The More Fool to Myself (Dennis Aubrey)


As a very young man, I worked a year in a rare book shop in Santa Barbara, California. The shop was owned by a wonderful couple, Milton and Jessica Hammer, who encouraged my passion for books and my love of all things literary. I spent half my meager salary on books and was never happier than browsing among the treasures. When Milton and Jessica traveled across the country on buying trips, I waited anxiously for the boxed treasures to arrive – to open and catalogue them, the first to touch the wonders.

"The Mystic Mill" capital in Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay  (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

“The Mystic Mill” capital in Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

One year while traveling they called me to see if a certain important shipment had arrived. I enthusiastically described the books and how I had cleaned and prepped them for pricing and shelving on their return. Milton asked how I liked the letter? What letter? I saw no letter. “Right on top of the books,” said Milton. “There was a letter that we wanted you to see right away.” But I had not seen any letter; I was distraught, even more so when Milton said it was a letter from D.H. Lawrence, one of my favorite writers at the time. It turned out that I was so anxious to look at the books that I threw all the packaging paper away and the letter was among that detritus. I immediately went out to the garbage dumpsters where I had cast the packaging, but this was also the garbage for El Paseo, a large Mexican restaurant next door. No matter, I climbed in all the bins and searched every fragment, in vain. I was covered in filth but all I felt was the shame of losing the precious letter, written by the hand of Lawrence. I still regret this loss.

I have talked often of my sympathetic understanding of medieval relics, and this story probably explains much. To see and hold a first edition of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” was like a religious experience to me. I treasure my copy of Siegried Sassoon’s “To A Red Rose” with the hand-tinted illustration by Stephen Tennant.

Stephen Tennant illustration, "To a Red Rose" by Siegried Sassoon

Stephen Tennant illustration, “To a Red Rose” by Siegried Sassoon

One of the treasures I discovered all those years ago at Hammer’s Book Shop was Robert Burton’s “The Anatomy of Melancholy‬” originally published in 1621. I still have my copy of a later edition that was owned by the Hollywood producer Walter Wanger. One of my favorite passages was about the wise men of the past – Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Augustine, and others whose works have endured for centuries. In regard to these wise men, Burton described Bernard of Clairvaux‘s thoughts – “Saint Bernard will admit none into this catalogue of wise men, but only prophets and apostles; how they esteem themseves, you have heard before. We are worldly-wise, admire ourselves, and seek for applause, but hear Saint Bernard … the more wise thou art to others, the more fool to thyself.”

Two Devils Fighting, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay  (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Two Devils Fighting, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We have lost the ability to see ourselves in this way. The secular rationalism that dominates the western world today has contributed little to the ethical universe but to give us the tools for rationally justifying just about anything, any behaviour no matter how reprehensible. Greed – rapacious desire – is not only condoned, but praised. Envy, insatiable desire, is stoked by an international popular culture where we are exposed to the excesses of the rich and famous and then model our happiness on those excesses. Pride, gluttony, lust, and sloth have been redefined and transmuted into virtues. And wrath? Uncontrolled hatred and anger? It has become the staple of our political life for both the Christian right and the secular left. And expecting our leaders to lie, we no longer hold them to any standard of truth.

If Bernard’s examination was true for the great thinkers of the ancient world, what would he have to say about public figures today? Would he thunder in a voice of righteousness like the prophets of old and lay bare the deceptions and oppression? Would that voice even be heard, or would he be another unheard cry in a lonely and barren desert?

Trumeau statue of Jeremiah, Abbatiale Saint Pierre, Moissac (Tarn-et-Garonne)

Trumeau statue of Jeremiah, Abbatiale Saint Pierre, Moissac (Tarn-et-Garonne) Photograph copyright PJ McKey (All Rights Reserved)

Last night PJ and I were talking and she said how she was so disturbed by the world today, how it moves so fast and is ruled by deception and fear. It breaks my heart to hear her talk like this because I can’t protect her. We can only live our close life with our art and books, family and friends. The flow of the world will nurture or destroy itself and we will be carried on the torrent like leaves on the Orinoco.

Postscript: Milton Hammer contributed a collection of books and letters to the Special Collections library at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The gift contains correspondence, photographs, and other material collected by Milton, much of it during his career as a rare book and manuscripts dealer. It features names like Henry James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Napoleon Bonaparte and Harold Pinter. Box 1:1 is labelled with a name not nearly so distinguished but it has my complete curiosity. The name? “Dennis Aubrey”.

