Day 165: His milkshake brought all the amanuenses to the yard

La Bonavita is reading Paradise Lost for the first time. I am enjoying my role as in-house Miltonian.


Scene: driving along Sunset, La Bonavita at the wheel, me in the passenger seat.

La B: What was that thing that Milton said?

D-R: (repeats slowly) “That thing that Milton said.”

La B: You know, that thing.

D-R. (repeats again, with sarcasm) “That thing that Milton said. You know. that thing.” (flustered) How am I supposed to know “that thing”?

(desperately trying to dredge up some Miltonic pearl from mind in order to prevent mantle of Miltonic authority from slipping away)

Yeah. I don’t know.

(a few minutes pass in silence)

D-R (triumphantly) “Milk me”!

La B: What?

D-R. “Milk me!” was a thing he said! [1]

La B: …..???

D-R. So was that it?

La B: Er, no, that wasn’t it.

(a few more minutes pass.)

La B: I remembered what it was! “Reason is but choosing.” [2]

D-R. Oh. Yeah. (Scowling). That’s also a thing he said.



[1] “He rendered his studies and various works more easy and pleasant by alloting [sic] them their several portions of the day. Of these the time friendly to the Muses fell to his poetry; and he waking early (as is the use of temperate men) had commonly a good stock of verses ready against his amanuensis came. Which if it happened to be later than ordinary, he would complain, saying he wanted to be milked.” Anon., The Life of Mr John Milton, c. 1686. Cited in The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, ed. John Gross, p.16.

[2] “When God gave him reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing; he had been else a mere artificial Adam, such an Adam as he is in the motions.” From Areopagitica, 1644.



Day 162: baggage

“ … anyway, I could just tell. There was just an air of fustiness about the way he wrote that said ‘British old man’ to me,” I concluded authoritatively.

La Bonavita stared at me quizzically. “You have a lot of baggage around being British, don’t you?”

“Umm, no, no I don’t,” I said, frowning.

“Yes you do. You don’t even really like to consider yourself British,” he said calmly.

“What?” I was vexed. “Why would you think that? I feel more British than I feel … anything else. What, you think I feel American?” I fairly spat out the word.

“No, but you don’t really identify with British qualities. And you have all this—” rolling his eyes, “—class baggage.”

“If you mean I have … feelings about class, well, yes, that’s true, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel British—”

What I should have added at this juncture is that “having feelings about class” is surely the very quintessence of ‘feeling British.’ But in the moment I lacked the presence of mind.

“—what, you’re saying I can’t feel British while also feeling ambivalent about certain aspects of Britishness? Don’t you feel ambivalent about being American? You should do!” I added, severely.

“And anyway,” I continued, “I do identify strongly with many British things. Like …. like being a Londoner! I identify very strongly with being a Londoner.” On this I was adamant. “And … a lot of other stuff too.” [1]

La Bonavita listened placidly.

“Why are you being so defensive? Just admit you have baggage: you have baggage about being British just like I have baggage about being from New England. It’s fine, we all have baggage!” he said, cheerfully.

“I don’t. Have. Baggage,” I said, wondering why my effort to affect an air of nonchalance sounded so shouty.

He paused as if summoning the strength to break something to me.

“Look,” he said, earnestly, “you left England and you don’t like Downton Abbey.”

He fixed me with his best trust-me-I’m-a-doctor-stare laced with the barest hint of wickedness, and then cocked his head ever so slightly.

“I’d call that baggage.”




[1] Now that I have time to reflect, I’ve been thinking of other “British things” I identify with. So far I’ve come up with: a fondness for tea, gin and tonics, Wimbledon, and James Bond, and a kind of reflexive need to repudiate or distance myself from expressions that seem too pat. I’m not saying the British have exclusive rights to cringing at the clichéd or banal but rather that we have a peculiar way of performing our disdain. Bear with me and allow me to elaborate.

When I was in London over the summer I was reading an article in The Guardian (as you do), when I arrived at a sentence that began, “not to be trite, but …” Upon reading this, I was struck by two realizations: 1) the fear of appearing trite is a British-chattering-classes-nightmare, and, 2) “not to be trite, but …” is a perfectly British way of expressing that fear. My inner Brit tells me pretty insistently to preface every utterance I make with the words, “not to be trite, but …” (e.g., “not to be trite, but, now that I have time to reflect …). Most of the time I stoically repress this urge because the only thing worse than triteness is preciousness, and preemptively fending off charges of triteness is surely preciousness of the highest order.

I want to write a whole post called “not to be trite, but …” but, in the meantime; when I was looking for the article I read over the summer on The Guardian website, I discovered something funny: there are a lot of articles in The Guardian that use the word trite. I limited my search to August and September of this year and discovered that the word trite featured in nine Guardian articles in that period; by contrast it appeared in only two New York Times articles in the same timespan.

I know this doesn’t prove anything profound. Maybe the word trite is less frequently used in the U.S.; and so what if it is? Doesn’t it just suggest that writers in the U.S. turn more readily to some synonym of “trite” like “hackneyed” or “sentimental” or “corny”? (For what it’s worth I did a similar search for the word “corny” and found the numbers were more comparable between The Guardian and The New York Times). Maybe that is all it means. But that’s not the explanation that rings true to me, particularly when I note the painfully familiar way in which many of the articles in The Guardian use the word trite.

Here are some examples: “It’s difficult not to sound trite …”; “The theme may seem trite, but …”; “It might sound trite, but …” I’ve singled out these cases because in each of them the author anticipates and deflects the charge of triteness. By voicing the recognition that she skirts close to triteness’s territory, the author establishes a bond with the reader by implying that they share an understanding of the inherent risks in expressing a sentiment that in its very artlessness may ring false. The author voices this recognition in order to disarm the reader; the author hopes her candid acknowledgment of her vulnerability will move the reader to credit her with a discriminating understanding of where the line lies between true and false sentiment. Obviously anyone can have a phobia of appearing trite (you don’t have to be British, it just helps). Nonetheless, this particular rhetorical move reflects a core belief that feels British to me. This is the core belief that sincerity and pathos are debased currencies, a belief that necessitates saddling any expression of an oft-thought sentiment with endless caveats and qualifications. Now that’s baggage.