Monthly Archives: April 2008

For the Birds

The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is autobiography.

~ Oscar Wilde, from his ‘Preface’ to The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Does it follow that autobiography is always a form of criticism?  Criticism of personal experience?  There’s a superficial satisfaction in the reversal.  The merely confessional, in that case, would make up criticism at its lowest.  The rigorously reflective, its highest.  Or perhaps Wilde would disagree.

Robins scour the suburban lawns two hours before sunset.  Between the door and the mailbox yesterday I counted five: three males, two females.  One hopped ahead of me on the concrete walk and I thought for a moment he was leading me somewhere, that I was supposed to follow.  All were perfectly silent and watchful, hunting insects through the little forests of grass, intimately concerned with my intent; cautious, hungry.

Do birds engage in criticism or indulge in autobiography?  Is gravity nothing more than the weight of self-concern that prevents us chasing them into the willows?

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The Feast of St William

Shakespeare, that is.  Saints are remembered on the anniversaries of their death.  April 23, 1564 is the traditional date for Shakespeare’s birth but he conveniently died on the same day in 1616.  I once made the pilgrimage myself: I visited his home, his grave, and the site of the Globe theater.  A cheap postcard image of the Bard, purchased at Stratford, keeps watch over the door of my house.

Shakespeare’s personal sanctity is dubious.  Not so his canonization, however irregular it may have been, though it was a long time coming.  He enjoyed some renown among contemporaries but his reputation found its nadir in the first flush of neoclassicism. Shakespeare’s disregard for the three unities and his homespun verse got him labeled either an uneducated simpleton or a brazen philistine.

Dr Johnson’s appreciative analysis in his 1765 edition of Shakespeare’s plays might serve as a handy turning point, though Johnson also had plenty of complaints.  A dozen years later, an unknown critic named Maurice Morgann prophesied the Upstart Crow’s climb heavenward. In his Essay on the Dramatic Character of Falstaff, Morgann wrote:

Whatever may be the neglect of some, or the censure of others, there are those who firmly believe that this wild, this uncultivated Barbarian has not yet obtained half of his fame… When the name of Voltaire and even the memory of the language in which he has written shall be no more, the Appalachian Mountains, the banks of the Ohio…shall resound with the name of this Barbarian.

The final apotheosis of Shakespeare was left to the Romantics and their heirs.  Preferring the vaguely mediaeval to the strictly classical, nursed on Rousseau and in love with all things wild, imaginative and untutored, the poets and critics of the 19th century went to often embarrassing lengths to lay their finest, costliest hand-woven laurel crowns over the Bard’s ghostly receding hairline.  It wasn’t all gushing enthusiasm, but even the clever and sophisticated couldn’t help granting Shakespeare semi-divine status or mixing biblical allusion with their praise in order to give some scale to his greatness.  Consider William Hazlitt’s estimate:

The striking peculiarity of Shakespeare’s mind was its generic quality, its power of communication with all other minds – so that it contained a universe of thought and feeling within itself, and had no one peculiar bias, or exclusive excellence more than another.  He was just like any other man, but that he was like all other men… There was no respect of persons with him.  His genius shone equally on the evil and on the good, on the wise and the foolish, the monarch and the beggar… He was like the genius of humanity changing places with all of us at pleasure, and playing with our purposes as with his own.

Strictly speaking -at least according to the Bible- it is God who is “no respecter of persons” and who “causes the sun to shine on the just and the unjust.”  But Hazlitt knows what he is up to.  Sometimes God lends his better qualities to men, after all, and Hazlitt’s Shakespeare had a soul that was simply larger than anyone else’s, that encompassed us all and rained down universal light and benevolence like the vault of the summer sky.  He had a natural omniscience; he “knew what was in the heart of a man” – what passions, what fears, what ideals, what tenderness, love and madness, what capacities for generosity and pettiness, nobility and vulgarity – all the half-angelic, half-demonic qualities that make up our common nature.

Inasmuch as we love Shakespeare today, we agree.  We can quibble about his poetry.  We can debate his slim biography.  We can be hot or cold or lukewarm over this play or that.  But we love him because he succeeds in showing us ourselves, because he speaks to each of us with the words of Cassius to Brutus in Julius Caesar:

And since you know you cannot see yourself
So well as by reflection, I, your glass
Will modestly discover to yourself
That of yourself which you yet know not of.

