Monthly Archives: May 2010

Book Porn, no.9

Lives of Saints, a miscellany of hagiographical curiosities published by John J. Crawley and Co., New York (1954), with the imprimatur of Cardinal Spellman.  Considered as an object, it’s an especially appealing book, with patterned burgundy leatherette binding, a nice choice of typeface and color illustrations throughout.  In the image above we see Stefano di Giovanni Sassetta’s The Meeting of St Anthony and St Paul (~1440).

Athanasius’s Life of Anthony was written about the year 360,  not long after the death of its subject.  A Latin translation was made by Evagrius, and it became one of the most influential books of the next half-millennium.  In it, Anthony is depicted as the Christian ascetic prototype, and his lurid torments at the hands of demons have been profitably exploited by artists for centuries (e.g. Bosch, Grunewald, Van Leyden, Michelangelo, Tintoretto, Cezanne and Dali). The event depicted in Sassetta’s painting, however, derives not from Athanasius’s biography but from Jerome’s brief Life of Paul the Hermit, written a few years later.  Jerome’s book has as much to do with Anthony as with Paul, however, and thanks to Jerome’s digressions, Virgilian flourishes and love of trivia it’s even more entertaining.  In fact, I can’t resist sharing some of it here.

First, in order to draw the background of the Galerian persecutions through which Paul lived, Jerome describes the plight of several Christian martyrs, including a young man who survived terrible tortures only to be subjected, in the end, to a different kind of trial:

[He] was ordered to be taken off to a most delightful garden [and] made to lie down on a thick feather bed…  He was laid there tied down by soft garlands to prevent him escaping.  When everyone had gone away, a beautiful prostitute came up to him and began to stroke his neck with gentle caresses, and (what is improper even to relate) to touch his private parts with her hands: when his body was roused to lust as a result, this shameless conqueress lay down on top of him… He who had not yielded to tortures was being overcome by pleasure.  At last, by divine inspiration, he bit off his tongue and spat it out in her face as she kissed him.

It was extremities of this sort that the young Paul of Thebes presumably sought to avoid by removing himself deep into the desert where he would become, eventually, Paul the Hermit.  According to Jerome, he finally settled in a cave at the foot of a barren mountain which let onto several hidden chambers open to the sky.  Jerome adds the wonderful detail that in several of these rooms “were found rusty stamps and hammers, used to stamp coins.  According to Egyptian records, this place had been a secret factory for minting money at the time when Antony was having an affair with Cleopatra.”

A great deal of time passes and the world forgets about Paul in his home under the mountain.  Then Anthony, who is ninety years old now and has also been living for decades as an anchorite in the desert, begins to reflect on the trials he’s endured, and to forget his humility.  According to Jerome:

It occurred to Antony (as he himself used to relate) that there was no monk in the wilderness more perfect than himself.  But during the night when he was asleep it was revealed to him that there was someone else further into the desert interior who was far better than him and whom he ought to go and visit.

Through trackless wastes Anthony marches for several days, seeing no one (find him in the distant upper left of Sassetta’s painting).  Finally he’s surprised by a coarse-looking hippocentaur, half man and half horse.  Frightened, Anthony asks where to find the servant of God shown to him in his dream.  According to Jerome, “the creature gave some kind of barbaric grunt, grinding out the words through his bristling lips rather than pronouncing them” (see Sassetta’s upper right corner).  Despite Anthony’s fears, the centaur proves harmless and points him in the right direction before charging off across the sand.

Anthony meets an even more frightening creature next, a satyr.  This encounter didn’t make it into Sassetta’s picture, but with its horns and cloven hooves, the satyr looks positively devilish to Anthony.  It turns out, however, to be just as friendly, and much more civilized and eloquent .  It speaks perfect Latin (or Greek, or Coptic) and announces itself the elected representative of its tribe, sent to beg Anthony’s prayers on their behalf and to deliver him a handful of dates to strengthen him on his journey.  Jerome can’t help but digress:

In case anyone has scruples about believing this, it was proved to be true by what happened when Constantius was emperor, witnessed by the whole world.  For a man of this kind was brought to Alexandria alive, providing the people with a marvelous spectacle.  Later, when it was a lifeless corpse, salt was sprinkled on it to prevent the summer heat causing it to putrefy, and it was carried to Antioch for the emperor to see it.

Several days later, nearly dead of sun and thirst, Anthony follows a she-wolf into a cave in the side of a mountain.  Stumbling through dark passageways he sees a light ahead: it’s ancient Paul the Hermit (113 years old now, says Jerome) standing in a doorway and holding a lamp.  The she-wolf he lets in but Paul shuts the door on Anthony, who in desperation collapses outside and threatens to die on the spot if Paul won’t open it.  Why should he let in a wild beast and keep out a fellow man? he asks.  Before opening the door and embracing Anthony (as seen in Sassetta’s foreground), Paul answers with a joke:

In response the hero spoke a few words thus: ‘No one makes a request like this as a threat; no one attempts treachery with tears.  Are you surprised if I do not welcome you if you come here with the intention of dying?’

