Thursday, January 8, 2009
Billy Ray Barnwell here, telling you about Flurry’s got me to thinking again about my old neighbor Howard Griffin, people who know him only from his book refer to him now as John or John Howard or John H., but ever since the day a blind man on horseback rode up to our door and introduced himself as Howard and handed us our evening newspaper, that’s what we called him, Howard I mean, not the evening newspaper. Black Like Me wasn’t the only thing he wrote, he also wrote other books, Nuni for one, which was about life and love on an island in the South Pacific, and The Devil Rides Outside for another, which was about life and love in a Catholic monastery and it was banned in Boston and Detroit, the book I mean, not the Catholic monastery. Howard had spent time in both places, I don’t mean Boston and Detroit, I mean on an island in the South Pacific during the second world war and also in a Catholic monastery in France when he studied Gregorian chant earlier in his life, he was an excellent musician as well as a writer, and when I graduated from Not Grapevine High School he gave me a book containing the collected letters of Ludwig van Beethoven as a graduation present. After regaining his eyesight he became very interested in photography and Thomas Merton and Jacques Maritain and civil rights, a real man for all seasons to coin a phrase. Mama helped him with the title for his first novel. He had stopped by one afternoon with our newspaper and Mama invited him to stay and chat for a few minutes. We were sitting in lawn chairs under our elm trees when he told her he was almost finished with his novel but he hadn’t come up with a title yet, and Mama asked, “What is it about?” and Howard described a little of it to her and Mama said, “Maybe you should call it Angel On The Inside or Devil On The Outside” and the rest is, I don’t know, history. When I happened to see in Time magazine many years later that he had died at the age of sixty, even though I hadn’t seen Howard in over twenty years I felt like a sweet part of my childhood had died too.
Anyways, what I really want to tell you about is a philosopher named Epititus and something he said a long time ago, back in the first century to be exact, well to be accurate it’s not what he really said, it’s someone’s translation into English of what he said, which when you think about it is not the same thing at all, I mean sometimes if you translate what a person said you don’t get what the person meant and if you translate what the person meant you don’t get what the person said, for example our old friend Marcel Proust’s temps perdu has always looked more like “time lost” than “things past” to me but to be fair I took only one year of French and that was from Mme. Deschner at the second college I attended, Arlington State College, which is what the University of Texas at Arlington was called before it became the University of Texas at Arlington which itself is ironic because back in those days Arlington State College was part of Texas A&M which if you don’t know let me tell you, Texas A&M and the University of Texas are bitter rivals, they hate each other like Alabama hates Auburn or like a Florida Gator hates a Florida State Seminole, she was from Finland and had learned her French in Switzerland, Mme. Deschner I mean, not the Florida Gator or the Florida State Seminole, and another example would be the many versions there are of the Holy Bible that all say something different or they might could be saying the same thing in different ways I suppose but that’s kind of a stretch, some people say you can prove anything by the Bible, I don’t know whether you could prove by it that Bear Bryant was the greatest football coach who ever lived, that’s a topic for another occasion, not whether he was but whether you could prove it by the Bible, but getting back to Epititus, what he is supposed to have said was “Either things are and appear to be, or they are but appear not to be, or they are not yet appear to be, or they neither are nor appear to be” and right off the bat my old English teacher back in Not Grapevine Texas Mr. D. P. Morris would say you should use either and or when discussing two options as in either one thing or the other, but not when discussing three or four things as in either this or that or that or that like Epititus, Mr. Morris would call that a linguistic impossibility, I mean apparently the English teachers of the world think it’s all right to talk about A or B or C or D, but it’s not all right to talk about either A or B or C or D, it’s that nasty either that gets in the way, no wonder nobody pays any attention to English teachers. Getting back to Epititus, when I first heard what he said I just wanted to scratch my head and say with the king of Siam, as Oscar Hammerstein’s half of the famous songwriting team of Rodgers and Hammerstein once caused the famous bald-headed actor Yul Brynner to say, “Is...a puzzlement!” but then I let it sink into my brain where I could cogitate on it for a while and you know what?, it suddenly turned into one of Mrs. Brockett’s algebra problems, Epititus’s little quotation I mean, not my brain, Boolean algebra to be exact, or maybe it was binary arithmetic, I can’t remember which, but it’s how all computers work, everything inside a computer is either a one or a zero, either on or off, either yes or no, so with Epititus’s two subjects, let’s call them existence and appearance, you get four possible settings in a computer, you get either 11 or 10 or 01 or 00, and if you call existence A and appearance B from there it’s just a small leap to translating the zeroes and ones into (A AND B) and (A AND NOT B) and (B AND NOT A) and (NOT A AND NOT B), which that last one can also be stated (NEITHER A NOR B) in real life, I don’t know about in Boolean algebra, and I know your head is prolly spinning about now, mine is, so I won’t even bring up hexadecimal notation, but I know somewhere Janet Baines Brockett is smiling that even philosophy can be expressed in mathematics, I don’t know whether “Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard” could, especially the part about the paths of glory leading but to the grave, maybe that would be either a great big zero or a great big infinity, I bet Bear Bryant knows the answer, you can substitute Tom Landry or Joe Paterno or Vince Lombardi or anybody you like, but that will not change the fact that just about everything I need to know I learned in Not Grapevine Texas and this is Billy Ray Barnwell signing off.