Thursday, July 02, 2020

The Chaos of the Age (Leo Perutz)

(The Emperor Rudolf II addresses his lover, by means of a mutual dream.)
"In the dark hours of the day, when the chaos of the age weighs on me like a nightmare and the noise and bustle of the world is about me with all its perfidy and cunning, its lies and treachery, my thoughts fly to you, you are my comfort and consolation. With you there's clarity, when I'm with you I feel as if I could understand the way of the world and see through the lies and penetrate to the truth behind the perfidy. Sometimes I feel lost and call you, call you aloud, though in such a way as not to be overheard — but you don't come. Why don't you come? What holds you back when I call you? What prevents you?"

No answer came.

By Night Under the Stone Bridge

Friday, June 19, 2020


The people are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves and the connection heretofore existing between them, become that between employer and hired labor.

Read by General Gordon Granger, June 19th, 1865 in Galveston, Texas.

Jamelle Bouie:
Juneteenth may mark just one moment in the struggle for emancipation, but the holiday gives us an occasion to reflect on the profound contributions of enslaved black Americans to the cause of human freedom. It gives us another way to recognize the central place of slavery and its demise in our national story. And it gives us an opportunity to remember that American democracy has more authors than the shrewd lawyers and erudite farmer-philosophers of the Revolution, that our experiment in liberty owes as much to the men and women who toiled in bondage as it does to anyone else in this nation’s history.

Why Juneteenth Matters
More information: "Juneteenth, explained"

Photo: Unknown young woman on the campus of Langston University (then known as the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University), probably before 1920.

Friday, June 05, 2020

Dreaming Again (Zachary Richard)

From singer, musician, bilingual songwriter, and all-around good guy Zachary Richard, a beautiful, moving, and timely new song of hope. Downloads (here) benefit the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic.
When the danger at long last is gone,
And peace has returned to this land.
When we can all embrace without fear or disgrace
And all come home safely again.

I hear the thunder, and I am afraid,
Of the darkness that seems not to end.
But then I remember that you are always with me,
And I go back to dreaming again.

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Quote of the day

Robert Hendrickson, Rector at St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Tucson, Arizona (via Daughter Number Three):
This is an awful man, waving a book he hasn’t read, in front of a church he doesn’t attend, invoking laws he doesn’t understand, against fellow Americans he sees as enemies, wielding a military he dodged serving, to protect power he gained via accepting foreign interference, exploiting fear and anger he loves to stoke, after failing to address a pandemic he was warned about, and building it all on a bed of constant lies and childish inanity.
I can't even bear to look at the photo in question. It turns out that the last refuge of a scoundrel isn't patriotism after all. I'm not religious and I'm not sure I know what "the soul" means, but I know when someone doesn't have one.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Cypripedium acaule

I'll always associate pink lady's-slipper or moccasin flower with my childhood, because there was a secluded spot in the woods about a mile or so from my house where they could be found quietly growing, if you were observant and if you went at the right time of year. I haven't been back for decades and I have no idea if they're still there, though I wouldn't be surprised if they were. These native orchids require just the right habitat and are said to be extremely difficult to cultivate.

I know of another place where they still grow in relative abundance, though, and over the weekend I trekked into the woods and found several dozen of them in bloom. They're not visible from a main trail, but are easily reached if you happen to know where they are. Two other hikers walked right past them while I was there, but they either didn't notice them or weren't interested (or maybe they were just giving a wide berth to the eccentric kneeling on the ground with a camera).

The white moth on the specimen below is Tetracis cachexiata. I know that fact not because I keep that kind of information in my head, but because an online search for moths associated with the plant immediately brought it up. The moth has been spotted on lady's-slippers many times in various locations over the years, but no one knows quite why. It's not believed to be a pollinator of the flower (which is pollinated by bees), nor does it derive any apparent nourishment from it. One theory is that it obtains some kind of pheromone from the plant. Charley Eiseman at Bug Tracks has more information.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Notebook: Seeing Music

