Saturday, December 26, 2009


As the year waned she spent most of her weekend morning hours in bed, asleep if she could stay asleep or just thinking with her eyes closed if she couldn't. She always kept the room a little cold around her; she liked it that way, didn't like having to throw off a layer of the covers in which she lay enveloped if she got too hot. In her third floor flat, with the storm windows shut tight against the occasional passing car and the shouts of the downstairs neighbor's children, she would be undisturbed as long as she liked; her friends knew not to call. By mid-morning light would fill the room but she didn't mind; it fell obliquely, filtered by the shades, and by the time she was finally ready to rise it would have taken the edge off the morning chill.

She would cast a glance at the cover of the paper, dropped on her doorstep before dawn, but then set it aside until evening, make herself some oatmeal or a couple of eggs and a cup of tea, and only then change out of her nightgown and robe into a pair of jeans, a layer or two of sweatshirts, an old and ample soft gray sweater, and take her winter coat down from the wooden hanger in the little hall closet where it hung alone. She would collect her sketchbook and a few pencils from the easel she kept by her rarely used fireplace, gather her gloves and hat, and go out. It was too cold along the harbor, this time of year, so she would head inland instead, climbing to the outskirts of town, to the first ploughed-over cornfield, then walk another mile or so along the road until she came to the edge of the woods. There she would sweep the tail of her coat beneath her and sit on a stone wall crusted with patches of lichen, yellow and blue and grey-green, and with her back to the road she would sketch the oak trees, the frayed remains of an orchard that had been abandoned years before, and the crows that gathered to glean the fields.

She couldn't pick out the individual crows by sight, but she was pretty sure they were the same ones, from week to week; in any case, there always seemed to be the same number, a dozen or so across the acre's ground she had a view of. By now they must have been accustomed to the sight of her, but if so they acted no differently, never approached or gave a sign of recognition. She imagined they had their own concerns that she was not part of, or perhaps they noticed her but were too polite to intrude upon her solitude. But now and then it would seem to her that one, having drawn near, would considerately pose for her for a few moments, just long enough for her to deftly trace its form with her pencil. If so, she didn't signal her appreciation but registered in inwardly; it was her treaty with the crows, that she would never cross the line that separated them.

When the outlines of the furthermost trees began to soften and the wind picked up and bit at her cheeks she would close her book and climb down from the wall, ready for a warm meal, the newspaper, and phone calls. At night she would dream of the crows and in her dream she would hear their histories and they would tell her everything that had happened and everything they had seen from the deepest beginning of time.

(Slightly reworked; originally from December 2008)

Monday, December 21, 2009


Sometime in the 19th century (an Emperor is on the throne of France), a Parisian woman named Anne relocates to a tiny village in the countryside. Though she misses some of the creature comforts of the metropolis, she has as compensation "the unsullied joys of country life" in "this heaven on earth." She writes a series of letters to her old friend Solange (who apparently never answers them). In her second letter she alludes in passing to a curious provincial custom: during the winter months the locals quite literally hibernate, tucking themselves into goatskin bags and suspending themselves from the rafters until spring. "How strange these people are, who do not hesitate to subtract the entire winter from their span of life!" she declares. As the correspondence continues, Anne becomes increasingly alarmed, and at last horrified, when she realizes that not only the peasants, but the servants and even the local gentry will all take part in the practice, leaving her entirely to her own devices. As a last departing hussar waits impatiently to ride off, she pens one final desperate missive to her erstwhile friend:
There are only two minutes left. Understand me well, Solange. I cannot prepare my food, I cannot do anything, there is nothing in the house, I am frightened of the horses, I could not ride them to safety -- even if they too are not asleep. I shall die here if you do not save me, Solange .... Solange, my soul, what can I say to you? Save your wretched

Years ago, when I first read the story summarized above, Tomasso Landolfi's brief "Pastoral" (which can be found in the New Directions collection Gogol's Wife and Other Stories) I took it for a bit of Gothic whimsy, a fantastic tale of quasi-vampirism in the provinces. But according to a New York Times op ed piece by the biographer and cultural historian Graham Robb, in the days before electrification many French countryfolk did in fact engage in something approaching hibernation, though not, to be sure, by hanging from the rafters.
Economists and bureaucrats who ventured out into the countryside after the Revolution were horrified to find that the work force disappeared between fall and spring. The fields were deserted from Flanders to Provence. Villages and even small towns were silent, with barely a column of smoke to reveal a human presence. As soon as the weather turned cold, people all over France shut themselves away and practiced the forgotten art of doing nothing at all for months on end.

