An Introduction to the Complete Works of David Blume (Part 2)


In 1848, Joshua Abraham Norton moved to San Francisco to make a fortune in importing Peruvian rice. His business ventures failed miserably, and this sunk him into a deep depression, until one day in 1859, when he issued a decree to the local San Francisco newspaper declaring himself “Norton I, Emperor of the United States” (and later on, “Protector of Mexico”).

Though he was clearly not in his right mind, the city played along with his madness. The San Francisco Bulletin dutifully printed his numerous decrees, which included, among other sweeping changes in his empire, the complete dissolution of Congress (Congress unfortunately failed to get word of this decree, and to this day, for better or worse, they still have regular assemblies in Washington). Official Norton currency was printed for him and honored at most local businesses, and when his navy-blue-and-gold imperial uniform grew faded and worn the town pitched in to get the emperor new clothes. Many of his decrees were remarkable in their foresight and compassion; he came up with a prototypical version of what would later become the League of Nations, and forbade in his empire any religions or sects from fighting each other. He once stepped between an anti-Chinese mob and their targets and eventually made them disperse. Even Samuel Clemens knew him for a time, and supposedly based the King from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on Norton. When he died in 1880, about 30,000 came to the city to pay their respects.

A man came up with a delusion, and everyone around him indulged him. This deference to his eccentricity unlocked a kind, gentle, and unusually wise man that perhaps would not have ever emerged had the Peruvian rice market been a little more robust (and I certainly would not be writing about him now.) Just so, Jonathan Stanton lost his mind one day and hoisted upon the liberal arts department a delusion, but for some reason the faculty decided to play along.

However, the temptation is still strong to come up with intellectual games to glean a complete David Blume text out of Jonathan Stanton’s head. The obvious one is a sci-fi what-if: someone with advanced telepathic abilities could spend a couple months transcribing the text in Stanton’s dreams and come up with a decent facsimile of the Complete Works of David Blume. Yet others considered another novel theory: if Stanton could speak a foreign language (French, let’s say), the Dean and other notable literary figures could pretend to drum up support for a translation in that language. Stanton, being naturally the world-leading authority on Blume, would be the obvious choice to translate his words into French. A French text could then be easily translated back into English, careful to match the cadence and timbre of the English in the excerpts of Blume’s words in Stanton’s articles, thereby giving the world an authoritative English-language Blume text. Sadly, Stanton, though an enthusiast of the English language and its finest writers (it’s hard to miss the gigantic copy of Johnson’s dictionary literally stopping the door to his office on hot days, for example), is notoriously inept at acquiring any other languages. He told the story often and with a chuckle of how once, at a conference on Enlightenment-era English literature, he encountered the phrase je ne sais quois and had to stop the panel so he could Google it.

This temptation, then, matches the same one we all share as a human species, the perverse urge to destroy something beautiful, to knock down a twenty-foot house of cards, to pop a huge bubble in the park, for the only reason that it must be destroyed eventually, so why wait? There is a not insignificant group in this institute, comprised of students and colleagues of Stanton, whose scholarly goal it is to pop the bubble of David Blume for everyone, or to epically own him by his own logic, as some of the more insufferable among them would have it. Their chance came about a year before I even got into college, when the university press published an astonishing article by Stanton, ostensibly about ethics, but featuring nothing less than the only time Blume ever lost a punch-up match with Father Boyle (or at least as far as either Blume, or Stanton, are willing to admit).

Blume made the acquaintance with a gentleman of high standing, a military man who spent time on campaigns in India, Sri Lanka, and Burma. To say he was not much liked by Blume is an understatement: he was the target of Blume’s screeds against vapid materialism, excessive patriotism, banal religiousity, everything Blume’s ideals seemed to be up in arms against, but very often devolved into petty ad hominem attacks (I call him “military man” from here on out, since he is unnamed, and that is the moniker Blume most commonly gave him while attempting to be charitable). He was apparently a regular customer of his father’s business, and whether Blume worked for his father or not this seemed to give Blume rather ample opportunities to cross paths with him. He wrote with disgust on the military man’s regular practice of buying thick, seemingly hard-to-read books, highlighting random passages in the margins, right in front of Blume and his father, with the sole intention of placing them on his personal bookshelf to simply give the impression to his wealthy friends and visitors that he was well-read:

