A Question of Provenance; Monogamy
December 23, 2011 | by Lorin Stein
May I once more avail myself of the generous hospitality of your advice column to help solve another of my small mysteries? I am currently editing the 1852–54 journal kept on the Australian goldfields by the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner. It is a fascinating document, from which most of the best bits were ruthlessly excised prior to publication in 1917 by his industrious daughter, à la Cassandra Austen, though fortunately they survive in the manuscript. On November 8, 1852, Woolner and his two traveling companions strayed from the main road north from Melbourne toward the diggings, became separated, and got lost in the bush: “I went on and saw—what produced this observation, ‘That [he] who wants to avoid strange sights must shun byways.’ A brutal, worse than brutal sight.” So far I have not been able to identify the quotation, if indeed it actually was one. It seems possible that the inverted commas were merely added for emphasis; it’s a rather clunky aperçu, yet I wonder if any of your readers recognize it? Elsewhere in the journal Woolner recorded without hesitation, and in detail, even a measure of cold detachment, scenes of drunkenness and violence, shady characters, the accidental drowning of a friend, and several murders in and around the goldfields. On this occasion, though, whatever Woolner saw so shocked him that he was obviously not prepared to note any particulars. Bodily, I presume, but what on earth was it? On that gothic note, may I also add my sincere compliments of the season?
When you say jump, The Paris Review does not ask how high. We put our best people on this one. The results—while inconclusive—were revealing.
Within minutes, our Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, wrote in from North Carolina with a passage from Tommaso Grossi’s Marco Visconti in an 1849 translation. This looked promising at first, only it had nothing to do with Woolner’s text, and was rejected. (Sullivan: “Could it have been this? My gut says no.”)
Next our associate editor, Stephen Andrew Hiltner, proposed a line from the Tao Te Ching, but admitted that Woolner was unlikely to have known Chinese.
Our deputy editor, Sadie Stein, claimed—impressively, and with some vehemence—to recognize the sententia from Horace. The poem has not been found. Our Latin consultant, Brian FitzGerald of Lincoln College, Oxford, doubted a classical provenance. He directed us to some chapters from Proverbs, in which, however, there is no mention of strange sights.
Our managing and Web editors, Nicole Rudick and Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn, came out strong for Dante. So far we are unable to supply the relevant verse. One of Sadie’s contacts, a professor of Greek, suggested Oedipus Rex, either the messenger reporting Laius’s death or else a speech by Oedipus himself. Our close readings have not produced a match.
On the other hand, we have now figured out what Woolner saw. (Private letter to follow.)
Please tell me what do you do when you are married to a perfect wife, but when you see a beautiful, interesting girl, you would like to chat her up, and possibly have dinner with her, but you know that no romance would be possible?
I don’t know! And according to Adam Phillips, the eminent psychiatrist and author of the book Monogamy, nobody else does, either:
Our survival at the very beginning of our lives involves us in something like monogamy. Our growing up involves us in something like infidelity (we challenge our parents, we betray them, we let them down). So when we think about monogamy we think about it as though we are still children and not adults as well. We don't know what adults think about monogamy.
So there you go.
With New Year's resolutions nearly upon us, please tell me: Is it okay to pitch stacks of unread magazines? (You know the kind: with staples.) All those potentially refrigerator-worthy cartoons, all those perhaps insightful articles? Just into the recycling bin, unread?!
No disrespect to The New Yorker—but chuck ’em. And a happy New Year to all.
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