14 responses to “The More Fool to Myself (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. The modern media would either refuse to print anything about Bernard or demonise or ridicule him.
    I understand something of your sadness.
    I had the luck to grow up in postwar Britain where those who had been through the war were determined to have a better, fairer world.
    The foundation of the National Health Service…access to education…financial barriers to advancement diminished.
    And how quickly that world has disappeared…starting with Thatcher, amplified by Blair human dignity now rates for nothing; education is a sham and political leaders and their parties are the tools of a financial and media conglomerate which knows only profit, by whatever means.

    I now live in Costa Rica and when friends laughingly ask me what it’s like living in a banana republic i am unfortunately able to say that it comes as no surprise whatsoever having lived in another – France – for over twenty years.

    I am sick to the bottom of my heart with political systems which remove hope and future from people at the bottom of the heap….and which have the impudence and insolence to call themselves democracies.

    • Helen, he would be ridiculed, surely. And clearly you understand, to watch something great be torn apart by greed and selfishness is gut-wrenching. I was just doing some research on Milton Hammer, who was referenced in the post. In an article where he offered people in Selma, Alabama his film “Gone are the Days”, the film version of “Purlie Victorious” with Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, a very young Alan Alda and Sorrell Booke, there was another feature about how Monsanto was buying Congressmen. This was in 1964. Now half a century later we see the result of that funding as Monsanto seems to have its tentacles in every part of the US government. Now that corporations are officially “people” according to the US law, we have legitimized corporate sponsorship in politics. Next I imagine that we will be seeing things like “The Freshman Congressman from North Carolina, brought to you by American Tobacco” or “The Junior Senator from Kansas, presented by Monsanto”.

      Helen, maybe we should just get together, have a glass of wine, and watch the world pass us by.

  2. D, during this recent trip, I realized how removed we are from the raucous noise that passes for celebrity in the United States today. Here in Brazil, we are also removed, simply because we don’t tap into those shows or newspaper that rejoice in such antics. But as I watched US television on the flights today, I cringed at the behavior of “celebrities,” and as I read the mostly-US news sites on the Internet, I am aghast at what passes for notable news items. (See Michael Douglas today.) I think the great thinkers of the past, even of the recent past, would stand aghast at those behaviors heralded as laudable and worthy of emulation today. Think Eleanor Roosevelt or Helen Keller or Gandhi or Yeats. What would they make of Honey Boo-Boo, or the Kardashians, or the reality show celebrities? I frequently share PJ’s despair and dismay. But, when I tap into the past, to the beauty of thought and art from ages gone, I am reminded of the promise of mankind. And the despair diminishes, retreating, for a moment, at least. Thanks for this post!

    • Ann, I was thinking of you quite a bit while writing this article. You are right in saying that the beauty of thought and art from the past and the present are what sustain us. But the difference between that enormous promise and the sadly unfulfilled destiny is numbing.

  3. About the D.H. Lawrence letter: it might have fallen on the floor in the shop when you opened the box, and someone probably found it later. Or, if you were sure it went into the dumpster, then someone must have recognised it and souvenired it, and now it’s probably in a collection somewhere in the world.

    • Trish, I’m afraid that either of these is just hopeful thinking. I worked in a restricted part of the shop and when I realized the letter was missing, searched every inch of space in the shop. The load of paper that I dumped was covered in a two-foot layer of restaurant leavings, which are as wet and slippery as you can imagine. It is most likely that the single sheet of paper was covered in slop and just fell apart in the waste. Sigh.

  4. Unfortunately postmodern world is ( hmm… I don’t know how to say it, because I’m not the native speaker, so You have forgive forgive me ortographic and grammar mistakes ) .. “the badest” ( ?? ) world in which humankind have to live – in the matter of spirit. But the lecture of an ancient thinkers such as Aristotle, Platon, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Thomas a Kempis, etc., purify the mind and thoughts, and give the peace for the soul. Your blog is full of beauty, I’ll read it regularly. Greetings from Poland.

  5. I guess a lot of people agree with your sad view of the modern world –including me-. In my opinion, the current financial crisis is nothing else but a consequence of the moral and cultural crisis of a slept society. I can see this very clearly in my own country. The good news is that each of us still can build his own little bubble and live within it. I fill my bubble with Beethoven, Bach (rap is strictly forbidden) Cervantes, Chekov, Seneca … hundreds of Romanesque little churches lost in the countryside, a few Gothic cathedrals, a myriad of paintings, the whole Sea, the sky and my telescope, my family and a little bunch of good friends. Out of my crowded little bubble I find nothing but emptiness –well, to be sincere, from time to time I find great blogs out there, like Via Lucis, and very good people working on them-

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