It was just during this past week, lying in a hospital bed contemplating what I assume everybody contemplates when lying in a hospital bed, that I took a break from morbid contemplation to look around on the Internet. It was then and there that I stumbled across a name of an author from the world of philosophy I had never heard: Emil Cioran (1911-1995), a Romanian-born essayist whose philosophical meanderings focused on the issues of suffering, decay, and nihilism in such books as On the Heights of Despair (1934) and the Rivarol Prize-winning A Short History of Decay (1950), among other incredibly inspirational titles. Each of these titles, upon introduction, held a certain attraction for me. Considering the circumstances, they seemed appropriate to the moment and the whole exercise kind of cheered me up.
But then again, I was captive in Billings, Montana.
The short article I was reading introduced Mssr. Cioran as the author of De l’inconvénient d’être né (The Trouble with Being Born). The book, published in 1973, is a treatise that “grapples with an age-old philosophical dilemma―the problem with being here,” according to the article’s author, Eugene Thacker, a professor at The New School in New York City whose special area of interest and inquiry seems to be pessimism, although it could very well be stand-up comedy. Who knows?
I mentioned all of this to Geri, who has made both note and mention of my own sense of comic pessimism over the past forty years (today!) in which I have steadfastly insisted that no matter the circumstances the glass is always half-empty, and she suggested that the Professor and I might enjoy a conversation about our shared interest(s).
“Enjoy seems an odd word in that context,” I said.
“Not really,” she said. She knows me well.
Earlier, during the admission process at the hospital, a nurse had run through a two-column checklist of possible diseases I might have suffered during my six-plus decades of grappling with being here. I’ve suffered none of ninety-four possibilities on her list. I asked if there might be more options. There weren’t.
She proceeded to ask me if I was suffering from depression or having thoughts of suicide to which I answered, “no more than usual.” Geri and I laughed. The nurse didn’t. She wasn’t even smiling as she urgently scribbled notes in the margins of the papers she clutched.
The publisher of Mssr. Cioran’s book should have picked a better title. (At least the marketing department should have weighed in on the decision.) If I had noticed a book called The Trouble with Being Born on a shelf in a bookstore I would not have bought it because I, like most everybody else, knows inherently that the “trouble” with being born is that in the end you die. What comes between those two monumental events is a mishmash of lesser events with emotional attributes of various significance.
Suffice it to say that it was not in Mssr. Cioran’s nature to be cheerful.
Echoing the most prominent theme in existentialism―that of human alienation―he wondered if it was “possible that existence is our exile and nothingness our home.” I’ve often wondered why these ideas tend to find homes in Paris and if there’s any possible connection to foie gras.
He was preoccupied with notions of suffering and death, and was attracted to the idea of suicide as he believed that the mere possibility or threat of such an action could help one go on living.
“Without the idea of suicide,” he not-so-famously said, “I would have surely killed myself. What allowed me to keep on living was knowing I had this option…without it I could have never endured life.”
“For me,” he concluded, “the idea of suicide is linked with the idea of freedom.”
For me, I’ve concluded that Mssr. Cioran seems to have had a couple of screws loose.
However, it has occurred to me that Mssr. Cioran’s mood, spirit and general outlook on life would have been lifted had he, in the tiny apartment he kept in the Latin Quarter of Paris with his partner, Simone (all philosophers, if you haven’t noticed, team up with women named Simone), had his very own Magnus Chord Organ.
Some of you may have heard of the Magnus Chord Organ; the more fortunate of you probably haven’t. Some of you may have even owned one or might still. Others may recall a kooky relative with lots of cats who had one.
The instrument, real in a toy-like way, was first introduced in 1958 to people whose motivation for wanting one remains unknown and yet is somehow suspect. The electric instrument took absolutely no talent or specific ability to play and it created a sound far worse than any record player, which by 1958 was a pretty common appliance in American homes. The attraction, perhaps, was that one could pretend to be playing actual music on the Magnus Chord Organ, thereby amazing family, friends and neighbors. Cats, too, perhaps.
The instrument, available in both laptop and tabletop models, featured a two- or three-octave keyboard for the right hand and a “chord pad” for the left. Though there were variations depending on the model one chose, the pad featured several buttons that could be pushed in various combinations to create major and minor chords to accompany the melodies played on the keyboard.
Millions of these organs were sold over the course of a couple of decades. And to keep people playing them, the New Jersey-based company created a series of “play-by-numbers” songbooks designed specifically for the instrument.
Predictably, many of the songbooks had religious themes, but there were others like Let’s All Sing, Swingin ‘N Singin and the internationally themed Songs of Many Lands and South of the Border. There were also several based on the music of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, which must have been as humiliating as it was lucrative.
The best offering was created by a Chicago-based entrepreneur whose name is unknown but whose website is phil-are-go.blogspot.com. He recognized the need for the Big Book of Easy Funeral Hits, for which most of us should be thankful. Featuring a “simple one-figure grief chord chart,” the book features such enduring classics as “Who Gets What,” “Shut Up and Mourn,” “Well That’s Over,” “I Just Knew I’d See You Here” and “Grandma Had Secrets.”
For Mssr. Cioran, however, the dirge-like “This Changes Nothing,” seems the most appropriate choice.
Although widely credited as a dish of Austrian origin, some variation of schnitzel can be found in most European countries, as well as in the Americas and parts of Asia. It is a simple dish of meat (any can be used, really, although I’d certainly stay away from fish) pounded thin, breaded and fried. I like to serve mine with spaetzle or boiled potatoes with butter and parsley.
4 boneless pork or veal chops, 4-6 oz. each
1 tsp. salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
1 Tbs. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup plain bread crumbs
Vegetable oil for frying
lemon slices, for garnish
Lay the trimmed pork or veal chops between two layers of plastic wrap on a counter top. Pound out chops until ¼ inch thick. Season with salt and pepper.
Spread flour in a shallow dish or pie pan. In another dish, whisk eggs together with lemon juice. In a third dish, spread out bread crumbs.
Pour about ¼ inch of vegetable oil into a large deep skillet. Bring oil to 350 degrees F.
Dredge chops into flour to coat, then immediately dip into eggs to coat, followed by bread crumbs to coat.
Place chops into the hot oil and fry 3 to 4 minutes. Work in batches if needed. Chops shouldn’t be crowded.
Gently flip over and cook for an additional 3 to 4 minutes on the other side until chop reaches a minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees F. and is browned and crisp.
Serve hot with lemon slices.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
Maryanne Vollers says
Nice to see you back in form, Jim. An inspired meditation on mortality. Thanks for the light summer reading and mix-tape suggestions.