He died. I don’t recall if unexpectedly. We made it to Pittsfield to bury him. I helped carry his casket. I had helped carry the casket of Aunt Mae, of Cousin Michael who had come home in a bag, all of them that summer. Two in June; one in September; I do not recall which one when, what day, what month, what the order of dying was.
When my family and I made it to my maternal grandfather’s farm in Pittsfield (the town where Melville had written one-third of Moby Dick)–after his funeral–I saw just four books on his shelf. Two were the bible, one in French, the other in English, and a copy of complete Shakespeare, a large serious looking volume I think I recall having once remembered of it, having ever held it I cannot say, perhaps I did, I know I did the day we buried him, instinctively, even at fourteen, finding MacBeth’s soliloquy he delivers at the news of Lady MacBeth’s death. I had had a copy of it, and MacBeth was the first of Shakes plays I had read on my own, not read to me as my dad had done when I was a boy. The fourth book on my grandfather’s shelf was a rather large volume of Montaigne. I do not recollect if the Montaigne were in French or in English, or if it were a bi-lingual edition, as had become more available in the second half of the twentieth century. Yes, the Bible, Shakespeare and Montaigne; they were it for my grandfather, it being what anyone who wanted to be called literate needed to have, needed to read, what else would anyone really need to have read to be considered literate. Yes, anyone with pretensions of being considered a literate person only needed to have read the Bible, Shakespeare and Montaigne, or so I am assuming someone could say–would say as many others might have before or since . . . and I am not saying that my grandfather’s library catalogue was proof positive of what I have concluded here . . . proof would be one thing, showing another, indicating yet another.
To show differs from indicating very simply; the former reveals, the latter points to, and my grandfather’s library seems indicative of a general belief about literacy, perhaps, but about canonicity, certainly. These books were all anyone needed to have, needed to know, needed to read–maybe this is or is not true. Whether it is true or not is not the point herein to take; what my grandfather believed was true would be more closely linked to what should be taken, not to be mis-taken. However, what more would you need to have read to be literate in a way I have understood was represented by contact with, deep penetrative contact with certain canonical texts–this necessity for the civilization is what I believed to be relevant to canonicity and being literate. If these texts were all you had, it would be enough, no? What would be amiss if you would have read the bible, the whole of Shakespeare and the whole Montaigne? My mother’s father’s Canon would serve anyone well, any culture well, if there were some world catastrophe whereby you were to have only a handful of texts to help point you in the direction of living more civilly. The Bible, Shakespeare and Montaigne; Canon enough? I am just not in favor of throwing the puppy out with the flea bath water, and I do know that our tradition has contracted fleas in its fur . . . in every voice, in every ban . . .
Mine of course, in the subsequent years of learning at university, had become broader. I do understand the thinking involved in what my grandfather had left in wordless sign on the shelf I pawed in the hours spent in his cabin after his funeral; I helped carry his coffin to the grave. We have, though, in this America of ours, become so systematically undereducated–and we really have been under educated–that we have been left at the mercy of our baser passions–iconoclasm has been our favorite intellectual pastime, Americans having succumbed to, or always at the mercy of one or another cult of the new or the now. As semi-literate, though, as most of us are who have been what we call educated, we have little idea what it means to be literate in the way beig literate demanded when literacy was a cornerstone of civilization—and I do not mean colonialization, which inevitably leads to one form of slavery or servitude or another; and even less what Canonicity means or could point to or arrange . . . and this does indicate the possibility that someone can be falsely literate; that is, to become a man who masquerades as someone literate but is far less than. With this degraded ability, we have been left to discern canonicity without the acumen to do so.
We have lost our focus, our sights have been set elsewhere, off target completely, so never mind ever hitting the bull’s eye; we rarely hit the concentric circles reverberating outwardly. I do still hope against hope that this could change, reverse itself even, and that at some time in the future there would rise a generation who would decide to throw off the shackles of complacency, and get rid of the the idea that not enough is good enough, to raise the levels of literacy unilaterally and universally irrespective of race, gender, religion, ethnicity . . . we might see something spectacular in the democratic process; true democracy instead of the one the monied and power elite hold before us with the help of the media. It’s all about keeping the carrot before the mule. Where then are the men and women . . . the elite create poverty and ignorance so we should not forget pity?
I have his bible today, the French bible and the–wait, I think I recall his Missal, yes, the Catholic Missal–or am I mixing this up, which would not be so far fetched, space in the mind like space in the universe is curved, there is an horizon, a parallax too, for things remembered. Ships that fall off the edge of the world. Memory has its railroad tracks converging. There is always a vanishing point; the truths of perspective are real.