After the Fire
A Writer Finds
His Place

Paul Zimmer
Of all the gifts of old age, regret is probably the most insidious. It is an unwillingness to forgive the self --- constantly undercutting whatever pleasures we have managed to cull during that fag-end of time some idiot has called "The Golden Years."

We find ourselves recounting the past, wondering where we went wrong, thinking on missed opportunities in love (if only I had said yes instead of maybe), the millions of dollars lost (if only I had bought that house when I had the money), the career that could have been (if only I had gone to law school when I had the chance).

For the day comes when we realize that the game is over, that there are few new chances awaiting us. Our hearts make strange flutterings, our legs don't work as they should, the eyes are fading, the very soul turns dark around the ages. The joys we created so many years ago are frosted over with the pale linings of time. For the first time we are required to act our age.

It is a virulent combination --- the lack of power to change our present, and the lack of willingness with which to try. It is no wonder that so many of the aged become spiritual fanatics, spending whole days in prayer or meditation. What else is there to do besides seek the divine --- or else begin the slow process of collecting pills?

§     §     §

Paul Zimmer worked for forty years in the publishing business, for most of the time at university presses. He was the Associate Director of the University of Pittsburgh Press (1967-1978), Director of the University of Georgia Press (1978-1984), and, until his recent retirement, Director of the University of Iowa Press in Iowa City.

He was unceremoniously dumped from his last job, and he moved, with wife and dog, to a 117 acre farm near Soldiers' Grove, Indiana. After the Fire is a collection of essays about his time in the book business, mixed with tales of what it is like to live and work in the country after being bound to the city for so long. There are also autobiographical tales of his family, originally from France, and vignettes of his time in the U. S. military.

Zimmer has previously published eight volumes of poetry. From what we have read --- both his prose and his poetry --- his writing is tinged with a melancholic edge. For instance, one of his most famous poems ("The Great Bird of Love") tells us that he wants to be a "great night bird/Called the Zimmer." He will grow wings with "intricate gears" which will "lift him above the troubles of the land," wings that will "fold and unfold on the rising gloom." His cry will be "huge and melancholy."

It is a mildly interesting gambit, centered on his name and on himself, but the gloom-infested world, with the touch of a child-hero flying up (the poet as Superman?), leaves one with a rather unpleasant feeling. It is a Keatsian conceit that culls some of his melancholy but shares little of the master's ease, even less of his art.

§     §     §

In After the Fire, Zimmer returns again and again to this despair, his sorrow and anger at the loss of his job at the university press. He apparently hopes that he can, in his writings, convey a joyful joylessness. One critic has even bought into this, saying that Zimmer

    has become well known for his many poems in the voice of the persona "Zimmer," a kind of Buster Keaton everyman.

Maybe. But the Buster Keaton I remember was agile and uproariously funny, the paradox of a man with such a permanently sad face enjoying such screwball adventures. Zimmer is no Keaton. Rather, he is an unforgiving Sad Sack, or, better, a modern-day King Lear, ranting on the heath (his farm), filled with choler at the meanness of his children (the university presses that no longer love nor appreciate his many sacrifices for them).

One episode he relates gives one the feeling that Zimmer may, perhaps, be responsible not only for the loss of his job, but other woes as well. Through his choice of friends and his own miscalculation, a piece of property near his own has ended up in the hands of a villainous neighbor, much to the distress of many of the people he had befriended over the years, ones that he promised faithfully that this travesty would never come to pass.

His lame attempt at apology to them falls flat --- both for his friends and for the reader. Zimmer not only shot himself in the foot, but from what he tells us, delivered more bullets to his innocent neighbors: right through the heart.

On the other hand, as a writer of so many years, he's not without some talent. He's at his best when he is telling stories out of the past. His tales of his French-speaking grandparents can be heart-warming; his trips to Southern France with his wife are not without interest (even though his unwillingness to learn what is, after all, his second tongue, is more than puzzling.) And then there is his startling story of being forced, as a young soldier, to wait in a trench in the Nevada desert while an atomic bomb was blasted off.

    The flash was a sudden, immense snap of heat, an all-pervasive burst of light that enveloped us, got under our helmets, into our shoes, over our backs, through our navels into our stomachs. I could see my finger bones x-rayed as I held them over my eyes...