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Remembering Phlogiston

Science lives in a perpetual present, and must always discard its own past as it advances.  (If a contemporary thermodynamicist refers to the literature on phlogiston, he will do so as a humanist, not as a scientist.  Nor did Edwin Hubble need to know about Ptolemy, though he did.)  The humanities do not advance in that sense: they accumulate, and the past is always retained.

That’s Clive James from his heavy volume of essays titled Cultural Amnesia.  I’m not sure it’s entirely licit to refer to “science” in the singular like that; science as a whole consists of so many separate and unrelated disciplines.  But James is talking about what we might call the scientific mind or perspective.  And practitioners of the physical sciences do seem to share a single pair of glasses between them all: a single guiding vision of discrete materialism and rationally incrementalized progress toward specific goals of objective knowledge.

This is to deal in generalizations.  But I think James’ distinction is a nice one.  I once described the study of literature – and of the humanities in general – as a means of cultivating and passing on a particular “tradition of being.”  To put it more prosaically I might have said “culture.”  The particular culture I had in mind was that western one built on the inheritance of Greece and Rome, of Christianity, the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, etc.  It’s worth noting that science in all its various manifestations springs from those same roots.

The relationship between science and the humanities, however, is often strained, resembling that of feuding cousins archly sneering across the square at each other as they pass by on diverging errands.  Devotees of science are fond of announcing the irrelevance of those who dedicate themselves to, say, the study of Romantic poetry, the history of the Holy Roman Empire, or the stage.  For their part, students of the humanities pity the labcoats as owners of emaciated souls, lacking in universal perspective, with an impoverished sense of their own humanity.

All of this is silliness.  Our various pursuits in science and the humanities ought to be mutually reinforcing and enriching.  In the symbolism of the human spirit, science represents exploration, curiosity and the yearning for outward knowledge, while the humanities represents memory, the critical endeavor and the thirst for inward knowledge. What Shakespeare scholar of goodwill can deny the value of antibiotics when he’s suffering from bacterial pneumonia?  And what DNA-decoder of goodwill can deny the value of lessons learned in the horrific history of twentieth-century eugenics? 

Of course, in either case goodwill is required.

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“Memory is the New Sex”

In today’s New York Times, David Brooks toots the tin trump of the apocalypse to announce the Great Forgetting, re-christening the 21st the “Bad Memory Century.”  The cheeky purple tie and pink pastel lipstick in his NYT mugshot always seemed at odds with the sober matter of Brooks’ columns; it must have been the jester in him always trying to come out:

Society is now riven between the memory haves and the memory have-nots. On the one side are these colossal Proustian memory bullies who get 1,800 pages of recollection out of a mere cookie-bite. They traipse around broadcasting their conspicuous displays of recall as if quoting Auden were the Hummer of conversational one-upmanship. On the other side are those of us suffering the normal effects of time, living in the hippocampically challenged community that is one step away from leaving the stove on all day.

Is this what the senescence of the baby-boomers means?  Born in ’61, Brooks makes the cut, barely.  Not that his column is entirely without a sociopolitical angle:

The dawning of the Bad Memory Century will have vast consequences for the social fabric and the international balance of power. International relations experts will notice that great powers can be defined by their national forgetting styles. Americans forget their sins. Russians forget their weaknesses. The French forget that they’ve forgotten God. And, in the Middle East, they forget everything but their resentments.

In any case, Brooks is surely right that the hyper-proliferation of media and information, and our gluttonous consumption thereof (guilty!), comes only at a price.  We’re chirped out of bed each morning by flocks of data; we’re fed all day on rants and confessions; we’re rocked to sleep each night in the arms of unsolicited opinion. But rather than knowing more, we simply remember less. …Or maybe it’s just me.

