The More Fool to Myself (Dennis Aubrey)

I am reposting this article from June 3, 2013 for a very special reason, which will be made clear by the post that will follow shortly But it is important to introduce Mr. Milton Hammer, one of my life mentors. It also, in light of our current political election cycle, completely expresses my sorrow and frustration.

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”.

8 thoughts on “The More Fool to Myself (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Dear Dennis,

    Your post reached me as i accidentally sit down for some fine dining. I say accidentally as – after 6 wonderful but exhausting days of hiking – I simply went to the closest place not realizing I’d let myself in for a prix fix of far more than i wanted to spend and certainly more than i can eat. Frenchgate in Richmond. Damn but the duck pate is extraordinary.

    But your post, your post, Dennis, brings me to tears. It’s all been on my mind …. the relief of being out of the loop and the subject of conversation so often with those i casually encounter on this way. Wanting to go back to “a simpler life” we say. One with manners. One without the internet ugliness and rudeness. Are we no different than the Trump supporters trying to return to the 50’s? Is it age, like the Romans complaining about kids today? Are we really seeing something new under the sun?

    You move to Ohio and i wonder if i want to find some windswept bluff in Ireland’s southwest.

    Thanks. Great post. Unfortunately. Diane (and love to PJ too)

  2. I, too was brought almost to tears. Your beautiful observations are so true and so sad. As I head toward the end of a long and adventurous life, I feel blessed to have lived when people were kind to each other, when children were taught manners and responsibility and even if we did not always agree with one another we could at least be civil most of the time. I also had the dumpster experience when my daughter managed to lose the second of a very expensive space retainer. I was luckier than you. But this was not paper. I hope you are settling into your new home and enjoying the experience.

  3. i always try to be kind. everyone is fighting a hard battle.. we cannot see into other hearts and i am frightened that it isn’t as good as i once believed. kathy

      1. Well surely it was the DHL letter which they later and in horror realised they had forgotten to put in the parcel (sent by DHL?) and never dared admit to you after all your painful efforts. And so it was left for you as a little quiet token of apology.

        Anyway, it is a lovely post; thank you, even if it’s over a month old before I’ve a moment to read it. And although I felt I shouldn’t have asked this question of you, I suspect that as with most of your readers I’ve very glad someone else did.

  4. I thought that the death knell of this nation began when a political movement decided to remove God from our public discourse and replace it with self-relativism. We are urged to center out concerns around self and to disregard tradition as an odious reminder of a fetted culture that must be fundamentally transformed.

    I do hope this nation can rediscover its soul but I fear too many steps have been taken and too many young minds poluted and made ignorant of our cultural heritage.

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