Sunday, May 16, 2021


 



A TRAMP'S WALLET


William Duthie  (?-?)


This is a peculiar book.  Duthie, a London goldsmith living in the mid-19th C., decided to take a tour of Europe on foot, partly to demonstrate that is was possible to do such a thing without extensive prior funding.  The first section, about a hundred or so pages, was used to detail the expenses of his trip, together with some ancillary comments about isolated individuals and incidents that he encountered:   how much he spent per day on food and so forth.  The second section was much longer and, repeating the itinerary of the first section, dealt with his experiences and accidents and some of the tourist attractions that he admired along the way.  Two categories of interest that he delved into had to do with work conditions; and the legal and political strictures governing the lives of the citizens of Germany, Austria and France.  Workers in all of these countries, in the jewelry trade anyway, had to work six to six and a half days a week, 72 hours being a normal figure for a week's employment.  Longer hours than that were not considered overtime.  Payment schedules were enough to enable very basic necessities.  Breakfast was normally bread and tea, lunch perhaps a piece of boiled meat and more bread, and dinner providing bread, soup and possibly a vegetable.  Living arrangements were commonly limited to six or more associates sleeping in one room, often in the house of the employer.  Days started at six AM and ran until six at night or longer, if there was a major project in hand.

Duthie found that, even when walking from town to town, the police kept stringent control of all transient movements.  He and his fellow travelers usually had to get a visa stamp when entering a town, or passports were confiscated during the period of employment until the worker left the city.  As part of the normal regime, there were many more official regulations governing social and business functions than Duthie had been used to in England, and many more policemen present than he had been used to in London.

Initially he landed in Hamburg, where he worked for an English jeweler.  He made several friends there some of whom accompanied him in his later peregrinations.  He took the road to Berlin after seven months, renting a seat on a wagon for several pence for the last sixty miles.  As in the other cities he visited, he first had to register with the police, then find the local guild hall.  Guilds were present all over Europe and there were systematic procedures for traveling workers to register, receive small amounts of money, and sometimes places to sleep, as well as, if lucky, the occasional dinner.  The guild halls varied enormously in quality, some dirty and bug-ridden, and some clean and well run.  Nonetheless, they were hubs from which to search for work, or from which to obtain clothing and other necessities.  

Duthie had a lot to say about the military monuments in Berlin, beginning with the Brandenburger Tor (the gate of the city), and ending with the opera house and the vast arsenal with munitions and gunpowder.  The memory of Frederick the Great permeated the cultural and artistic structures.  The Spree river runs through the city and a lime tree lined street followed it for miles.  There was no work to be found there, so William left after a week, taking the railroad to Leipzig, partly because the ground surface in that part of Prussia was so sandy that it made walking difficult.  (Madame LeBrun said the same thing in last week's post, even though she did walk a lot of the same route).  Almost at once, upon arriving in Leipzig, he returned to Berlin for six weeks work, but then caught the train back again for a brief stay before setting out to walk to Vienna.  He had several partners on this leg of the trip and they toured through Prague and Moravia.  Eighty miles from Vienna, he and his partner Alcibiade had only 4 shillings left between the two of them,  They survived on fruit, it being late spring, and water.  They had a lot of formalities and regulations to deal with when they got there.  Initially they were only permitted to stay 3 days, but using some of the guild connections, they gradually waded through the regulatory swamp and managed to land decent jobs.  However, during a slight altercation with a belligerent policeman, Duthie found himself in jail.  The policeman had knocked his hat off with his club and William took offense, with unhappy results.  He spent 9 days in prison before his friend could get him released.

Soon afterwards, Duthie and Alcibiade left the city, hoping to find friendlier receptions elsewhere.  Near Salzburg, they became curious about a large salt mine that presented certain intriguing elements.  Deciding to take a tour, they climbed up a mountain for four miles, to the Obersteinberghauptstollen, the name for the entrance to the mine, which occupied most of the inside of the mountain.  They walked down a sloping tunnel, led by a guide with a candle, for 3 kilometers, then used the "Rolle" to descend 200 feet to another ramp.  ("Rolle" describes a set of poles situated 12 inches apart, down which a person slides down on his backside through a small tunnel).  This was termed the Untersteinberghauptstulm.  Another Rolle, 600 feet long took them to another 2700 foot long ramp and yet another Rolle that led to the Soolerereugungsuerkkonhauser, an underground lake, across which they were rowed by Charon, noting the eery reflections of candlelight in the pitch-black ambiance.  On the far side, another Rolle 468 feet long to a freshwater spring, some of which they drank, and then boarded a small gauge railway pulled by two boys to the exit at the bottom of the mountain.

