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?"

Monday, February 19, 2024

Prickly issues

The poet Donald Hall was born and raised in suburban Connecticut, but he spent many of his summers at his maternal grandparents' farm in New Hampshire in the 1930s and '40s, an experience he recollected in a memoir entitled String Too Short to Be Saved. Though he was capturing a disappearing way of life, and remembering it fondly, he largely avoided the lure of nostalgia. There are golden afternoons spent haying and tending chickens in the book, but there is also alcoholism, mental illness, and suicide among the neighbors. He would later own up to embellishing a bit; in a reprint he confessed that the abandoned railroad on Ragged Mountain that he described didn't actually exist. It was another passage in the book, though, that initially perplexed me. Hall describes a day on the farm in the company of his grandfather:
We walked slowly uphill to the barn, which looked like a rocky ledge of Ragged in the gray light. When we were nearly to the milk shed, he suddenly pointed upward at the branches of the great maple next to the old outhouse. "Look!" he said. "There's a hedgehog!" I followed the angle of his finger and saw what resembled a bird's nest at a fork in the branches, indistinct in the late light. "Let's see how you are with a shotgun these days," he said.
The animal is dispatched, not by Hall, who misses four times, but by his grandfather. In a later chapter, when the grandfather is dead, Hall returns to the farm, spots three more "hedgehogs" in the trees, and brings them down.

As any naturalist can tell you, there are no wild hedgehogs in New England or anywhere in the Americas, nor do they readily climb trees (pace Maurice Sendak), nor are they considered agricultural pests (though they were once popularly thought to suckle milk from cows). There are, of course, porcupines, but no one who had grown up in New England (and was later educated in part in the UK, where there are hedgehogs), would be likely to confuse the two. So what gives?

As it turns out, Hall was simply following vernacular tradition. Although "porcupine" (unlike "opossum" and "skunk") is a European word dating to the Middle Ages, few English colonists to New England would have ever seen an Old World porcupine, as the closest ones live in Italy, and faced with a spiny creature they simply borrowed the familiar name "hedgehog." The usage was common enough to have been written into law; as late as the early twentieth century the state of New Hampshire was paying bounties for killing "hedgehogs." The bounty was repealed in 1979, by which time the word had been corrected to "porcupines."

Another word for hedgehog is "urchin," from Latin ericius (see Spanish erizo, French hérisson). Today that word refers to a street waif, but its original meaning is preserved in the name for the spiny echinoderms known as "sea urchins."

Image: "Hans My Hedgehog," from The Juniper Tree.

Monday, February 05, 2024

Who was Rará?

Cortázar's short story "Carta a una señorita en París" (Letter to a Young Lady in Paris) is narrated by a man who has a peculiar propensity to spontaneously regurgitating a baby rabbit from time to time. A little musicological puzzle has popped up in it. In the first paragraph, the narrator moves into a borrowed Buenos Aires apartment, where he is reluctant to disturb (though he will) its "closed order, constructed even in the finest networks of air, networks that in your house preserve the music of lavender, the fluttering of a powder puff, the interplay of the violin and viola in the 'cuarteto de Rará'," whatever that last phrase may refer to. That's my rough translation; the word translated as "powder puff" is cisne, which literally means "swan," hence the "fluttering." Paul Blackburn's version, published in End of The Game and Other Stories, reads as follows:
... it offends me to intrude on a compact order, built even to the finest nets of air, networks that in your environment conserve the music in the lavender, the heavy fluff of the powder puff in the talcum, the play between the violin and the viola in Ravel’s quartet.
Ravel? Why Ravel? For that matter, what was the "Rará quartet" or the "quartet by Rará" alluded to in the original. The allusion has baffled several commentators ("I have obtained no reference to this musical piece, if it exists" — Descifrando a Cortázar), and only one critic seems to have hazarded an explanation. Monica Kanne, in her thesis Estrategias de la traducción: Un estudio de estrategias de traducción y su aplicación práctica glosses it as "una pieza musical (del año 1949) del compositor italiano de música clásica contemporánea Sylvano Busotti (1931-)," that is, "a musical piece (from 1949) by the contemporary Italian classical music composer Sylvano Busotti" (actually Sylvano Bussotti, who has since died).

At first glance, this seems plausible. Although I haven't been able to trace a Rara Quartet by Bussotti, he did compose a Rara Requiem and direct an art film entitled Rara. He would have been only in his teens when Cortázar's story was first published (in his collection Bestiario) in 1951, but he was in fact precocious; the IRCAM database of contemporary music lists compositions as early as 1937 (when he was six!), though I find no record of an early string quartet. Still, it's a bit of a stretch that Cortázar, living in Buenos Aires at that time, would have had any exposure to the work of a teenaged Italian composer. As it happens, though, there's a simpler explanation: Blackburn's translation is correct, because "Rara" was a nickname of Maurice Ravel. (Per biographer Benjamin Ivry, "Ravel was known in his own circle as Rara.") Blackburn may have known that already, or Cortázar may have explained the reference (the two conducted a long correspondence). Author or translator or editor (or all three) decided that the allusion was too obscure and clarified it. Ravel's String Quartet in F Major is easy enough to find:

There are even excerpts of a version for ondes Martentot, a kind of precursor of the theremin:

Monday, January 29, 2024

The Drifter

When I was growing up there was a commercial artist in our neighborhood named Gordon Johnson, whose specialty was paintings for advertising work and book illustration. He often worked from photographs that he had local people pose for, and this scene of the sighting of the Mary Celeste probably depicts people I knew, though at this point I'm no longer sure who they were. It was done, if I remember right, as part of a series for an insurance company. I have a print copy somewhere, but the image above was found online.

