Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Materia medica

Harry Mathews, summarizing the medical theories of the "philosopher-dentist" R. King Dri:
The human body, richest of nature’s fruits, is not a single organism made of constituent parts, but an assemblage of entities on whose voluntary collaboration the functioning of the whole depends. “The body is analogous to a political confederation—not to the federation as is normally supposed.” Every entity within the body is endowed with its own psyche, more or less developed in awareness and self-consciousness. Aching teeth can be compared to temperamental six-year-old children; an impotent penis to an adolescent girl who must be cajoled out of her sulkiness. The most developed entity is the heart, which does not govern the body but presides over it with loving persuasiveness, like an experienced but still vigorous father at the center of a household of relatives and pets. Health exists when the various entities are happy, for they then perform their roles properly and co-operate with one another. Disease appears when some member of the organism rejects its vocation. Medicine intervenes to bring the wayward member back to its place in the body’s society. At best the heart makes its own medicine, convincing the rebel of its love by addressing it sympathetically; but a doctor is often needed to encourage the communion of heart and member, and sometimes, when the patient has surrendered to unconsciousness or despair, to speak for the heart itself.

Raymond Roussel:
Paracelsus regarded each component of the human body as a thinking individual with an observing mind of its own, which enabled it to know itself better than anyone else could do. When it became ill, it knew what remedy could cure it and, in order to make its priceless revelation, only awaited questions cleverly put by a shrewd doctor who would wisely limit his true role to this.

Locus Solus
I had read Tlooth many times before picking up Locus Solus, though Mathews always made clear his debt to Roussel. As far as I can tell, the attribution to Paracelsus is spurious, although the Swiss doctor did have some curious (and progressive) ideas. The translation of the Roussel, from 1970, is credited to the mysterious Rupert Copeland Cuningham, evidently a pseudonym. An earlier version of the passage from Tlooth can be found at the website of the Paris Review. The book version incorporates numerous minor changes, most of them clear improvements; the word "communion" in the last line, for example, was originally "communication." The name R. King Dri is probably a pun or anagram of some sort.

Saturday, June 08, 2024

Grand Hotel

For a commonplace book, notes on hotel rooms and the solitary travelers who visit them, sometimes only in the mind. Image: Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Hotel de l'Etoile: Night Skies, Auriga), 1954.

Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, et al.
Cornell traveled primarily only as a child and even then never beyond New England. His ability to evoke the character of a place or period as well as the sense of a traveler's yearning for experiences and sights is uncanny nonetheless. He often described himself as "an armchair voyager" to earlier eras and other countries... Initiated in 1950, the Hotels reflect his impressions of Europe's grand old buildings, poignant all the more for his emphasis on European culture during the postwar era's reconstruction efforts. The organizing motif is the window, which invites us to consider interior and exterior views.

Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay Eterniday
Raymond Roussel:
It was at the end of the eighteenth century that a Norman, Guillaume Cassigneul, had founded the establishment in question, known as the Hôtel de l'Europe, which was still run by his descendants to this day.

For its sign by day and night, he had a broad, high lantern hung over the entrance, bearing on its front, painted upon the glass, a map of Europe in which each land had its special tint – the attractive colour red being reserved for the motherland.

Locus Solus
Pablo Neruda:
I have come again to the solitary bedrooms
to lunch on cold food in the restaurants, and again
I throw my trousers and shirts upon the floor,
there are no coat hangers in my room, no pictures of anyone on the walls.

"The Widower's Tango" (translation by Donald D. Walsh)
Julio Cortázar:
Petrone liked Hotel Cervantes for the same reasons that anyone else would have disliked it. It was solemn, peaceful, almost deserted. A then associate had recommended it to him when he was crossing the river on the Vapor de la Carrera, mentioning that it was located in central Montevideo. Petrone agreed to an en suite room on the second floor, which overlooked the reception area. He knew from the number of keys hanging on the wall in the front desk that there was hardly anyone staying; the keys each had a heavy bronze disk with the number of the room, a naive attempt from the management to prevent clients fitting them in their pockets.