In the mountains, the tradition of seasonal sloth was ancient and pervasive. "Seven months of winter, five months of hell," they said in the Alps. When the "hell" of unremitting toil was over, the human beings settled in with their cows and pigs. They lowered their metabolic rate to prevent hunger from exhausting supplies. If someone died during the seven months of winter, the corpse was stored on the roof under a blanket of snow until spring thawed the ground, allowing a grave to be dug and a priest to reach the village.
Robb provides more details in his book The Discovery of France:
An official report on the Nièvre in 1944 described the strange mutation of the Burgundian day-labourer once the harvest was in and the vine stocks had been burned:
After making the necessary repairs to their tools, these vigorous men will now spend their days in bed, packing their bodies tightly together in order to stay warm and to eat less food. They weaken themselves deliberately.
Human hibernation was a physical and economic necessity. Lowering the metabolic rate prevented hunger from exhausting supplies. In Normandy, according to the diary of Jules Renard, "the peasant at home moves little more than the sloth" (1889); "in winter, they pass their lives asleep, corked up like snails" (1908).
Some of these reports should, no doubt, be taken with a grain of salt, nor are they unique to France. (Some reasonable skepticism on the whole topic of "human hibernation" can be found on the blog Not of General Interest.) But even the fact that such reports were believed at the time lends a whole new slant to Landolfi's story. His hapless heroine is now revealed as an obtuse and pampered outsider, who is not only utterly spoiled and unable to fend for herself without the assistance of servants, but who also in her sophistication is unable to see the simple practical value of a good long spell of winter dormancy.

In any case, just something to mull over on the shortest day of the year. By the way, according to New Directions, the photograph on the front of the dust jacket, in which the author's face is almost completely obscured, was the only one Landolfi approved for publication, at least as of 1963 when Gogol's Wife was released. The jacket was designed by David Ford.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Old stuff

NYU's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World is currently featuring a new exhibit entitled "The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley, 5000 - 3500 BC." The objects on display, most or all of which were excavated in Bulgaria and Romania, belong to Neolithic cultures that are still relatively little known here, in part because of their extreme antiquity (they predate the invention of writing), and also no doubt because of the limited interchange of scholarship between East and West before 1989. Manhattan's Upper East Side may be as far removed from the world of the makers of these artifacts as it would be possible to travel, but nevertheless, here they are, until April 25, 2010. Admission is free, and this may be your one chance to see them. If you can't make it there is a companion catalog, which I haven't yet seen.

The term "Old Europe" was coined by the late archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, who believed that large parts of Neolithic Europe were characterized by common traditions of matriarchy and the worship of a "Mother Goddess," traditions that were supplanted or subsumed when new, patriarchal, cultures from further east penetrated the Balkans. Gimbutas's work has come under heavy criticism in recent years, and David Anthony, one of the co-authors of the exhibition catalog, is among the critics, but the "Old Europe" description itself has evidently stuck. The current exhibit seeks a nuanced view, pointing out that the archaeological evidence for matriarchy is now considered to be more ambiguous that it was a generation or so ago.

None of which should interfere with the enjoyment of what is on display, including, for instance, this remarkable pair of fired clay figurines from Hamangia in Romania.

The male figure on the left has been dubbed, inevitably, "the Thinker," although the exhibit notes that his posture may in fact indicate mourning. Whatever the truth is, there is nothing "primitive" about the artistry of these pieces, created at least 6,600 years ago.

Here's a clay vessel, 4200-4050 BC:

My daughter and I both concluded that this was a doll's house:

We weren't "serious," of course, but it raises an interesting question: when does a religious figurine become a "toy," or vice versa. Is a crèche, whatever else it is, not a toy set, and if not, why? Are figurines no longer "toys" when adults "play" with them? Is there really an absolute gap between the "serious" religious or magical practices of adults and the imaginative play of children? I suspect the distinction would have had no meaning when these pieces were created.

The above are not museum groupings of similar objects but actual assemblages as found in place; the lower one has been called, somewhat speculatively, "the Council of the Goddess."

