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God Bless Ben Schott, or, Preserving Napoleon

Jacquelyn Bengfort

writing drawing

I bought a copy of Schott’s Quintessential Miscellany two years ago. It’s hardback, with a pale lilac dust cover and tiny typeface.

It’s not a book one reads cover to cover--at least I don’t. Rather, it’s a dip-in book. For example: open to page 130 and you’ll find an explanation of how the “Proust questionnaire” as popularized by Vanity Fair got its name, along with Proust’s own answers to two such surveys, translated into English from the original French. Crack the spine at page twenty-five, meanwhile, and among other things you’ll find listed the characters that constitute Mystery Inc., which, lest you’ve forgotten, is the corporate name of the “darn kids” from Scooby-Doo.

When I find I have nothing percolating in my brain, when I have nothing to write about, there’s a game I play with this book. I dip in, flipping pages at random, until I find a fact or list or saying or diagram that makes me wonder. Then I wonder about it, on paper, for twenty minutes. I give myself plenty of space to make things up. When I was young I used to do this all the time, for myself, for my friends. If I didn’t have an explanation for how something worked or why it was the way it was, I came up with a semi-logical explanation and stated it has fact. (Example: I thought refried beans came by their texture because a “big boss man” in an office pre-chewed them all as a quality control measure. Both disgusting and inaccurate but it explained the texture.)

During the twenty minutes, I strictly forbid myself to use a search engine. It’s my personal belief that our wondering facilities are under threat of extinction, and I find this exercise useful for kickstarting a bout of wonderment. One of my favorite things to do used to be to try to place familiar actors in films I’ve seen before. Now I can pull up my IMDB app and find the complete filmography of any actor, down to commercials and late-night television show appearance, in nearly no time at all. So, you know, I need an impetus to wonder.

What follows here is a lightly edited sample of the sort of material that comes out of these writing sessions. This one was inspired by...well, you’ll see. Especially if you get a copy of the Quintessential and turn to page 57 and read the last line.

***

I’ve a book that claims the preserved penis of Napoleon was auctioned in 1977 for $3000. These are my immediate questions:

1. Does the purchaser display it?

2. How was it preserved?

3. Is it in good condition?

4. Do they mention it at parties?

and finally

5. Do you suppose the owner has any of the penises of other famous men of history?

My questions don’t stop there--man or woman? Who owns Napoleon’s penis today? Has the original buyer passed on? Was it willed to an unsuspecting inheritor? How does one react when one finds that instead of, say, 3000 bucks, one is to receive one (1) preserved penis, said to be that of Napoleon Bonaparte?

Furthermore, doesn’t Napoleon have any descendents? How do they feel about the whole affair? Wouldn’t they have some sort of legal claim over it? They do owe their lives, in part, to its exploits.

It also makes me wonder of more delicate things, being as I am so unfamiliar with death and the dead, up close. For example, I think I read once that men die erect. But then, what would the effect of embalming be on an erect penis? And maybe that only applied to men executed by certain specific means. The entry is vague; it reads “penis, preserved after autopsy.” So was it preserved flaccid? Or, like the taxidermied lion I visit each summer during family vacation, was it restored to its most glorious, one might say victorious, state?

And...it makes me wonder historical facts. Napoleon died ages ago, so who has had the penis in the interim? What circumstances necessitated the sale? Which auction house agreed to  handle the sale? This was pre-eBay, after all.

Meta-wondering--I wonder how much research it would take to answer all these questions. I wonder if, but for the mention of it in some dusty auction program almost fifty years old, the penis has been lost to history.

I wonder: could I write a series of stories about the penis?

I wonder: could I write a story about someone writing a story about the penis?

***

Fairly useless writing, about a dead man’s genitalia, no less. But it’s writing, and if you’re seeing this, you read it.

The only thing I know about Ben Schott is his name. He, like the preserved penis of Napoleon Bonaparte, remains for me shrouded in mystery. But I’ll say it again: god bless Ben Schott and his delightful books of oddities.