Christy Moore:
When I go to West Clare I can see the music in the hills and stony fields. Today I look out upon the Sheep's Head and over Dunmanus Bay to Mount Gabriel and I can see many things: the beauty of it all, the bay, the beacons — as one man tries to quietly fish in it another hungry man seeks to poison it. I can see God's work everywhere but I cannot see the music. In West Clare you can see the fiddle music, you can stand looking over a stone wall into a poor little field and it is there as plain as day. I saw concertina music on the square in Kilrush in 1964 and the vision never left me. Coming up from The White Strand in Milltown Malbay I met chanter music, and on the windswept Hill of Tulla (East Clare) I met the man that wrote Spancilhill. The music scarpered off the big fields of Meath and Kildare — there is no sign of it at all. I have seen it in Ahascragh too, and above in Ardara and you can plainly see the flute music in Fisher Street. You'd always have a better chance of glimpsing it around stony half acres, but seldom if ever on the ranches brimming with sleek shiny bullocks full of antibiotics and growth hormones. Show me a scrawny auld heifer unable for a bull and I'll show you a slow air with a slip jig traipsing after it. The combine harvesters have driven the music out of the John Hinde-coloured pastures where it has been forced to live in exile in libraries and museums. It needs the birdsong and the meadow to breathe, the wind through the furze, the distant corncrake in the meadow, the smell of the fair day.

From One Voice: My Life in Song (Hodder & Stoughton, 2000).
"Spancilhill" (or "Spancil Hill"): a song associated with Robbie McMahon, a version of which appears on Christy Moore's 1970 album Prosperous. John Hinde was a popular photographer and creator of nostalgic colored postcards.

Friday, May 22, 2020

One a Day

I've never read The Decameron before, but coming across vivid passages from Boccaccio's own introduction to the work quoted in the pages of Philip Ziegler's The Black Death reminded me that its one hundred stories are held together by a frame-tale set in Florence during the bubonic plague outbreak of 1348. Ten well-heeled Florentines, happening to encounter each other in church, resolve to flee together to the countryside, and in the course of their wanderings they relate tales to each other at the rate of one per person per day.

The tales aren't long, and it occurs to me that by slowing down the travelers' pace tenfold I can read a single story every day, leaving abundant time for other reading, and I should be done right around September 1st, at which point perhaps we'll all have a better idea of the state of our current plague, or rather plagues. I'll be reading the Signet Classics version translated by Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa. My copy has a sprinkling of annotations, in ink, by its former student owner, the kind of thing I might once have found irritating but now find adds a level of amusement.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Streetcars (Albert Camus)

The Plague:
During all the late summer and throughout the autumn there could daily be seen moving along the road skirting the cliffs above the sea a strange procession of passengerless streetcars swaying against the skyline. The residents in this area soon learned what was going on. And though the cliffs were patrolled day and night, little groups of people contrived to thread their way unseen between the rocks and would toss flowers into the open trailers as the cars went by. And in the warm darkness of the summer nights the cars could be heard clanking on their way, laden with flowers and corpses.

(Translation by Stuart Gilbert)
The hardest part of The Plague to read at the moment is the chapter in which the narrator recounts the increasingly desperate measures the authorities in Oran resort to in order to dispose of the mounting number of victims. Individual graveside ceremonies — simplified a bit, to be sure, as a concession to public hygiene — give way in time to furtive disposal in a common pit. Thus far it hasn't gotten that bad here, but the very image gnaws away at our complacency. Few notions horrify us more.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Signs and wonders

I've discovered that my old Picassa slideshow of images from the Augsburg Book of Miracles no longer works, but rather than try to recreate it I'll simply post my favorite image (above) and refer the curious to Marina Warner's review (from 2014) at the website of the New York Review of Books. Strange days indeed.