    Then within seconds we heard and felt the shock wave thundering toward us like a stampede. It didn't just sweep in, but crushed onto us with enormous power. The earth and air exploded, then we were suffocating and there was no air, only heavy blackness. We were weighed down under the rocks and sand --- the trench side had caved in, burying us. We were a row of live corpses, howling, cursing, crawling over each other, clawing ourselves out of our graves. The earth was in our ears and eyes and mouths, weighing our legs down, bearing down our arms.

In this description Zimmer manages to realize the poetry that previously had eluded him.

--- L. K. Peebles

The Boy
Who Invented
A Story of Inspiration,
Persistence, and
Quiet Passion

Paul Schatzkin
I am guessing that if you or I were saddled with the moniker Philo T. Farnsworth, we might go out and do something big. Like change our name. Or invent things. Like television.

Farnsworth was a farm boy from Idaho who was plowing a field in 1920, at the age of thirteen. With no training in physics whatsoever, merely from reading a Sears & Roebuck catalogue he suddenly had a vision. He saw in the parallel rows of the field a way of distributing electrons on the screen of an electronic tube. This would create pictures to go along with radio --- something called television. Such was life in rural America eighty years ago.

The story of Farnsworth is the usual one of a genius with a daffy idea which turns out not to be so daffy. And, too, according to the script, as he works with limited capital and nothing but belief in his ideas, he gets close to success, and then suddenly finds himself getting screwed on all fronts by the financial operators who really run the U. S.

In this case, the royal screwing came from the operator of operators, Dave Sarnoff of the Radio Corporation of America. This was the man who single-handedly snatched up the patents and finally drove the inventor of FM --- the powerful and brilliant Edwin Howard Armstrong --- into despair and ultimate suicide. For Sarnoff, to do in Philo T. Farnsworth was small potatoes.

"By the mid-1920s," Schatzkin tells us, "it was virtually impossible to manufacture or sell any kind of radio equipment without paying royalties to RCA." The Radio Corporation doesn't pay patent royalties, Sarnoff said: we collect them.

Sarnoff was young, ambitious, with a take-no-hostages mentality --- but he was no fool. He knew that someday radio would have to compete with "radio with pictures." He wanted RCA to have the monopoly; thus he wanted the technology that Farnsworth had developed on his own.

Early on --- by 1928 --- Farnsworth had actually made a camera that would convey a picture. It was far more sophisticated than the existing experimental cameras at the BBC, GE or RCA. Sarnoff heard of the California genius and sent one of his people (anonymously, of course) to investigate. If there were something worth having, he knew that he could get it: in the American corporate world one does not fight in the trenches nor in the laboratories --- but in the courts. RCA had all the assets, and all the lawyers, and all the time. All that the country boy had was a close cadre of fellow scientificos and a bunch of impatient investors who were not interested in the glory of the invention or even the future of television but a quick return on the invested dollar.

From what we read in The Boy Who Invented Television, Farnsworth had a few failings. He was ultra sensitive about the fact that his education was limited. He was also good at disasters: several of his labs burned to the ground, the most tragic being one that he had built on his property in Maine.

He also had a vanity problem that led directly to the theft of his ideas. When RCA's in-house inventor Vladimir Zworykin came to the Green Street lab in San Francisco disguised as Joe Blow, Farnsworth spent three days proving to him that he had indeed constructed the first viable camera for television --- called the "Image Dissector." Zworykin happily took notes, and within weeks, under his direction, RCA had built their own version of the camera.

Sarnoff proclaimed his in-house inventor's coup, even though the patent office said otherwise. Fifteen years in the courts, and Farnsworth says to hell with it and sells out for a pittance to ITT. ITT's Harold Geneen gives him a tiddle for further research, but then slowly holds back funding for basic research. Geneen was, if you recall, the ITT operative who personally saw to it that the legally elected president of Chile --- Salvador Allende --- got ground up and spit out to make the world safe for democracy. He, too, sees Farnsworth as small potatoes.

