Slow Reading Challenge: Aldous Huxley, part 2


The bread was stale, the sausage rather horsey and spiced with garlic; but Mr. Cardan, who had had no tea, ate with a relish. Still more appreciatively he drank. In a little while he felt a little more cheerful. Such are the little crosses, he reflected philosophically, the little crosses one has to bear when one sets out to earn money. If he got through the evening without falling into a ditch, he’d feel that he had paid lightly for this treasure. The greatest bore was these mosquitoes; he lighted a cigar and tried to fumigate them to a respectful distance. Without much success, however. Perhaps the brutes were malarial, too. There might be a little of the disease still hanging about in these marshes; one never knew. 

Mr. Cardan was clearly famished, having missed his afternoon tea, so even the stale bread and the horsey sausage stuffed with garlic (carrying that thing around in your pocket, in the heat might have attracted stray dogs and cats?) are a feast, and of course, the wine makes everything better, but quickly also, much darker: the brutish mosquitoes might be malarial, and Mr. Cardan’s hypochondria then takes an even darker turn:

It would be tiresome to end one’s days with recurrent fever and an enlarged spleen. It would be tiresome, for that matter, to end one’s days anyhow, in one’s bed or out, naturally or unnaturally, by the act of God or of the King’s enemies. Mr. Cardan’s thoughts took on, all at once, a dismal complexion. Old age, sickness, decrepitude; the bath-chair, the doctor, the bright efficient nurse; and the long agony, the struggle for breath, the thickening darkness, the end, and then- how did that merry little song go?

More work for the undertaker/’Nother little job for the coffin-maker./At the local cemetery they are/Very very busy with a brand new grave./He’ll keep warm next winter.

If I had read this passage when I was twenty, I would have moved on quickly, not taking note or not wanting to be reminded of death when life seemed to have just begun, but nearing fifty, and having lost both my parents in recent years, this passage hits home– (which is why, Mark Twain said, you should read all your favorite books every ten years or so, and you’ll find that every decade, the book’s another book as we relate to different things over time). Death, too, takes on a different identity over time. Although to Mr. Cardan, it may not be death per se that is so alarming; it’s the physical decline and suffering that precedes it, a viewpoint he shared with Huxley himself: “Age,” Huxley writes in Texts and Pretexts “is in some ways almost more appalling than death. For, in the words of Epicurus, ‘when we exist there is no death, and when there is death we no more exist’: whereas, when we are old, we still exist. Death cannot be experienced: old age can– ‘old age, abhorred, decrepit, unsociable and unfriended'”.

Mr. Cardan then tries to insert some comic relief with a sentiment we have a saying for in Dutch (De een zijn dood is de ander zijn brood of which the English equivalent might be  one man’s meat might be another man’s poison, although the Dutch saying seems more accurate in this context: when someone dies, someone else will make his living, benefiting from that death quite literally). Sadly, this diversion technique doesn’t work for Mr. Cardan; it just leads to greater melancholy, an existentialist mood as well as a sense of ridicule:

Mr. Cardan hummed the tune to himself cheerfully enough. But his tough, knobby face became so hard, so strangely still, an expression of such bitterness, such a profound melancholy appeared in his winking and his supercilious eye, that it would have startled and frightened a man to look at him. But there was nobody in that deepening twilight to see him. He sat there alone.

He went on humming. ‘If I were to fall sick,’ he was thinking, ‘who would look after me? Suppose one were to have a stroke. Hemorrhage on the brain; partial paralysis; mumbling speech; the tongue couldn’t utter what the brain thought; one was fed like a baby; clysters; such a bright doctor, rubbing his hands and smelling of disinfectant and eau-de-Cologne; saw nobody but the nurse; no friensd [sic; that copy editor was a must after all, as they didn’t have spell check in those days]; or once a week, perhaps, for an hour, out of charity; “Poor old Cardan, done for, I’m afraid; must send the old chap a fiver – hasn’t a penny, you know; get up a subscription; what a bore; astonishing that he can last so long…”‘

He’ll keep warm next winter.

The tune ended on a kind of trumpet call, rising from the dominant to the tonic – one dominant, three repeated tonics, drop down again to the dominant and then on the final syllable ‘winter’ the last tonic. Finis and no da capo, no second movement. 

Mr. Cardan took another swig from his bottle; it was nearly empty now. 

I am nearing the 1000 words’ point again, so I should keep this within certain bounds, but as you can tell, things went downhill very quickly for Mr. Cardan mentally but then drinking a whole bottle at this pace would push anyone off the cliff. (Clysters, by the way, are enemas… and obviously, “no second movement” is a pun here).

This ain’t no cliffhanger, and maybe you wondered why I picked this pathetic passage… oh, you want to know where this is headed? The next line I won’t give you here, but it does come as a surprise, which shows a hidden agenda which does get developed in the next chapters. My question to you: what is that next line (without peeking at Those Barren Leaves): what is the thought that pops up in Mr. Cardan’s head next? You, dear reader, tell me where you think this is headed, and the more suggestions the more hilarious this can become, so don’t be shy! There: 1017 words. Basta!

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3 Responses to Slow Reading Challenge: Aldous Huxley, part 2

  1. Rike says:

    Met plezier duik ik er in! Had associatie met E.M. Forster’s Where angels fear to tread. Het voorwoord vertelt dat Engelsen in Italië buiten het boekje gaan maar thuis over cultuur vertellen. In die lijn doorgedacht: Mr. Cardan komt terecht tussen Italianen en ontdekt dat je het leven wat anders kunt leven dan hij gewend was. Ben benieuwd naar het vervolg!
    Ik ben nu in mijn blog bezig met het thema slow movement…

  2. Melanie says:

    At this point what can poor Mr. Cardan do except take out his remaining sausage and affirm what life is left in it by massaging out those little sperm and waxing on about them at length? The sadness he feels that none will find their target today but will go back into the cosmic waste heap to be recycled into god knows what — perhaps pesky mosquitos.

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