Friday, May 01, 2020

Even to a woman

Ralph of Shrewsbury, Bishop of Bath and Wells, January 1349:
The contagious pestilence of the present day, which is spreading far and wide, has left many parish churches and other livings in our diocese without parson or priest to care for their parishioners. Since no priests can be found who are willing, whether out of zeal and devotion or in exchange for a stipend, to take on the pastoral care of these aforesaid places, nor to visit the sick and administers to them the Sacraments of the Church (perhaps for fear of infection and contagion), we understand that many people are dying without the Sacrament of Penance. These people have no idea what recourses are open to them in such a case of need and believe that, whatever the straits they may be in, no confession of their sins is useful or meritorious unless it is made to a duly ordained priest. We, therefore, wishing, as is our duty, to provide for the salvation of souls and to bring back from their paths of error those who have wandered, do strictly enjoin and command on the oath of obedience that you have sworn to us, you, the rectors, vicars and parish priests in all your churches, and you, the deans elsewhere in your deaneries where the comfort of a priest is denied the people, that, either yourselves or through some other person you should at once publicly command and persuade all men, in particular those who are now sick or should fall sick in the future, that, if they are on the point of death and can not secure the services of a priest, then they should make confession to each other, as is permitted in the teaching of the Apostles, whether to a layman or, if no man is present, then even to a woman.

Quoted in Philip Ziegler, The Black Death.
Adds Ziegler:
The authority to hear confession has, in all periods of the Church’s history, been restricted to the priesthood. To throw it open to laymen and even to women, though not in defiance of canonical authority, was a step to be taken only in case of extreme emergency. It was a confession on the part of the Church that the crisis was out of control and the normal machinery no longer able to cope with it.
Though Ziegler's volume was published in 1969 and there have been many other books on the subject since that time, it remains highly readable and in print. A young man when he wrote it, the author has gone on to write numerous other books and is still alive as of this writing.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Monday, April 13, 2020

Monumenta slavica

More than fifteen years ago I posted a brief note about the Balkan folk-song "Mečkin Kamen" (The Bear's Rock) and its commemoration of the 1903 Illinden uprising in what is now North Macedonia. I included an image of the spomenik (monument) at Kruševo, which memorializes the same events. Today I discovered that an American biologist named Donald Niebyl has spent several years compiling a lavishly-illustrated database of similar monuments throughout the former Yugoslavia.

Unlike the Illinden spomenik (which he includes), most of these memorials (one example is shown above) commemorate the anti-fascist struggle in the Balkans during World War II. Constructed largely between 1960 and 1990, these oddly-shaped Brutalist structures are now often in disrepair. Sometimes atrocious in isolation, they can be uncannily evocative when viewed in their surroundings.

A related book, Spomenik Monument Database, is available from FUEL Publishing.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

"Humility and Authority"

Ireland's TG4 has broadcast a superb documentary about the master uilleann piper Liam O'Flynn, a beloved figure whose modest manner coexisted with a deep sense of responsibility to the musical tradition that he inherited and expanded. Presented in Irish (with subtitles) and English, and featuring commentary from his wife, band mates, and friends, as well as a generous sampling of his music, it will be available online for the next month or so. Don't miss it.

Update: TG4 now seems to be making this available indefinitely.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Social distancing tip

The Carthaginians also tell us that they trade with a race of men who live in a part of Libya beyond the Pillars of Hercules. On reaching this country, they unload their goods, arrange them tidily along the beach, and then, returning to their boats, raise a smoke. Seeing the smoke, the natives come down to the beach, place on the ground a certain quantity of gold in exchange for the goods, and go off again to a distance. The Carthaginians then come ashore and take a look at the gold; and if they think it represents a fair price for their wares, they collect it and go away; if, on the other hand, it seems too little, they go back aboard and wait, and the natives come and add to the gold until they are satisfied. There is perfect honesty on both sides; the Carthaginians never touch the gold until it equals in value what they have offered for sale, and the natives never touch the goods until the gold has been taken away.

The Histories

Friday, April 03, 2020

Necessary stories (Eduardo Halfon)

Eduardo Halfon:
You won’t write anything about this, my father asked or said, index finger raised, his tone somewhere between a plea and a commandment. I thought about replying that a writer never knows what he’ll write about; that a writer doesn't choose his stories, they choose him; that a writer is but a dry leaf in the breeze of his own narrative. But fortunately all I did was finish the wine in three long swallows. You won’t write anything about this, my father repeated, his tone more forceful now, almost authoritarian. I smelled the alcohol on his words. Of course not, I said, perhaps sincere, or perhaps already knowing that no story is imperative, no story is necessary, except the one we’re forbidden from telling.