From an essay by Douglass W. Bailey, included in the exhibition catalog but also available online (PDF):
Contemporary psychological studies have shown that something very odd happens to the human mind when one handles or plays with miniature objects. Most simply put, when we focus our attention on miniature objects, we enter another world, one in which our perception of time is altered and in which our abilities of concentration are affected. In a well-known set of experiments, the psychologist Alton Delong showed that when human subjects were asked to imagine themselves in a world where everything was on a much smaller scale than everyday reality, or when they engaged in activities in smaller than normal environments, they thought that time had passed more quickly than in fact it had and they performed better in tasks requiring mental agility. Importantly, the subjects of these studies were not conscious of their altered experience of time or concentration.
This one was interesting:

Called a pintadera (there were several other examples in the exhibit), it is, in effect, an early printmaking tool, used to stamp patterns on skin, cloth, or even bread.

The above images are from a slide show on the website of The New York Times; there is an accompanying article by John Noble Wilford. The Institute, which is located at 15 East 84th Street, provoked controversy when it was founded in 2006, because its principal benefactors, Leon Levy and Shelby White, had in the past been accused of purchasing looted antiquities for their own private collections. As far as I know the objects in the current exhibit have been legitimately loaned by museums in the countries where they were first located and their presence in the exhibit hasn't been challenged.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

By the shore

It's warmer tonight and a fog lies across the lake. The ice is still sound -- it won't thaw yet for weeks -- but as soon as evening falls, even on a moonlit night, nobody ventures out on it. It's not that we're afraid of them, exactly -- they must be far more afraid of us, I suppose, though who knows what they think? -- but all the same we keep our wary distance as they keep theirs. In the morning, perhaps, as we hack through and clean out the holes in the ice and set our lines, we'll come across their traces, their scratchings and their footprints, the bloody scraps of a desperate meal they wrested from the black water below.

Many of us have never seen them, or aren't sure. Sometimes, staring out at the lake, the fog swirls apart and for an instant something seems to dart across, far from shore, or stands, just for a moment, and stares back. They never come ashore, never pick around the edges of the camp in search of old bones or flakes of desiccated fish, not that there'd be much to find. Where they go after sunrise or once the ice breaks up for good and spring comes we don't know and don't ask. To the far shore, we suppose, or deep into the woods beyond, where we ourselves don't venture.

The worst is when they fight among themselves. It doesn't happen very often; only now and then, in the bitterest part of the winter, when we ourselves are nearly starving, without notice their hideous screaming cuts through the night and we cover our ears -- though who could block out that sound or forget it once it is heard? Then after a while it's suddenly quiet, and we know perfectly well what that quiet means. No one has ever found a body, the next morning, on the ice.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

An anecdote

à Amittai Aviram

As an autumn afternoon advanced, Arthur Asbury, an accomplished Assyriologist, ambled along an avenue, arriving at an Asturian auberge. After an appetizer (artichokes and anchovies, attractively arrayed) and an appropriate apéritif, Asbury approached an antiquary's. Admiring an authentic Athenian astrolabe, Arthur acquired an Abish, an Auster, and an anonymous antiphonary, and asked (as an aside) after an Argentinian acquaintance, Arabella Aragón. Ages ago, Arabella assassinated an aging archbishop -- as an anarchist, Arabella abominated Anglicans -- arcing an adeptly aimed arrow at an atherosclerotic aorta. As an Austrian ambulance absorbed an Alpine avalanche, Arabella absconded, avoiding arrest. After apprehension, adjudication, and an appeal, an attorney achieved an acquittal. An absolute antinomian, Arabella abjured absolution.

Assuming an aristocratic accent and adopting an Armenian alias, Arabella apprenticed as an archaeologist's assistant. Ambitious and amoral, Arabella ascended academically and acquired avid acolytes and admirers. At an anthropological association affair, awaiting an antipasto, an awestruck Arthur Asbury attempted an awkward advance, anticipating an amour. Astonished at Arabella's ambivalent answer, Arthur affected affliction and advanced again; after an acrimonious argument Arabella accepted an absinthe and an afterhours assignation. Arriving as arranged, alcohol-addled, Arthur assaulted Arabella amateurishly. Alert and athletic, Arabella artfully applied an ashtray as an anesthetic.