…these were assuredly never opened again {by him}. Of course, what a man does with his own possessions is his own business. But nonetheless I am, in spite of myself, quick to anger when I encounter a volume second-hand, and see scrawled around the margins obvious summations of plot, or obvious definitions of slightly-larger words. The volume is then filled with the thoughts and cares from someone other than myself, the experience of the former reader then intrudes on my own reading experience, and I usually cannot endure to continue such a volume. It galls me to see firsthand one such as the military man so marking up a book and ruining the experience for anyone else. We all have our faults, so the theologians say, and the Lord knows the military man’s must be manifold, but nonetheless mankind must count among its collective faults my tendency to bother so much with them.

All relatively tame stuff so far. But the military man was also avid hunter, because an aristocratic Englishman in the eighteenth-century with a spectacular military career behind him was of course going to be an avid hunter. Blume was apparently subjected to the man’s constant bragging over his hunting feats and detested what he thought was a pointless display of violence against non-aggressing and defenseless animals. In his private journals, Blume would imagine fanciful scenarios of revenge against the military man: the spirits of slain foxes and quails cross the veil, like the many victims of Shakespeare’s Richard III, to haunt him for the rest of his days; his hounds rising up in revolt against him, refusing to chase animals unless he signs a Magna Carta ensuring the rights of hunting dogs all throughout the British Empire; and (most importantly for Stanton’s article), a sporting event in which the horses of everyone in his hunting party determined who could eject their riders off their backs the farthest, a perverse Olympic event where the horses are the athletes and the riders the discus.

This all seemed to amuse Blume, until, in a Father Boyle fragment dated around 1785, he heard news of a hunting accident, in which the military man was indeed thrown from his horse. The man did not die, but he did lose the use of his legs for the rest of his life. Though the trips to his father’s shop, hunting trips (and so his constant bragging), and general time spent with the man came to a swift end, it nonetheless sent Blume into a spiral of guilt. Did his malicious thoughts, his satirical writings, somehow emit some sort of miasma of negative energy that caused the mishap? Was he in a way responsible for this man’s injury? It caused him so much internal turmoil that, rather than tolerate a terse, uneventful punch-up, he on-the-spot begged Father Boyle to give him confession. “What’s this,” Boyle laughed, “the great disciple of Voltaire and Newton, the new evangelist for the God who damns ascetics and saints to perdition for doing nothing, now begging forgiveness over a thought?” Nonetheless Father Boyle, nothing if not an eternally good sport, granted Blume absolution for the crime.

Again, an amusing, and relatively minor, conclusion to a surprising reversal of Blume’s general personality. But in an obscure fragment, Stanton reveals this different side of Blume in a shocking extreme:

This time it was Blake. I do admire the man’s verse of late, but one of his poems has set me off again: ‘I was angry with my friend: I told my wrath, my wrath did end/ I was angry with my foe: I told it not, my wrath did grow.’

When I am in this humor, books that once gave me pleasure now make me feel nothing; I once delighted in scorning certain oafish politicians, now I make a point to avoid even passing by the newspaper stands; my memoirs of Paris, Rome, Buda-Pest, Turkey, Alexandria, Bombay, which before when thumbing through them could in an instant draw up such pleasing memories of such wonderful sights, and also fervent hopes to go farther, to distant Peking, to Shilla, as far as Nippon itself, now inspire nothing; I will even forbear to eat for a day or two at a time, and even if I had the willpower to prepare my favorite dishes they would be little more than ash in my mouth.

There are two voices in me, and one is an imp of a little child, reminding me without fail of certain wrongs I had long ago packed away deep in my mind, berating me that I should walk free with such crimes, such blights on my soul. The other is the barrister of my mind, ever talking down this imp, assuring me these crimes are trumped-up, are slander, that I have no cause to worry. It’s the constant conversation between the two that drives me to madness. I then can’t help but empathise with those less fortunate than me, those in the gaols, the debtors’ prisons, their freedom taken away by society for years, and I know it all to be preposterous in my context, but I still cannot banish the image. I wonder what would be worse for me, to keep these to myself and live with the two voices in perpetuity, or to confide in a friend. What would be worse, that this friend would promptly find me monstrous, or instead find me a fool for thinking myself monstrous? The alternative, to keep them all locked inside, is indeed far worse; one cannot do anything else, one cannot read a historical treatise on the Battle of Cannae, take a stroll to Piccadilly and back to the flat, or gorge upon a medium-rare beefsteak, when one isn’t sure if they’re a good person or no. All other concerns come second.