Mourning; translated by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn
Though the Spanish text from which the above was translated appears on the back cover of the original Libros del Asteroide edition of Duelo, it's a "deleted scene" that doesn't appear inside the covers of either the Spanish or the English edition. It was provided by the author to the online magazine Stay Thirsty.

More on Eduardo Halfon.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Brief encounter

If you haunt the woods on a regular basis you get to recognize the sounds animals make when they're disturbed by your presence. No need to turn your head at the light bounce on dead leaves: that's a grey squirrel. Deer, naturally, make a heavier sound, chipmunks a lighter one, generally punctuated by an alarmed "cheep," and predators, designed for stealth, may be all but silent. But when I heard the animal shown above darting along a stone wall, I knew instantly that I was in the presence of something else. I turned and saw a brown form, squirrel-size but unmistakably not a squirrel. In a flash it disappeared and I didn't expect to see it again, but I clicked on my camera just in case, zoomed onto the last place it had been visible, and after a few seconds it popped out and looked in my direction, curious to see what I was about.

Weasels get a bad press; we speak of "weasel words" and "weaseling out" and none of these terms is intended as a compliment. But I think they're admirable creatures, even if I wouldn't want to be one of their prey animals (they are quite fierce). They aren't uncommon but they're rarely spotted alive; I've only ever seen one other in the wild, and that was decades ago. There's some question about which species this one is, but it's evidently either what the Brits call a stoat (and we might call a short-tailed weasel or ermine) or a long-tailed weasel.

Coincidentally or not, I spotted this one just a day or so after watching an enjoyable BBC documentary entitled Weasels: Feisty and Fearless, which may be available in some regions for online viewing. If not, here are a few seconds of video of my own, all I could take before the creature vanished from sight.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Notebook: The Line

Herman Melville:
All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.


Sunday, March 22, 2020

Notebook: Sunday

There's a strange calm today, with some cloud cover but no wind, and the street outside has been largely quiet all day. We're keeping to the house and the back yard of our 50-foot lot. When I took the dog out I heard a lone airplane passing overhead, one of the few signs that civilization, though wounded, still exists.

Yesterday afternoon, when it was warmer, I went outside to do a bit of garden clean-up and prepare a bed for a handful of peas I'll plant in a week or so. I found a garter snake sunning itself in a patch of thyme, unconcerned with our troubles. It remained frozen while I circled around it, closer and closer, finally kneeling down a couple of feet away to get close-ups. I went back to my chores but kept an eye on it. Eventually it slithered off a bit and coiled up in some leaves, not quite invisible.

This may be our ambit for a while. We received a food delivery today, enough to tide us over for the next few weeks, barring the unforeseen.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Notebook: The Very Thing That Happens

We've had no face-to-face contact with other people for nine days now, and in New York State, where we live (and which now has the highest coronavirus case total of any state), something like a modified lockdown is in effect. I always work at home; whether there will be work at all next week or the week after is in question. The press is still giving undue attention to the vagaries of the stock market (which mysteriously rises at times, at least fleetingly), and the man at the helm is still an idiot. We have sufficient food, sundries, and pet supplies for the time being (and more on the way), although obtaining fresh produce and fish may be a challenge in the weeks to come. In our neighborhood people with children or dogs are still walking around the block, I hear the train whistle downtown, and the temperature has climbed into the low 70s. Yesterday, in what may be our last outing for a while, I took the dog for a hike after work. Driving out of the preserve I saw two people starting out on a walk with a cat on a leash. (The things one does, to retain a bit of normal life.)

Last night we watched Call Us Ishmael, an entertaining documentary about Moby-Dick and the people who love it. I read a few of the later chapters of Fitzgerald's Odyssey. For no particular reason I pulled out Lorius, a CD by the Basque (but also part-Irish) combo named Alboka (after a kind of hornpipe) and listened to it for the first time in years. One of the livelier tracks is below. It serves, for the moment, to get the Talking Heads' "Life during Wartime" out of my head.

The title of this post is from a piece by Russell Edson, which ends, "Because of all things that might have happened this is the very thing that happens."