Asbury awoke, alone, aching, and abashed, an aubergine abscess appearing above an ankle. Ashen and aggrieved at Arabella's absence, Asbury ate at an automat and addressed an abject apology. Arabella's apparently affectionate acceptance allowed an ambiguous amity, and -- after an anxious April -- an ardent affair. As autumn arrived, Asbury's aspirations approached apogee.

Saturday, December 05, 2009


A train accident, possibly in Dutchess County, New York or thereabouts. The front bears the handwritten date "1920" in the bottom lefthand corner. The cardstock is Velox, a photographic paper invented by Leo Baekeland and manufactured by Kodak from 1902 onwards. The particular design around the space intended for the postage stamp indicates a date of manufacture from 1907-1914, so unless the handwritten date is wrong the card was printed on stock that had been sitting around for at least six years. It was never mailed.

As far as I can tell this isn't a commercially printed postcard but an actual photographic print on postcard stock. Vast numbers of these so-called "Real Photo postcards," which were produced with a specially sized film, were created beginning around 1902, as advances in photographic technology made it possible for amateurs and professionals alike, even in small towns, to document both ordinary life and newsworthy events and distribute the resulting images to friends and family around the country.

There are several excellent books that collect Real Photo images, including Rosamond B. Vaule's As We Were: American Photographic Postcards, 1905-1930, and, most recently, Luc Sante's Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard 1905-1930, which has just been published by YETI Books. Some images from the latter can be seen on the Artforum website.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Frost and Fire

With a few notable exceptions so-called "holiday music" tends to make me cringe. If I'm trapped in a department store in December -- something I naturally try to avoid at all costs -- the sound of "The Little Drummer Boy" or Andy Williams crooning "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" is generally enough to send me running for the exits even faster than I normally would. But Frost and Fire, by the superb English vocal quartet known as the Watersons, is no ordinary "holiday" record. In fact it's not entirely a Christmas record at all; befitting its subtitle -- A Calendar of Ritual and Magical Songs -- it includes Easter and harvest songs as well as Christmas hymns and wassails, few of them familiar to American ears. It's a very English record, and there are no dancing snowmen here (not that I have anything against Frosty, mind you), but Lord Nelson and Napoleon make appearances, along with Herod, a rather malicious boy Jesus (who gets soundly spanked for his misbehavior), and a very large and well-endowed ram. Though most of the songs are at least ostensibly Christian, the record includes such cryptopagan curiosities as "John Barleycorn" (later famously covered by Traffic with vocals by Steve Winwood). It also includes the eerily beautiful "Idumea," written by John Wesley's brother Charles, which has to be the strangest Christian hymn I've ever heard.

In their original configuration, the Watersons were two sisters from Yorkshire, Norma and Lal Waterson, their brother Mike, and their cousin Mike Harrison. After Harrison moved on he was replaced by Norma's husband, the guitarist and folk singer Martin Carthy, who is perhaps best known in the states for having involuntarily loaned his arrangement of "Scarborough Fair" to Paul Simon. Lal Waterson died ten years ago, but a successor group still tours as Waterson: Carthy. Though they are sometimes described as "harmony singers," the term is apparently not apt; according to Paul Adams
They ... rarely achieve four-part harmony. At times only one person is singing a harmony line and the others are in unison. Sometimes they are all in unison but drift into two or three parts at the end of a line. In their case it is the blend of voices which makes it sound like harmony.
Whatever the musicological truth may be, the group's rousing, earthy sound is like nothing else I've ever heard. I don't listen to this record that often, but when the chill weather starts in I invariably reach for it.

The original Frost and Fire LP, which came out in 1965, featured the first quartet and was entirely a cappella, except for a drum beat here and there. The Topic re-issue I own includes six songs from a second LP, Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy, which was originally released in 1977 by the version of the group including Martin Carthy and which features a brass quartet on one cut. Unfortunately this combined release appears to have been discontinued, so the CD currently available only includes the original Frost and Fire.

There's a fine documentary about the Watersons called "Travelling for a Living"; it's included in the group's 2004 retrospective boxed set, Mighty River of Song. Below is an excerpt. It's actually a May Day song, but I couldn't turn up any clips of their Christmas material. No one seems to be sure what if anything the words "Hal-An-Tow" mean.