"The Condemned Door" (translation by Rebecca Bourke)

The Icelandic musician KK (Kristján Kristjánsson) performs a song entitled "Grand Hótel"; it appears on his 1995 album Gleðifólkið and also (in a different version) on Lifað og leikið, a 2000 collaboration with Magnús Eiríksson (aka Maggi Eiríks). I understand exactly two words of the lyrics (the title), but the music is suitably haunting, or haunted.

Robert Coover wrote a short book entitled The Grand Hotels (of Joseph Cornell). It's out of print and the publisher (Burning Deck) no longer exists. I haven't been able to track down a copy at a reasonable price.

Friday, May 03, 2024

Bright Lights

It's hard enough for me to wrap my head around the idea that a record I first listened to when I was in my twenties is now fifty years old, and even more remarkable that the people who were responsible for it are still around to reminisce about its creation. Richard and Linda Thompson's album I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight was released on April 30, 1974. Though the recording process, which had taken place a year earlier, had been a breeze, relatively speaking, Island Records was unenthusiastic with the result and it took a change of management to get the album out of the can. When it did come out it failed to sell. A decade or so later (about the time I discovered it) critics began to talk it up and by now it's widely considered a milestone.

One of the finest electric guitar players of his generation, Richard was a veteran of the British folk-rock combo Fairport Convention and had produced one quirky solo album, Henry the Human Fly, which also initially failed to find an audience. Linda Pettifer had some experience doing musical odd jobs and had recorded a few singles. They met, eventually married, and began performing as a duo. Richard was developing his songwriting gifts (hers would lie dormant until much later, after they split up); Linda was the better singer. He played the primary instrumental parts and wrote out most of the rest. Corporate involvement in artistic decisions appears to have been nil. What suit, after all, would have approved a record that featured a guitar solo imitating a bagpipe, that made use of an eclectic array of instruments including krummhorns, a dulcimer, and a silver band, that boasted not a single love song, and that ended with an instrumental part lifted from Erik Satie? Or that began a lullaby with lyrics like the following?
I feel for you, you little horror
Safe at your mother's breast
No lucky break for you around the corner
'Cos your father is a bully
And he thinks that you're a pest
And you sister she's no better than a whore
The album's few relatively upbeat songs include one about looking forward to death, another about heading out to a dive to watch drunks get into fights, and this cheeky, in-your-face ditty sung by a one-legged panhandler:
I've been down to London
I've been up to Crewe
I travel far and wide
To do the work that I do
Cause I love taking money
Off a snob like you
For I'm only a poor little beggar girl
All of this grimness and despondency would be insufferable if it wasn't simultaneously funny. The witty, unsparing lyrics draw on the repertoire of the British music hall and other national vernacular song traditions, but it's only superficially a "folk" record. It's a mature, nuanced artistic statement about life from a couple who, incredibly, were still in their mid-twenties. There isn't a bad song in the lot.

The Thompsons made five more albums together and had three children before their marriage went up in flames. (They are now on friendly terms.) Richard still performs and records regularly. Linda eventually had to give up singing because of dysphonia but she has remained involved as a songwriter, most recently by means of a record entitled Proxy Music, on which friends and family handle the vocals. The website Life of the Record has put together an hour-long program devoted to Bright Lights; it features extended commentary by Richard and briefer remarks by Linda (read by their daughter Kami). Other fiftieth-anniversary appreciations can be found below:

Pop Matters
New Statesman

Monday, April 22, 2024


The traditional ballad heard here is at least three hundred years old but doesn't seem to have run out of steam. This lovely, fairly recent rendition is credited to a group called Hurray for the Riff Raff; the singer (who, as it happens, is Puerto Rican) is Alynda Segarra.