Monday, March 16, 2020

Friday, March 13, 2020

Notebook: State of Siege

Major disasters, natural or otherwise, have a way of forcing one not only out of one's routines but out of mental patterns as well. They can reveal a great deal about human character, or (to put it less judgmentally) about human behavior. Camus famously explored this in The Plague, which was the book I instinctively turned to when the first stirrings of the current epidemic (now officially a pandemic) were heard in China. I re-read about a third of the novel, then put it aside for something unrelated I wanted to read, but by the time I was free to get back to it its theme felt too close to home. So instead I went back to fundamentals, first re-reading The Juniper Tree, the superb volume of tales from the Brothers Grimm translated by Lore Segal (and Randall Jarrell), featuring some of Maurice Sendak's most evocative illustrations, and then to Robert Fitzgerald's translation of the Odyssey. Neither of these splendid works has much relevance to the present situation (which is, in part, the point), but if matters of life and death bring one back to essentials, then these are about as essential to me as any books I can think of.

In the meantime, I avoid public places, keep an eye on the food supply (holding up so far), and take walks in the woods, which are now (unlike the forest of folk tales) probably the safest place to be.

Sunday, March 01, 2020


From The Epic of Gilgamesh:
All his body is matted with hair,
he bears long tresses like those of a woman:
the hair of his head grows thickly as barley,
he knows not a people, nor even a country.

Coated in hair like the god of animals,
with the gazelles he grazes on grasses,
joining the throng with the game at the water-hole,
his heart delighting with the beasts in the water.

Translated by Andrew George

Friday, February 21, 2020

Something else

John Hay:
I think one of the greatest challenges is to watch each bounded living thing with care for its particularity, as far as we can go, to find out we can go no farther. Flower, fish or leaf, child or man — they take none of our suggestions as to rules. Each has a strong language that we never quite learn. No matter how many times I try to describe the alewife by the uses of human speech, or classify its habits, its intrinsic perfection resists me. It is something else. It goes on defying my own inquiring sense of mystery.

The Run
John Hay seems to have been one of those admirable obsessives (think J. A. Baker of The Peregrine) whose fascination with one species (the alewife is a kind of herring) led him to something approaching total psychic identification with his subject. Human beings and their works appear only sporadically in his account of the alewives' annual ascent into the creeks and ponds of Cape Cod — although our dams, overfishing, and pollution in fact constitute serious threats to the species. Other predators — herons and the like — pop up a little more often, but it's the the fish themselves, as they migrate inland to spawn and then, obeying currents and rhythms largely measureless to man, return to the sea, that draw the bulk of Hay's attention. But here and there, in passages such as the one above, one senses, as well, that the book isn't entirely about alewives at all, and that his skepticism extends to, and perhaps arises out of, something rather more fundamental.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

The Limit

Years ago, a friend from grad school and I decided to spend most of one summer rambling around rural New England on foot. Sergei had been born in what was then still the Soviet Union and was studying engineering (he later pioneered a mechanism that greatly increased the efficiency of wind turbines). I was studying environmental science but had no clear career path in mind, nor would I for some time thereafter. We both figured that it wasn't going to be long before we got sucked up into some kind of corporate or academic drudgery that would keep us occupied for years, and that this might be our last chance for anything resembling freedom. Sergei wasn't even all that interested in the outdoors, but he had an adaptable character and was equally happy spending his days walking a rural road in the Northeast Kingdom as he was watching television in his dorm room or tinkering in the engineering lab.

We were both agreed that we wanted to avoid the well-traveled trails, even if that meant going out of our way or missing some of the scenic high points. We also took care not to venture too far from civilization, since our provisions were limited to whatever we could carry on our backs. We could go a day or two on trail mix and the like if we had to, but when ever possible we would load up on bread and cheese at some local store in the towns we passed along the way. Foraging wasn't something we had any inclination or background to engage in, although we did eat our share of berries we found along the roadside.

In order to minimize the weight we had to carry we didn't bring a tent, just our sleeping bags and some sheets of plastic that we thought might keep us dry but never did. Luckily it was a dry summer and most of the time we managed to find shelter of some kind when it rained. Here and there we were offered a bed for the night by people we met along the way, but we usually declined. Somehow we managed to wander from western Connecticut up through the Berkshires, across the Green Mountains and through New Hampshire into central Maine, before circling back through eastern Massachusetts and heading home, without getting eaten by bears, bitten by rattlesnakes, or murdered by psychopaths, and we were even still speaking to each other when it was all over.