According to a footnote, the phrase preceding Paul’s words (“In response the hero spoke a few words thus”) is a direct quote from Book VI, line 672 (in Latin) of the Aeneid.  After consulting it, I see that what Jerome has done here is to put Paul in the place of Musaeus, the poet-prophet-priest of ancient Attica, and disciple of Orpheus.  Paul is to Christ, then, as Musaeus was to Orpheus, and he passes on to those who follow him (Anthony) the poetic-prophetic-priestly way of life contained in anchoritic asceticism.  That seems to be Jerome’s message, and I can’t help but wonder if he isn’t trying to steal some of Athanasius’s authorial thunder (and fame) by suggesting that Athanasius’s hero, Anthony, only derives the perfection of his holiness through transmission from Jerome’s own hero, Paul the Hermit.

Now, in closing, and since I’m rambling already, I want to share one more thing, a note on centaurs from the appendix to T.H. White’s Book of Beasts:

When the dweller by the Nile saw the first Bedouin on horseback, or when Pizarro on his steed dawned dreadfully on the Mexicans in the New World, the legend of the centaur came into being.  Of cavalry, we still use the word “horsemen”: and what is a horse-man but a centaur?

Reading this, I thought at first that White had got his Aztecs and Incas mixed up, or else his Pizzaros and Corteses.  I find, however, that Cortes’s full name was, in fact, Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro, so perhaps it was intentional.  At any rate, I do like “dawned dreadfully,” and the explanation for the origin of centaurs sounds plausible.  It doesn’t explain satyrs, of course, but if the ancient world regularly treated them the way Jerome says the Alexandrians did, it’s no wonder they avoid us nowadays.


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Three Paragraphs of Yesterday

It turns out that my wife wasn’t just suffering for love of me the other day, she has walking pneumonia.  What’s worse, she seems to have developed pleurisy or to have so offended the intercostal muscles by frequent coughing that the simple procedure of rolling over in bed is a gasping, shuddering trial.  Having watched her give birth twice, I know her tolerance for pain is miles beyond my own, so when she winces it really means something.

I think I ran down a sparrow with my car yesterday.  It limply fluttered a foot or so above the asphalt from right to left a yard at a time, as if injured.  It crossed successfully, but then turned round at the last, precisely wrong moment.  Was it a suicide? I wondered.  I slowed the car as much as I dared in the traffic and looked back through the side mirror – and nearly ran into a tree.  There was no sign of the little bird, unless it was the brown smudge on the street receding in the distance.

To round out the day, after tucking wife and children into bed, I made myself a cup of coffee and hammered out the last bit of the last chapter in my first full draft of the novel.  When I was sixteen I wrote a sort of fantasy novella on a stack of college-lined binder paper that I still keep in a desk drawer.  I haven’t looked at it in twenty years, but the night I finished it I laid my head on the manuscript and cried.  After two years and 125,000 words of my current project, I had hoped for a similar catharsis.  All I got was insomnia.


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Marginalia, no.126

We were proud to have him eat on our behalf and admired the new sad look of the gourmet under his eyes.

~ V.S. Pritchett, A Cab at the Door

How many of our most potent moments were never ours in the first place?  So much of life is lived vicariously, cannibalized through the eyes and ears from the lives of others.  We are fed upon in turn.

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Marginalia, no.125

Love and Cough cannot be hid.

~ George Herbert, Outlandish Proverbs
Tubercular cough is visible on an X-ray.  Love is more subtle, or else unsubtle enough to confound subtle means of detection.  Dr Krokowski lectures in The Magic Mountain on the sympathetic relation between love and sickness.  Maybe we can see them as cousinish forms of a more comprehensive malady – call it ‘Human Swooning.’  For weeks now my poor wife has suffered coughing fits that leave her useless ten minutes at a time.  After a specially bad fit this past weekend she looked at me with tears in her eyes, flushed and wheezing, and I thought: ‘See how much she loves me.’


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Marginalia, no. 124

A philosopher who was surprised in the act was asked what he was doing.  He replied quite coolly: ‘I am planting a man,’ not blushing at being discovered at that any more than if he had been discovered planting garlic.

~ Montaigne, Apology for Raymond Sebond

It’s curious (though irrelevant) to note that both planting a man and eating garlic are enough to temporarily ban a person from participation in the mysteries of several religions.  An act or period of cleansing is required.  More secular doctrine only recommends that tooth brushing precede the one while following the other.