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In Regio Gigantum

While rummaging through the stacks at my local library, I uncovered one of those handsome old volumes that only catch your eye when you’re in a hurry and looking for something else.  It was a folio facsimile edition (with parallel translation) of Antionio Pigafetta’s Relazione del Primo Viaggio Intorno Al Mondo. Pigafetta was an Italian aristocrat who paid a sum of money to ride as passenger on Ferdinand Magellan’s famed circumnavigation of the globe, and the Relazione is his personal account of the trip.  The subject matter and heft of book itself were so impressive I abandoned whatever it was I was looking for and took home Pigafetta instead.

Pigafetta was an intellectually curious fellow, a student of astronomy, geography, and cartography. He had served at sea with the Knights of St John, and on land as a member of the diplomatic corps of the apostolic nuncio in Spain, Monsignor Chieregati. Despite some personal frictions with Magellan, he volunteered to serve as the expedition’s cartographer.

In fact, Magellan wasn’t interested in making the first-ever circumnavigation.  He was looking for a quick route to the Moluccas.  And Magellan himself was killed in the Philippines at the Battle of Mactan, so he only personally made it half way.  It’s hardly proper, then, to call it “Magellan’s” circumnavigation; it might just as well have been Pigafetta’s, since he was the only one of the few survivors to write about the journey.  But Pigafetta is an unfortunate name, and Magellan a grand sounding name, and one suspects sometimes that’s just how history works.

Through most in the Relazione, Pigafetta tempers his obvious taste for the fantastic with an eye for plausible detail, and so he builds a sort of trust in the reader.  When one comes to the expedition’s adventures with the native Patagonians, however, Pigafetta begins to sound less reliable.  The native Patagones, he says, are a race of giants (the region itself, according to one myth of etymology, was named by Magellan to commemorate the great size of the natives’ feet).  In a passage that would exercise the European imagination for centuries afterward, Pigafetta describes the initial encounter with the Patagones like this:

One day we suddenly saw a naked man of giant stature on the shore of the port, dancing, singing, and throwing dust on his head. The captain-general sent one of our men to the giant so that he might perform the same actions as a sign of peace. Having done that, the man led the giant to an islet where the captain-general was waiting. When the giant was in the captain-general’s and our presence he marveled greatly, and made signs with one finger raised upward, believing that we had come from the sky. He was so tall that we reached only to his waist…

“Only to his waist….”  Consider this for a moment.  Pigafetta is not reporting something at second or third-hand but he was himself present at this encounter.  Allowing that Europeans may have been somewhat shorter in the early 16th century than they are today, and that the Patagones may well have been remarkably tall by comparison, how much room do we allow for innocent hyperbole?  If we take Pigafetta’s account at face value, even if no one on board Magellan’s ship was taller than, say, five feet, that would still put the Patagones at something nearer ten feet – which would make them more than tall, it would make them downright brobdingnagian.

In a second curiously influential passage, Pigafetta describes how, when in distress, the Patagones invoked a god by the name of Setebos, who also happened to be taller than your average deity. Of Patagonian funeral rites he says:

When one of those people die, ten or twelve demons all painted appear to them and dance very joyfully about the corpse. They notice that one of those demons is much taller than the others, and he cries out and rejoices more. They paint themselves exactly in the same manner as the demon appears to them painted. They call the larger demon Setebos, and the others Cheleulle. That giant also told us by signs that he had seen the demons with two horns on their heads, and long hair which hung to the feet belching forth fire from mouth and buttocks.

To judge by this description of Setebos, Pigafetta must have been a great admirer of Dante: complete with fire-belching buttocks, Setebos sounds as if he were lifted directly from one of the more unintentionally comic passages of the Inferno.  It’s tempting to suggest that either Pigafetta was borrowing details for the sake of adding interest to the story, or else he was a remarkably quick study in Patagonian sign language.  One can only wonder how he was able to gain such detailed ethnographic information from his colossal interlocutor when their conversation was carried on, according to him, entirely “by signs.”

Pigafetta’s book was one of the first best-sellers in the history of moveable type.  After its initial publication in 1525, it was almost immediately translated into English and several other languages.  Practically overnight, maps of the region were denoted “Regio Gigantum,” – as charming a descriptor as other famous cartographic cop-outs like “Hic Sunt Dracones” and “Terra Incognita.”