I'm a lifelong insomniac, and although my symptoms abated a bit under the daily routine of trekking ten miles or more a day, I was never like Sergei, who could plod along from sunup to sundown without ever appearing tired but then for want of a better bed could sink into an apparent coma leaning against a tree when he finally came to a stop. Sometimes I fell asleep easily enough, but after an hour or so I would wake into a miserable combination of exhaustion, anxiety, and exhilaration in which I often lingered until the first grey beginnings of dawn. I would wake in the morning sore and depressed, though I bounced back soon enough once I stretched my legs and had a bite to eat.

One evening, not long after we crossed the upper Connecticut River into New Hampshire, we left the road and went off into the forest a half-mile or so to find a sheltered place for the night, not wanting to be too obvious about it since we were presumably trespassing. We found a little clearing where the undergrowth had been nibbled down by deer and spread our sleeping bags out under the stars, which on that moonless night were as brilliant and abundant as I had ever seen them. It was comfortably warm and the only sound, once we settled down, was the chattering of flying squirrels somewhere high above us. Sergei of course was out like a light at once, and I too fell asleep before long, but I woke a while later — how much later I couldn't tell, as my watch dial wasn't luminous — and at first I couldn't remember where I was. I could hear Sergei breathing lightly a few yards away and eventually I came to my senses, but with a feeling of despair that it was probably hours until dawn and that I was too agitated to return to sleep. I got up and walked around a bit, but didn't stray too far lest I stumble over something in the dark. Had I been a smoker now would have been the time to light up, but I didn't have even that recourse.

I took a sweater out of my knapsack and pulled it on against the beginnings of a chill. I sat on a fallen tree trunk and looked up at the stars and thought about everything and nothing: about the vastness of the universe and my own insignificance in it, about my family and some young women I knew from school, about the future, about a hundred things that seemed to matter at that late hour but probably wouldn't in the light of day. I don't know how much time passed by. I felt a bit drowsy but didn't have the energy to get into my sleeping bag again and wage the struggle for sleep.

From somewhere in the dark, high above, I heard a single brief sound, just distinct enough for me to recognize the hoot of a barred owl, the sturdy night-bird of the many childhood evenings I had spent out of doors. They were common enough where I grew up and often active in the day; I had seen them dozens of times. I listened until I heard the telltale call in full: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you? Softly, not so loud as to risk waking Sergei, I echoed the call: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you? There was dead silence for a long time, then I thought I heard a fluttering not far off. I repeated the call and the owl responded, closer this time, maybe just ten yards away. I held my breath, then gave the call once more.

Immediately, without warning, the owl swooped down and began striking its wings fiercely against my face. I fell backwards off the trunk and as it followed me down I felt its feathertips and the pressure waves of each wingbeat. I covered my eyes with my arm, expecting at any second to feel talons tearing my face. I opened my mouth to yell to Sergei for help but my voice was paralyzed and nothing emerged. Eventually the owl's rage subsided and it flew off as invisibly as it had arrived. I felt my face and my hands for blood but there was nothing. I crawled into my sleeping bag, pulled it up around my head, and lay panting, finally weeping.

At dawn I crawled out of the sleeping bag and looked around; there wasn't a feather in sight or any other indication of the incident, and except for a bruise on my elbow where I had fallen back I could have dismissed it all as a dream — but I knew it was not. When Sergei began to stir I told him what had happened. He didn't understand at first — I had to repeat the whole story — but I think in the end he believed me.

When I try to think back on the incident in a reasoned manner the encounter still baffles me, but I think I understand now that I had somehow violated a sacred boundary. It wasn't my physical presence in the clearing that had crossed a line, or even my pretending to be an owl and calling out in the dark in a language I didn't understand. It was something else; I had transgressed, if only for a second, a margin where the domain of the human reached its terminus. The owl and I could exist in the same space, but in every other way our worlds were mutually impenetrable. I could no more understand the owl's behavior that night than it could understand the road maps we carried or the pop songs that were stuck in our heads.

Sergei and I made it safely home and finished up our studies the next spring. We still drop each other a line every now and then.