Farnsworth then begins work on another project: fusion. If you don't know what fusion is, don't ask me. I can't figure it out, either, and Schatzkin ain't much help. Evidently it has something to do with the sun handing out enough light to make us squint in the morning when we are brushing our teeth and fighting hangovers. Without fusion, you and I would have been designed along the general lines of a hoot-owl --- big eyes, ability to see by starlight, and eating rats for breakfast.

Fusion, Farnsworth claimed, would provide "all the power for the entire city of New York for ten cents." He developed what he called a "fusor," but when the ITT hotdogs came to visit his lab, they brought along a Princeton professor who laughed not only at Farnsworth's invention, but the strange language he used to describe it. That was all she wrote.

Farnsworth puttered around for a few more years, but died of the proverbial broken heart, and his invention --- which may have been the magic bullet for cheap, non-polluting power, died with him. Requiescat in Pace.

Schatzkin has put Farnsworth up there somewhere close to the divines. Maybe he deserves to be there, but this particular tome is somewhat too hagiographic for our taste. You may wonder, as I did, if Farnsworth's fusor was so astounding, why hasn't someone else come along to build it and make a jillion bucks. Schatzkin doesn't say.

--- Fritz S. Dieter, PhD

Barfield is nuts about the English language. Since he loves it, he knows how to use it --- and if you give him your time and your patience, History in English Words will have you nuts about it too.

Barfield makes it clear that centuries ago the primary task of the rude folk living across the seas from the British Isles was murder and plunder: fertile England, filled only with Picts, was ripe for the Picting.

So the invaders moved in, did their pillage and rapine --- stealing women, land, cows, horses, and goats, acting up in a generally bestial fashion --- and then went home again. Aryans, Teutons, Angles (both right, left, and obtuse), Saxons, Celts, Franks and Romans came and went like fleas on a dog. They did, however, leave behind a few bonuses.

One is that they turned the Anglo-Saxon language out of an obscure corner of England into the language which is the second most commonly used in the world (Mandarin Chinese is #1; Spanish #3; Urdu is #109.) Think of it as a river says Barfield --- rivers of invaders that washed over England, always leaving words behind.

    Already another ripple of the Teutonic wave is upon us, rocking over the seas in the long boats of the Scandinavian Vikings, and almost before they have left their impress on the eastern quarter of the land, a third --- the Normans this time --- is breaking on Britain once again at Pevensey.

He ends this happy image as follows,

    The liquid metaphor is unavoidable, for no other image seems adequate to express what actually happened. To watch through the glasses of history the gradual arrival and settlement of the Aryans in this country is to be reminded irresistibly of the rhythmic wash and backwash, the little accidental interplays of plash and ripple, which accompany the tide as it fills an irregularly shaped pool.

Barfield is not only good at explaining the roots of individual words (how they came into being, how they changed their meanings); he ties all this in with the large events: how the original Picts and their many visitors changed over the years, a change that was always reflected in the language. Thus, on the creation of the concept of "myself," he writes:

    With the seventeenth century we reach the point at which we must at last try to pick up and inspect that discarded garment of the human soul, intimate and close-fitting as it was, into which this book has been trying from the fifth chapter onwards to induce the reader to reinsert his modern limbs. The consciousness of "myself" and the distinction between "my-self" and all other selves, the world, the observed, is such an obvious and early fact of experience to every one of us, such a fundamental starting point of our life as conscious beings, that it really requires a sort of training of the imagination to be able to conceive of any different kind of consciousness. Yet we can see from the history of our words that this form of experience, so far from being eternal, if quite a recent achievement of the human spirit.

Enough! If I keep going on like this, I'll end up quoting the whole damn thing. Take my word, or --- better --- take Barfield's words. If you are interested in how your vocabulary got from there to here, if you are interested in how changes of world-view are reflected in our speech, if you are interested in what the language tells us about ourselves and our history --- this is your book.

And it isn't watered down. It's a full meal. Sometimes History in English Words stayed on my bed table untouched for a few days or a week or more. I found it thick and almost too rich, like a good olla podrida. But I always came back to it, unable to stay my curiosity on how, for instance, the word "idea" came into being (it all started with Plato who saw "Ideas" as real Beings with an existence of their own, which stood behind physical phenomena rather than within them.) See. I told you I can't stop.