I even fear to write these thoughts down. Many have claimed that there is nothing more revealing, more naked to a person, than one’s handwriting. I rather go so far as to say it is one’s own writing where one is the most naked. It is here that one’s hopes, and one’s fears, are revealed, should a reader care to look close enough, and even if it is the author’s sincere hope that these fears never come to light. I write, I try to counsel myself, but I do not submit these papers for publication. What, am I King Midas, trusting only the reeds bobbing about in the wind to whisper the secret that I have ass’s ears? And did not the wind and the reeds divulge this secret to all anyway? So do I understand that when I write, even these lines, unless I burn them, they will be read, perhaps not in my lifetime, but nonetheless by someone.

I say this excerpt, as long and unwieldy here as it was in the Stanton article I gleaned it from, is shocking for several reasons: obviously, it’s a complete departure from the usual Blume, lover of life, empiricist, humanist and skeptical thinker. But it also, two hundred years early, anticipates what we now know as modern literary scholarship: starting with a hypothesis and finding evidence in the text to support a wide variety of claims, similar to the just-emerging scientific method of his time. Something happened to Blume in his life that made him realize his writing could unintentionally reveal aspects of himself to other readers, and it terrified him.

Don’t believe me? Then watch this:

This fragment shows that David Blume, who never married and rarely spoke of significant women in his life, was a homosexual, and almost certainly had feelings for Father Boyle. His antagonism, his Miltonic Satan to Boyle’s God the Father, if you will, is a nightly ploy to receive attention from him in a way he never could in a conventional romantic relationship. I’ll go one further: there is evidence, especially with “the military man”, that Blume either deliberately conceals proper names of his characters, or simply doesn’t care to reveal them. It is entirely possible, since he reveals so little about Father Boyle personally, that it could be an alias, or even a fictitious character. Stanton once revealed a Blume excerpt that transcribed a letter Boyle supposedly wrote to him, and noted he signed it with a “J.” One could then arrive at the conclusion that Boyle’s first name is Jonathan, and it harkens to the deep and homoerotic relationship between Jonathan and David in the Old Testament (not to mention the cynical explanation that Jonathan Stanton, making the whole thing up anyway, named his author David specifically in service to this allusion). A major stretch, you might think, until you realize how much Blume admired pretty much only that part of the Bible:

If I ever deign to write fiction, I would love nothing more than to adapt the book of first Samuel into a modern sensibility. There is to be found, in the whole of scripture only in this book, as much high drama and excitement as your Iliad, or even your Troilus and Cressida. I am determined to show, should I undertake this great work, that Samuel is the true villain, a charlatan and opportunist who thirsts for power over the young Israelite nation by claiming to speak for their God; that Saul, raised in the shadow of Samuel and all the other spiritual leaders of Israel, is determined to become the first king and build up a modern, atheistic nation able to compete with the great powers of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and the like (a hubristic determination that will of course bring about his tragic downfall); that David, groomed by Samuel to be the religious leader of his people, is an enigma, unclear if he has gone mad with religious delusions or is indeed loved by God; and all throughout, that Jonathan shows great patience for his turbulent father, and great love and generosity for his dearest friend David, even as it brings him to utter ruin.

How to explain the fears of imprisonment, of perceived, but not actualized, crimes? Let’s assume Boyle shares the same homoerotic longing Blume does for him. If they were to ever act upon it, and it came to light, even in eighteenth-century Enlightenment-era England, they would have absolutely ended up in prison for it. This fear of the laws against “gross indecency,” laws against “the love that dare not speak its name,” of course anticipates the example of Oscar Wilde, a man as witty and full of life as Blume, who was all but ruined over the same charges a hundred years later. Even if they don’t act these urges out, or even if these feelings were completely one-sided, just the rumor of such a forbidden love could have devastated Blume, who so loved his freedom to walk outside, to chat with strangers and friends alike. It would have certainly brought his friendship with Boyle to a swift end, who as an upstanding figure in the Church of England could not have afforded to associate with someone with admitted homosexual tendencies, let alone tendencies directed toward him. In this excerpt, then, he fears, despite championing an outward life of morality by deeds, that his very actions will give away deeply-repressed and shameful thoughts and feelings, specifically homosexuality.