NB: The above is fiction, except for the insomnia.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

The Causes of Monsters

Ambrose Paré:
The first is the glory of God. The second, his wrath. The third, too great a quantity of semen. The fourth, too small a quantity. The fifth, imagination. The sixth, the narrowness or smallness of the womb. The seventh, the unbecoming sitting position of the mother, who, while pregnant, remains seated too long with her thighs crossed or pressed against her stomach. The eighth, by a fall or blows struck against the stomach of the mother during pregnancy. The ninth, by hereditary or accidental illnesses. The tenth, by the rotting or corruption of the semen. The eleventh, by the mingling or mixture of seed. The twelfth, by the artifice of wandering beggars. The thirteenth, by demons or devils.
(Quoted by Leslie Fiedler, Freaks: Myths & Images of the Secret Self)

Saturday, January 18, 2020

On William Bullard

Portrait of David T. Oswell with His Viola, about 1900
William S. Bullard was an amateur photographer who lived in Worcester and Brookfield, Massachsetts and captured more than 5,000 glass-plate images in the course of a twenty-year period that ended with his suicide at the age of forty-one in 1917. His negatives were carefully preserved, first by his brother and then by a postman, and over the years some of his photographs were included in illustrated volumes of local history. After the plates were acquired in 2003 by a local collector, Frank Morrill, Bullard's output gained additional significance, for Bullard, who was white, had lived in an ethnically-mixed neighborhood in Worcester, and Morrill realized that among the photographer's subjects were hundreds of individuals belonging to the city's small but vibrant African-American community.

Countless professional and amateur portraits from the same era are floating around with little hope that the sitters will ever be identified, but Bullard used a logbook to record many of his plates and identify his subjects by name. The numbers in the logbook can be matched against numbers on the plates, and diligent digging by a team of researchers has been able to illuminate the biographies, connections, and in some cases living descendants of those pictured. In 2017, an exhibition devoted to some of these photos opened at the Worcester Art Museum under the title Rediscovering an American Community of Color. I missed out on it, but luckily a fine catalog is available under the same title.

Portrait of Angeline Perkins and Her Children Nellie and William, 1900
Bullard had no studio and did most of his work out of doors. Forswearing hackneyed props and costumes, he shot his subjects in their own surroundings and with their own clothes and belongings (though no doubt many put on their Sunday best). He occasionally sold a few prints for modest sums, and at one point he was employed as a school photographer, but whatever ideas of making a living from his hobby he may have had (and it seems he never made much of a living from anything else either), in the end he apparently just did it all for the love of it.

Portrait of Reuben Griffin Seated against a Tree, about 1901
Portrait of Raymond Schuyler and his Children, Ethel, Stephen, Beatrice, and Dorothea, about 1904
We evidently don't know much about Bullard. We know the particulars of his family, his birth and death, little traces here and there, but apparently there are no accounts by people who knew him, no writings in his hand except the logbook (which includes a poem or two), and so ultimately it's hard to say what made him tick. But in a sense, we have something much better: we can see through his eyes. We know that at specific moments in his life he stood in certain spots and talked to particular people — people he no doubt knew as neighbors and quite probably as friends. We know their names, we see their expressions and what they were wearing.

Portrait of Eugene Shepard, Sr., Seated in a Railcar, about 1905
Portrait of Richard and Mary Elizabeth Ward Wilson, about 1902
Darryl Pinckney once lamented, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, that "in the US, white people are able to conceive of black people who are better than they are or worse than they are, superior or inferior, but they seem to have a hard time imagining black people who are just like them." Bullard seemed to have no such difficulty. He didn't treat his subjects as minstrel-show caricatures; he treated them as they saw themselves, as people who rode bicycles, joined fraternal lodges and women's groups, went for outings in the park, and cherished their children, just like white Americans. Worcester wasn't a paradise for black people — the color bar largely denied them factory employment — but it had a living black community of individuals who embodied fundamental principles of human equality, dignity, and fallibility in an era when too many white Americans, in places like Wilmington, North Carolina and Tulsa, Oklahoma, seemed determined to snuff all that out.

For more information: Rediscovering an American Community of Color

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Dover Beach (Matthew Arnold)

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.