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Wind, Of Course, Goethe and Shame

Hello, readers.

The other day I looked out the window and saw what looked like a dead skunk in the middle of the street. Overcome with curiosity, I trotted out to investigate and found the “skunk” to be a pair of black sweatpants with a white stripe that had been reduced to two dimensions under passing vehicles. It was a stormy day and the pants must have blown onto the street from a rooftop clothesline; the only other explanation — a partial striptease in the middle of an urban thoroughfare — seemed unlikely, though not impossible.

If you couldn’t guess from the title of this newsletter, wind is a topic of enduring personal interest. Like many of life’s intriguing forces (love, hate, etc.) it is palpable but invisible. Visual artists tend to represent the effects of wind — on the ocean, a French flag, a man’s formidable beard — rather than wind itself, presumably for this reason.

My preferred source of info is Windy.com, which depicts the phenomenon as — how to put this? — shoals of spermatozoa. The presentation is intuitive and well executed. On that website you can check the forecast in your neighborhood or explore notoriously windy places like Antarctica or Wichita. At the time of this writing Wichita is enjoying south winds of six to 14 miles per hour, with gusts as high as 20 m.p.h.

The first book below is a treasury of wind descriptions and nature metaphors. Perfect for fellow anemophiles.


The first time I read “Elective Affinities” was in college, when it appeared on the syllabus of a class that I swiftly dropped. The teacher pronounced “Goethe” with enthusiastic violence, making it sound like a noise someone would make when using the toilet. I read the book on my own time and strip-mined it for insights on marriage, fashion and virtue. (“Human beings reveal their character most clearly by what they find ridiculous.”)

It wasn’t until revisiting the book five years later that I saw what I had missed — and, contrarily, probably missed a lot of what I’d understood the first time. The novel is about an aristocratic married couple, Charlotte and Eduard, who fall in love with other people. They work through their rift by exchanging stiff philosophical dialogues about fate, domesticity, nature, freedom, transgression — you know, all the fun stuff. Aphorisms everywhere.

There’s a piece in The American Scholar in which Alberto Manguel describes Goethe as never merely narrating, but always injecting theories into his prose, with those theories permeating each section “like the smell of fried onions.” It remains the only novel I’ve read that feels like the work of a scientist (author) guiding lab rats (characters) through a maze (plot). It was published in 1809 to widespread bafflement.

Read if you like: Wittgenstein’s notebooks, the film “My Dinner With Andre,” Jay Appleton’s “The Experience of Landscape
Available from: Oxford University Press

Fiction, 1996

Alan is an obedient lawyer who marries a nice woman and then defaults on his marriage vows with disastrous results. The object of Alan’s unsanctioned desire is Sarah: a vain, distracted and “passively demonic” woman. Brookner’s trick is to make Sarah immensely unappealing to the reader but convincingly irresistible to Alan; once he starts mooning over the “feral smell” of her hair, we know it’s all over for this poor guy.

What first appears to be a classic adultery plot turns into a quieter story about humiliation and self-punishment. It is one of the great books about shame.

Brookner published her first novel at the age of 53 and, when asked what prompted her to do so, told a Paris Review interviewer: “I wondered how it was done and the only way to find out seemed to be to try and do it.” Clearly she cracked the code. This was her 16th novel.

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