever clashing with the splendor of the Ottomans, its arabesques, and the words of their prophet in the wild script of the Turkish language, cascading along the ancient, rigid marble of Constantine’s city like streaks of lightning.

I mentioned Father Boyle before; his “Evening Punch-Ups with Father” are some of the most entertaining excerpts of Blume’s writing, and a real treat when they pop up in Stanton’s articles. Though we know almost nothing else about him, we know that Father Boyle was a college friend to Blume, and though his life took him on an opposite path as a vicar in the Church of England they never stopped being friends, and never ceased their heated, often violent, debates on spirituality (it’s also telling how Blume constantly refers to him as “father”, both in how affectionately he held him, and how little affection there was for his biological father). He would invite Father Boyle to his flat, bring up the latest nugget of ethics or history or metaphysics, like the aforementioned Voltaire parable, in the hopes that it would provoke his friend into an apoplexy. It usually did:

The evening grew a little sluggish, so to liven things up I returned to that wonderful little hazelnut of a quandary, of how the serpent in Milton got about before God cursed him to slither on his belly. Maybe he coiled himself like a bed spring, I offered, and standing upright on his tail bounced about. ‘Satan is not a d—— bed spring!’ Father screamed before taking a swing at me. I thought he might have killed me before my roommate ushered him outside for the noise. I simply cannot wait until he calls on me tomorrow.

It’s almost impossible to get into Dr. Stanton’s advanced classes: “Blume and Ethics of the Enlightenment”, “Blume and the Political Landscape of 18th Century Europe”, “Blume, America, and Attitudes on Colony and Empire”, the list goes on. The more specific in scope Stanton narrows his topics on Blume, the more enjoyable in general they tend to be. I’ve had deeper philosophical breakthroughs thanks to Blume and Father Boyle’s shouting matches than almost any class I’ve taken in our legitimate Philosophy department, for example. And one could take Intro to American Politics, or one could instead learn everything one needs to know about American government through the lens of England’s most cantankerous Yankee-hater since Samuel Johnson, and get far more laughs out of it:

How bizarre, how utterly asinine, that in their quest to declare their freedom and inalienable right to own slaves, so puffed up they were in throwing off the yoke of one king, they wrote themselves another king into their vaunted constitution, by way of a non-parliamentary executive branch of government. The mind recoils in abject terror at the mere possibility that not only might the mob rule of America elect a narcissistic, incompetent boob to high executive power, but in so doing, the people will be stuck with him for four entire years, without the precautionary recourse, the veritable balm, of a vote of no confidence! Impeachment, they retort, as if this cumbersome apparatus, as likely to occur as a walk upon the moon as it already is, is the height of precaution and an idea to be proud of for forming, as if it is meet and proper that one should be expelled from office only in case one commits crimes, but not if one does the job poorly. The mind then slips off the precipice of madness, never to return, when it occurs to one that this oaf of a president has only to convince the lowest, dullest, easiest-to-persuade denominator of the public that he is fit for the job, and he shall have potentially three more four-year terms available to him!

Intro to Blume, however, is every non-technologically-inclined student’s worst nightmare. Naturally, Stanton doesn’t allow anyone in his advanced classes unless he or she takes the intro, and so has a solid foundation of Blume understanding and appreciation. It is three hours a week’s worth of pure engagement with Blume’s text, peppered with occasional forays into notable event’s in the man’s life that later inform the text. It’s simple (and now I’m imagining Doc Stantz’s erratic, impassioned cadence here, pushing up his thick black-framed glasses and rubbing his crew cut in between odd pauses in his speech), all you have to do to pass this class is read the assigned text, understand it, and write convincingly about it.

All three of those things, of course, are impossible, for all except one man.

Intro to Blume, then, is a sometimes-exciting but mostly-terrifying crapshoot. Reading the assigned text (which on paper is the Penguin Classics edition of the complete works in paperback, but in fact is a cobbled-together series of Stanton’s excerpts of the man’s words that the Dean set up so as not to confuse the school bookstore while still saving face for Stanton), we try to guess what Blume might have thought about whatever topic Stanton brings up when he calls upon a nervous student for an answer. That student has about a 50/50 chance of being right.

I’ll never forget the time Doc Stantz blew up at me in Intro to Blume. It’s the angriest I’ve ever seen him toward anyone, let alone me. I made the mistake of suggesting that he was maybe influenced by Michel de Montaigne. It wasn’t too much of a stretch, or so I thought: Voltaire defended him against Pascal’s petulant criticisms of him in the Philosophical Letters, and besides, Blume had to admire someone open-minded enough to write a whole essay on how maybe cannibals aren’t so bad after all.

“Montaigne?,” Stanton gasped, “Montaigne?! Montaigne filled up two hundred pages in Raymond Sebond trying to argue how we can’t possibly know anything! He ended with the conclusion “man is nothing without God!” Are you for goddamn real? Blume wrote twenty letters to his brother on Newton in the first two weeks of January 1791 alone, you really think he would have given a pigfuck about a guy who wrote over a thousand pages trying to argue we can’t know anything, and we’re nothing without God?! Where in the hell is the textual evidence for a claim like that? I see you don’t have the book on your desk, did you even read the damn thing?! Do you even know where you are right now, or are the jello shots from last night still affecting your brain? Why don’t you go take a nap, and maybe when you wake up you can do the fucking reading for next week, what do you say?” As I sheepishly left the classroom that day, I overheard behind the door Doc Stanton ask if anyone else thought Blume was influenced by Montaigne, to no responses.

I barely eked out a low C in Intro to Blume, but even C’s are good enough to get into Stanton’s advanced Blume classes.

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