The Mary Celeste incident is one of the great nautical enigmas. An American merchant sailing ship is found in the Atlantic Ocean, a bit west of Portugal, with no ship's boat, a full cargo, a logbook a few weeks out of date, and no obvious evidence of fire, shipwreck, mutiny, or piracy. No trace of the crew or the passengers (which included the captain's wife and young daughter) is ever found. The ship is boarded by sailors from the Canadian brigantine Dei Gratia and brought to port in Gibraltar. After lengthy legal proceedings it is eventually reclaimed by its owners and put back into service. (Later proprietors sank it as part of an insurance scam, but that's another whole story.)

Various explanations and impostures have been put forth over the years, some of them fairly bizarre. An early one was offered, anonymously and fictionally, by a young Arthur Conan Doyle, who mistakenly called the ship the Marie Celeste (as many have done since) and imagined a tale of conspiracy involving a psychopathic ex-slave with a grudge against the white race and the missing ear of an African stone idol. Perhaps the most amusing solution was put forward by one J. L. Hornibrook:
There is a man stationed at the wheel. He is alone on deck, all the others having gone below to their mid-day meal. Suddenly a huge octopus rises from the deep, and rearing one of its terrible arms aloft encircles the helmsman. His yells bring every soul on board rushing on deck. One by one they are caught by the waving, wriggling arms and swept overboard. Then, freighted with its living load, the monster slowly sinks into the deep again, leaving no traces of its attack.
I thought about the incident during a trip to a library, when, while looking for something else, I spotted the title Mystery Ship stamped in gold on a green binding and opened it on a hunch. The book, written by a historian named George S. Bryan and published by Lippincott in 1942, was indeed about the Mary Celeste. I brought it home on a lark and found that it was actually quite good, though it's apparently long out-of-print and mostly forgotten except by nautical historians. Bryan looked carefully at the original documentary evidence (much of which he reproduces), went over the various explanatory theories point by point, reprinted a good portion of the Conan Doyle, and dispelled much of the nonsense that had accreted over the years. (The ship's cat was not dozing contentedly when the Mary Celeste was found, there were no live chickens on board, nor were there half-eaten meals still warm in the mess.) His own tentative conclusion was that the ship was deliberately abandoned because the captain had reason to believe that it was in grave danger, either from shipwreck or from an imminent explosion of its cargo (which consisted almost entirely of barrels of alcohol). The line that may have tethered the single ship's boat failed to hold, and the passengers and crew drifted into oblivion.

I was aware of the story of the Mary Celeste from a fairly early age, though I never knew it in detail. This painting no doubt shaped how I imagined it. I've had a weakness for eerie nautical stories ever since.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Notebook: James Boswell Imitates a Cow

John Brewer, describing a night at the Royal Drury Lane Theatre in 1769:
During the hour before the curtain rose the theatre was filled by what a bemused German visitor, von Archenholz, called ‘noise and bombardment’: the audience chatted, cheered and sang, threw fruit at one another, flirted and preened themselves. A few years earlier James Boswell, waiting with a Scottish friend for a Drury Lane performance to begin, ‘entertained the audience prodigiously by imitating the lowing of a cow.’ As he later proudly remarked, ‘I was so successful in this boyish frolic that the universal cry of the galleries was “Encore the cow! Encore the cow!”’

The Pleasures of the Imagination

Tuesday, January 02, 2024

Notes for a Commonplace Book (30)

Henry David Thoreau:
I spend a considerable portion of my time observing the habits of the wild animals, my brute neighbors. By their various movements and migrations they fetch the year about to me. Very significant are the flight of geese and the migration of suckers, etc. But when I consider that the nobler animals have been exterminated here, the cougar, panther, lynx, wolverene, wolf, bear, moose, deer, beaver, turkey, etc., etc., I cannot but feel as if I lived in a tamed and, as it were, emasculated country. Would not the motions of those larger and wilder animals have been more significant still? Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature that I am conversant with? As if I were to study a tribe of Indians that had lost all its warriors. Do not the forest and the meadow now lack expression? now that I never see nor think of the moose with a lesser forest on his head in the one, nor of the beaver in the other? When I think what were the various sounds and notes, the migrations and works, and changes of fur and plumage which ushered in the spring, and marked the other seasons of the year, I am reminded that this my life in nature, this particular round of natural phenomena which I call a year, is lamentably incomplete. I listen to a concert in which so many parts are wanting. The whole civilized country is, to some extent, turned into a city, and I am that citizen whom I pity. Many of those animal migrations and other phenomena by which the Indians marked the season are no longer to be observed. I seek acquaintance with nature to know her moods and manners. Primitive nature is the most interesting to me. I take infinite pains to know all the phenomena of the spring, for instance, thinking that I have here the entire poem, and then, to my chagrin, I learn that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess and have read, that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages, and mutilated it in many places. I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best of the stars. I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth.

The Journal (1856)
The above is a fuller version of a passage quoted in Dan Flores's sobering 2022 book Wild New World: The Epic Story of Animals & People in America. A few of the animals Thoreau mentions have since recovered (at least to an extent) in the Northeast, but by and large his lament is still valid. We live in an impoverished world. Sadder still, many of us aren't even aware of how much we've lost.