I'm not sure when I heard "Black Jack Davey" the first time, though I do remember sitting in a university music library in the 1970s listening to a version on LP that was sung by a woman who may or may not have been Almeda Riddle. There are countless renditions under various names — "Gypsy Davey," "The Raggle-Taggle Gypsy," and so on. (I've seen it argued, convincingly or not, that in the Appalachians it became "Black Jack Davey" because there weren't any Gypsies in the Appalachians.)

The outline of the story, in all the versions, is simple: a woman runs off with a Gypsy or outlaw, her husband discovers her flight and catches up to her, he points out to her all she'll be giving up if she doesn't come back, but she throws it all in his face and refuses to come home.
Last night I slept on a warm featherbed
beside my husband and baby
Tonight I sleep on the cold, cold ground
Beside the Black Jack Davey
Pretty little Black Jack Davey
In some versions the husband then slays either or both of the lovers (as in the ballad known variously as "Little Musgrave" or "Matty Groves"), but the song seems more satisying when that's left out. In the Riff Raff version the husband's role has dwindled away to almost nothing. The music critic Nick Tosches linked the song to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. And why not?

Sunday, March 24, 2024


My father's namesake in a photo taken in September 1897, when he would have been about six. According to the inscription on the back, part of which is not legible, the location is Seventh Avenue and Thirteenth Street in N. Y. City, by which I assume Manhattan is meant. I would like to think that the object he's holding in his hand is a pencil box.

The boy later served in the First World War and received a Distinguished Service Cross, which I still have, for his actions at Meurcy Farm on August 1, 1918. The award was posthumous, as he died in battle on October 15th of the same year. The Army chaplain Father Francis P. Duffy decribed him as "one of the best liked youths in the regiment."

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Escaping the Waters (Defoe / Dante)

I have no idea whether Defoe read Dante, but there is a possible echo of the Inferno in a 1706 pamphlet devoted to the question of the proposed Union between England and Scotland. Commenting on how much relief such a Union would bring to the two countries, Defoe writes:
As a Man that is safely landed on a firm and high Rock, out of the Reach of the insulting Waves, by which he was in Danger of Shipwreck, surveys the distant Dangers with Inexpressible Satisfaction, from both the Sence of his own Security, and the more clear Discovery of the Reality of the Hazards he had run, which did not perfectly see before.

So it will not only be an inexpressible Pleasure to us to look back, and see the Dangers we shall be delivered from in both Nations, when this happy Union shall once be obtained; but we shall then, with Astonishment, see plainly such Rocks, such Shelves, and such inevitable Gulphs of Destruction avoided, as our keenest Understanding will not permit us now to imagine possible.

An Essay on Removing National Prejudices against a Union with Scotland (emphasis in original)
The relevant passage from Canto I of the Inferno is as follows, first in Italian and then in the Mandelbaum translation:
E come quei che con lena affannata
uscito fuor del pelago a la riva
si volge a l’acqua perigliosa e guata,

così l’animo mio, ch’ancor fuggiva,
si volse a retro a rimirar lo passo
che non lasciò già mai persona viva.

And just as he who, with exhausted breath,
having escaped from sea to shore, turns back
to watch the dangerous waters he has quit,

so did my spirit, still a fugitive,
turn back to look intently at the pass
that never has let any man survive.
In his biography, Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions, Maximillian E. Novak doesn't suggest any connection (nor does Dante's name appear in the index), but he states that the scene Defoe describes was "a favorite of Dutch painters during the seventeenth century." He also notes the affinity of the passage with Defoe's most famous work, Robinson Crusoe, the writing of which still lay more than a decade in the future.

Saturday, March 02, 2024


Since it's in Lithuania there's virtually no chance that I will ever visit it, but it cheers me no end to know that there is now an entire museum devoted to the work of the artist Stasys Eidrigevičius. Perhaps there will be a catalog someday.

The museum's website observes, "It must be fate, but did you notice the initials of Stasys Eidrigevičius embedded in the word MUS.E.UM?"