They continued walking through Carlsruhe, Bavaria and Munich, and then took the train to Paris.  Duthie lived with Alcibiade and the family of one of his friends, the PanPans.  He lived there for 17 months and then returned to London.

Not much is known about Duthie;  i couldn't find a picture of him, and his book seemed to sell for around $30.00 even though it can be downloaded free from Gutenberg.  The book, as i indicated above, was erratically assembled and i found out later that it was compiled from letters Duthie had written home and to a newspaper while he was traveling en route.  It was interesting to see such a different slant on European civilization of the time;  references and information were included about recent wars and revolutions in Prussia and Paris that seemed to substantiate what i had previously believed about that era;  that a relatively small segment of the population was responsible for major social upsets such as wars and starvation and destruction.  Most people just want to be left alone to live their lives, regardless of the insane convictions of their leaders, even though they may be frequently led into throwing away their lives and possessions in some sudden struggle for what they've been told is "justice".  Delusion is indeed one of the more amoral tools of the political elite, seemingly...

Sunday, May 9, 2021




 MEMOIRS OF MADAME VIGE'E LEBRUN

Marie Louise Elizabeth Vigee LeBrun (1755-1842)

Translated by Lionel Strachey

Her dad was a painter and he supported her devotion to drawing from an early age.  She was sent to a boarding school at six and was often in trouble for disobedience:  she spent all her time drawing things and not doing her school work.  But she evidenced a talent and a fierce love of painting which lasted all through her teenage years.  Her father died an early death, partly because of the dinners he attended in the presence of d'Alembert, Helvetius and Diderot, who enjoyed rambling on about the hopelessness of life and the pointlessness of actually trying to do anything.  Diderot, of course, was the man who devoted his life to compiling the first French encyclopedia.  It was banned by the church and government both, maybe for including long sections on the mechanical arts.

Marie studied with various well-known artists, Gabriel Doyen in particular, and was supported by other artists and friends of her father.  She spent a good portion of her time studying in the Parisian museums.  She said:  "the difference between well or poorly lighted pictures is the same as between well or poorly played pieces of music."  She began earning money for her portraits, but her stepfather (her mom remarried a businessman) appropriated her money.  Counts Orloff and Schouraloff introduced her to the upper classes and arranged sittings with some of the ladies of the court, one of them being Marie Antoinette with whom she became quite friendly.  She painted her several times.   Walks in the various parks and attendance at public festivals of one sort or another provided her with social experience and helped broaden her horizons.  She liked fireworks.  When invited out to dinners or the theater, she sometimes sang while accompanying herself on the guitar.  Once, absent-mindedly, she sat down on her palette which she'd laid on a chair.  She got to know LeBrun through her stepfather.  He wanted her to marry him because he thought he was rich.  After a period of contention she did, only to discover that her new husband was an addicted gambler and was in debt up to his eyebrows.  She was twenty when she married and for the length of their marriage, he took all the money she earned from painting and wasted it in card rooms.  Marie later estimated that he'd managed to get rid of a million francs, more or less.  Finally he died and she was able to command her own resources.

Taking advantage of a trip to Flanders, Marie was stunned by the work of the Flemish and Dutch painters.  She thought the work depicting an assembly of alderman by Van Loo was the best painting she'd ever seen, because of their life-like appearances.  After returning to Paris, she was nominated to the Royal Academy, a prestigious organization established for the furtherance of excellence in Art.  Marie made many friends among the elite and painted some of them.  She did three pictures of Madame du Barry;  the Count d'Artois and his family as well.  But nemesis was approaching:  the social atmosphere was becoming more and more intense, with popular uprisings unsettling and alarming the upper classes.  Finally, Marie escaped to Italy, as France was thralled in the grips of revolution, with Jacobin agents permeating every nook and cranny of the country.