Want to know the most shocking part of all? I don’t believe any of it. I made it all up, just now.

That’s Blume’s whole point, you see. If in literary scholarship you have an ax to grind, be it Feminist, Marxist, Queer Theory, Wimsatt and Beardsley’s New Criticism, post-modernism, or what have you, and you look for the evidence, you will eventually find it, often whether it is truly there or not. Once you have that evidence, all you have to do is sound convincing enough to get published, and then even the most shoddy and poorly-researched criticism will not be roundly rejected, but instead join the canon of established ideas as “the controversy” (if you don’t believe me there, go ahead and Google how many people still believe vaccines cause autism). Modern criticism, in a way, is a lot like the crapshoot of Stanton’s Intro to Blume class, with only slightly more rigorous standards. Blume’s fears are twofold, then: first in the sheer recklessness of literary speculation, and second, the notion that even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

The other matter one must consider, specifically in the case of Blume scholarship, is that there is ultimately one authority on the man and his works, Stanton himself. This brings me to the purpose of my article: I will admit, I was one of those folks who wanted to pop the Blume bubble, I wanted to find out what it was that made Stanton make the whole thing up. I don’t think I chose to do so out of malice, I think at the time I was just desperate to pitch an idea, and that’s a place even the best of us get to when one works for the school paper. Anyway, in my last class with him, I wrote an article on exactly the matter I outlined above, the military man’s accident, and Blume’s apparent mental breakdown as a direct result, but the conclusions I came to were much different.

About a week or so after I handed it in (which in any other situation would have been an unusually rapid turnaround in grading for Stanton), I received an email from him to come to his office so we could personally discuss the paper. I didn’t know what to expect when I showed up, and getting chewed out by him was still fresh in my mind even though that was only a few years ago. He showed me a hard copy of the paper full of red-ink notes, with a 95 written on the top margin. Despite this, he seemed agitated, his breathing was heavy and his hands shook as we spoke. Did I plan on submitting this to any journals, he asked, and I said no. Did you show this to anyone else, to which I replied uh, not really, cause to be honest who cares enough to show anyone their school papers when they’re in college? Fine, he said, I’ll give you an automatic passing grade for the rest of the class if you burn it. I didn’t understand, was there something wrong with the paper? I could rewrite it. No, he said, it’s, ah, it’s great, well-written, elegantly argued, it’s a fine paper. I still don’t understand, I muttered. You don’t have to understand, he said. He took out a checkbook and slapped it on the table. How much do you want? Name an amount. Please, just burn it, and don’t ever talk about it again.

I did, eventually, and I didn’t take any of his money. I feel bad that I’m even mentioning the conversation we had, even if according to his terms I failed to mention any of the particulars. On the other hand, I needed to give the Reporter something (not to mention, I’m sure even the subjects of Blume’s journal entries and literary sketches must have expected some sort of privacy, or perhaps never expected their verbatim conversations and off-the-cuff comments would be immortalized in a book to be read by college students two hundred years later). Although, as I said before, this was my aim starting out, I think the pressure for a story made me ultimately choose a goal I would have otherwise never agreed to, and what made me realize this was the example of Emperor Norton I.

Though I set out to ruin David Blume for everyone, I now regret that it ever crossed my mind, and I want to stress how important it is to this school that we continue to indulge in Stanton and keep a robust tradition of David Blume scholarship alive. I can speak for myself when I say that Blumeology has benefited me, if not the whole school; before I took my first class with Stanton, I think the last time I picked up a book to read for fun was when I was eleven. Thanks to Stanton, I care about other things in the world besides coding and discrete math, and I don’t want to ruin the chance for another student here to discover that as well.

Of course, on a long enough timeline, the field of Blume scholarship will inevitably turn into Stanton scholarship. Some other literary private investigator, then, will have to discover that Stanton’s mind snapped when his wife was tragically killed beside him while he was behind the wheel, or that he married someone but secretly loves another man, or his mother wasted away in a nursing home and he neglected her until it was too late, or that his only child died far too young of a terminal illness, or whatever single traumatic moment in Stanton’s private life informed every part of who he is now, if such a thing is even possible.

I hope that moment happens far enough in the future that I never find out.

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