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Bull’s Eye

My daughter made a face and stamped her foot for every plume she missed, but my son was more stoical.  A nursing gray whale and baby were trolling northward past the point, surfacing at three-minute intervals to send up smoky puffs of vapor.  Then, backs arched, they would dive again, and while they dived we would count and re-count the harbor seals napping on a brief scalloped island below, or laugh at the oystercatchers fussing for possession of a rock.  Meanwhile long rows of cumuli boiled in from the Pacific and the sun poured between to stripe the sea in turquoise and steel.

An afternoon’s drive south of San Francisco, the lighthouse at Pigeon Point is a blanched column of masonry built in 1871, twenty years after the ship Carrier Pigeon cracked open on the rocks to christen the knob of headland.  At 115-feet, Pigeon Point matches the Point Arena Light for tallest on the Pacific coast.  The original half-million candlepower Fresnel lens still inhabits the glassy crown of the minaret.  The Coast Guard lights it only for holidays and special occasions.  The tower is in such a state of decay these days that it’s fenced off for twenty yards in all directions lest some falling piece of debris murder a tourist.

To my mind Robert Louis Stevenson could hardly have picked a more romantic occupation than to follow in the family business and become, like his father and grandfather, an architect of lighthouses.  The grandfather, after whom he was named, designed and built Scotland’s Bell Rock Lighthouse off the North Sea coast, famous at the time (1810) for being raised at a steep toll of lives and fortune on the merest scrap of a rock that spent twenty of every twenty-four hours below tide.

In a short piece written in 1887 to commemorate the death of his father, Stevenson wrote that although he had been a “convinced provincial” and was hardly known in London, his fame abroad was such that in Germany he was called “the Nestor of lighthouse illumination,” while in Peru it wasn’t the tales and essays of the son that were read and admired, but the technical volumes of the civil engineer. 

Though Stevenson disappointed his family in his choice of career, the supernatural image of the lighthouse must still have meant something to him.  I wonder if we don’t see it refracted in ‘The Lantern-Bearers,’ another of his late essays, in which he recollects a boyhood custom of tying a tin ‘bull’s-eye’ lantern to his belt on a summer’s night, then covering it with a coat and setting out for after-dark adventures.  In the following passage I can almost see the pale, lean tower of a boy like a sort of mobile human lighthouse with the windows blacked, daring collision in a sea of night – content with a secret illumination, and withholding it from the world:

The essence of this bliss was to walk by yourself in the black night; the slide shut, the top-coat buttoned; not a ray escaping, whether to conduct your footsteps or to make your glory public: a mere pillar of darkness in the dark; and all the while, deep down in the privacy of your fool’s heart, to know you had a bull’s eye at your belt, and to exult and sing over the knowledge.


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Marginalia, no.123

I look round to shake hands with Shem.

~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Shem, it turns out, had a firm handshake and was a little thicker in the chest and brow than expected.  The discovery that peoples of Eurasian ancestry trace a notable portion of their genetic inheritance to Neanderthals is no surprise to me, since I am one of those who accessorize their skulls with an occipital bun.  Ich bin ein Neanderthaler.

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But we who live in these hollows are deceived into the notion that we are dwelling above on the surface of the earth; just as if a creature who was at the bottom of the sea were to fancy that he was on the surface of the water, and that the sea was the heaven through which he saw the sun and the other stars… Such is exactly our case: for we are dwelling in a hollow of the earth, and fancy that we are on the surface; and the air we call heaven, in which we imagine that the stars move.  But the fact is, that owing to our feebleness and sluggishness we are prevented from reaching the surface of the air: for if any man could arrive at the exterior limit, or take the wings of a bird and come to the top, then like a fish who puts his head out of the water and sees this world, he would see a world beyond.

~ Plato, Phaedo

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Three Paragraphs of Light

This afternoon I could almost believe we lived in the neighborhood of a star, which of course we do – astronomically speaking – but it’s easy most days to forget it.  Today, however, I had my eyes dilated and when I stepped out of the optometrist’s office it was as if the sun’s photosphere had burned through earth’s little blanket of air and resolved the material world to an undifferentiated field of molten light.

The effect of dilation isn’t to make things appear brighter than they are but to force the eyes to see more of the light already there.  In fact, it’s always this bright – brighter.  There’s simply far more light than we are able to see.  The lid half shuts and the iris contricts to shield against the full blast.  But even dilated, the aperture lets only the slimmest beam inside.  If we were all eye we would see nothing but light.

The sun isn’t much worshiped anymore, unless by worship one means the lolling presentation of flesh on a beach or deckchair.  Sacrifices ceased long ago.  Who can say if it’s suffered by our recent neglect?  The body of the god, alive or dead, still revolves: Sol Invictus, perpetual defiance in his chariot, or the recurrent corpse of Helios still warm, still bright.


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