As European exploration of South America continued, tales of Patagonian giants kept pace. Anthony Knivet’s account of his mid-16th century travels through the southern hemisphere include reference to them (he claims to have seen corpses measuring twelve feet head to toe), as does an account of Drake’s 1578 voyage through the Straits, published a half century later by his nephew.  There were doubters, to be sure, but, amazingly, the debate continued well into the Age of Reason.  In a 1756 account, the Frenchman Charles de Brosses claimed to have seen an adolescent giant in Brazillian captivity.  John Byron (grandfather to the poet and owner of the heroic maritime sobriquet “Foul Weather Jack”) published a pseudonymous account of contact with the Patagonian giants in the 1766 book, Voyage Round the World in His Majesty’s Ship the Dolphin.  It was a final flourish, however, and increased exposure to Europeans seems to have infected the Patagones with a sort of shrinking disease that eventually reduced them, by general consensus, to a relatively short six feet on average.

Setebos was also made a fixture of the popular imagination, appearing in popular chivalric romances, nursery tales, and children’s nightmares even as his worship began to vanish from the howling extremities of his homeland. Setebos gets a nod in Robert Browning’s Caliban upon Setebos, Or, Natural Theology in the Island; which, in turn, points back to Setebos’s most famous appearance, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Caliban, the misbegotten child of the witch Sycorax, invokes the demon (“O Setebos, these be brave spirits indeed!”) and, in a passage lamenting his enforced service to Prospero, describes Setebos as the god of his mother:

I must obey: his art is of such power,
It would control my dam’s god, Setebos,
And make a vassal of him.

It makes a fun piece of Shakespeare trivia to say, then, that Sycorax and Caliban were Patagonian exiles.

Pigafetta’s end is interesting, too. Of the five ships and nearly 300 men that set out under Magellan’s command in 1519, only one ship and 18 men returned in 1522. After three years at sea, through encounters with giants, storm, disease, mutiny, bloody battle, a late arrival in the Spice Islands and the long return across the Indian Ocean and the Cape of Good Hope, Pigafetta was one of the lucky few to return to Spain in one piece.

In Italy, while working on his book, Pigafetta was summoned for Papal service in Rome. There he met Philippe Villiers de l’Isle Adam, grand master of the Order of the Knights of St John, the order he had once shipped with as a younger man. Pigafetta was initiated into the order by Villiers himself in 1524. The Knights Hospitallers, as they were also known, had been expelled from the Holy Land by Muslim forces and since 1310 had been based on the Isle of Rhodes. Now Rhodes had fallen to the Turks and Villiers was in Rome looking for a new sanctuary. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V eventually granted him the island of Malta, and of course we know them today as the Knights of Malta.

Antonio Pigafetta completed his book in Venice. It was published in 1525, and dedicated to Villiers. Pigafetta then retired into a semi-monastic life and the man who had circled the globe, visited (or invented) the antipodal Regio Gigantum, and pickled the demon Setebos for Old World consumption, died as a Knight of St John on the island of Malta in 1536.

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At about three minutes and fifteen seconds into Chopin’s “Raindrop” prelude, there is a musical phrase so evocative, so strangely transfixing.

The prelude opens with a pleasant melodic theme laid over repetitive mid-range notes that suggest (to me) the slow dripping of water through wide deciduous leaves, maple leaves perhaps.  It’s a sound you’ll never hear while the rain is actually falling (it’s too quiet not to be drowned out), but it slowly steps forward and lingers afterwards.  Then, about a minute and three-quarters into the piece, the clouds begin to heap themselves up slowly, ominous and black, until they are immediately overhead.  There is a brief, violent downpour.  The skies soften for just a moment and then begin to mass themselves for a second assault.  There is another ferocious burst. 

Then in the immediate sequel, a moment resembling nothing so much as the vanishingly brief convex that chases an ocean swell, there comes the marvelous phrase.  In the rest of the prelude there is nothing like it for texture or character.  There’s something arch and almost sinister in it, but majestic; vaguely threatening but stark and blameless as a bare mountain of creviced granite, sleek and steaming after a summer shower.  It’s the commentary of stone spires that drink in rainwater clawed from the ragged edges of clouds.

The phrase repeats itself once, but softer, and then resolves into a reprise of the opening melody measured out in the perseverating drips that fall between the leaves.

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