Searching our public library’s catalog, my wife discovered that the author of a book she was looking for, on the Vietnam War, had also written Hollywood biographies of Walter Matthau and Vivian Vance. I don’t know why, but for some reason we expect a man’s work to be all of a piece. When we find, to the contrary, that the interests of strangers are often as diverse as our own, we are surprised. Strange combinations in ourselves we accept without question, but the imagination needed to look for the unexpected in others eludes us.
For example, I am now reading Max Beerbohm’s Seven Men (a dandyish bit of satire on the arts culture of the 1890s) and at the same time John Tanner’s The Falcon (an account of the author’s captivity among the Ojibwa in the late eighteenth century). Some may find it curious that one person’s library, or one brain, should contain artifacts of such mismatched interests. I am less surprised, however, since my own curiosity is the effective point of commonality between them.
“I contain multitudes,” Whitman said, and though the phrase has always reminded me of the Gerasene demoniac’s “My name is Legion,” something like this is true of us all. We play host to diverse spirits. Like the world itself, we are populated with jostling contradictions. The grandmother knitting in her window is a connoisseur of horror movies. The boy obsessed with video games is no less excited by butterflies. Montaigne was right, I think, when he said that we differ as much from ourselves as we do from others. But this is perhaps another way of saying we’re all more alike than we imagine.