In Rome, she was astounded by the wealth of art surrounding her:  the statuary, ancient buildings, and the collections in the many museums and palaces.  The palaces even when privately owned, were customarily open to visitors and tourists, and Marie spent lots of time studying the work of Italian artists.  And she began to be accepted and admired by the nobility as well, resulting in new friends and portrait work.  In particular, she came to know some Russian emigres who later paved her way into St. Petersburg society when she journeyed there.  Life in Rome became intense so for a break she moved to Naples for a while, where she painted various royal figures among whom was the Queen of Naples, the sister of Marie Antoinette.

After touring through Venice and Turin, Vienna beckoned and Marie followed.  Court life there involved lots of dances and parties and she came to know important individuals:  Counts Metternich and Rasumovsky  among others.  News of Jacobin violence caused her much unhappiness and she tried to avoid hearing about the victims of Madame La Guillotine.  She spent 28 months in Vienna, then moved to Prague briefly, visited Dresden, and then ventured over terrible roads to St. Petersburg, where she lived for seven and a half years.  She got to know Catharine the Great well and liked her a lot.  She described the Empress as short and stocky, decisive and intelligent, pleasant but with a whim of iron. Catharine built the Hermitage, one of the largest museums on the planet, and intitiated the practice of vaccination.  She rebuilt towns and added to the merchant fleet, encouraging the growth of trade.  Some of Marie's friends were Princess Dolgoruki, Count Stroganov and General Potemkin.  The society of course was divided between the nobility and the peasantry, with the latter being capable and clever, honest and gentle, mainly because of their adherence to the Russian Orthodox Church.  They seemed to live on potatoes, garlic, bread and corn brandy.  

After a 34 year reign, Catharine died and her son Paul was coronated.  He was unpopular with everybody, being capricious and unpredictably violent.  He hated the Russian upper classes and was probably a bit mad.  Perhaps coincidentally, Marie moved to Moscow in 1800.  She did more paintings and met more Counts and Generals:  Prince Bezborodko owned 30,000 kulaks (peasants were property at this time), Count Buturlin was a multi-lingual polymath and was the possessor of a huge library in all languages.  Marie wasn't terribly happy during this period, because her daughter whom she dearly loved had married poorly, against her mother's wishes.  So after only five months in Moscow she returned to St. Petersburg to find that the Emperor Paul had been assassinated.  The next Emperor was Alexander I, who promised Marie he'd fix the roads.  Even so, she left the city partly because of her thorough dislike of her son-in-law and partly because she was not feeling well.

She traveled through Prussia, walking part of the way because the carriage driver smoked evil-smelling tobacco, and arrived after a tedious journey in Berlin, where she lost her voice from yelling at customs officials.  Following a brief tour of the museums, she returned to Paris after being absent for 12 years.  Renting a house, she was joined soon afterwards by her brother and sister-in-law, and her daughter who'd left her husband.  Marie now saw a Paris that seemed cramped and dark.  She attended a military review, where she had a lot of difficulty believing that "that tiny man" was Napolean Bonaparte.  She was restless and took ship to London, where she lived for three years, off and on, taking frequent excursions in the countryside to escape the fogs and damp of the city.  She visited William and Caroline Hershel, the astronomers, and walked on the beach at Brighton.  Painting still occupied much of her time;  she approved of the work of Joshua Reynolds and did a number of portraits of French emigres.  But growing discontented, she returned to Paris to see her daughter and ended up in Switzerland and subsequently in Louveciennes, where she rented another house.  One night she woke up to see four soldiers ransacking her room, stealing all her jewelry and clothes.  Fortunately they paid no attention to her.

After Waterloo, things gradually returned to normal, with King Louis 18th re-assuming the throne for a brief period, being succeeded by the Duke de Berri his brother.  Marie retired for good soon after that, establishing herself in Louveciennes, where she lived out the balance of her life painting and taking walks.  Her daughter and son-in-law died in 1819, and her brother in 1820.  One of her nieces, Tripier la Franc, became a portraitist and did well.

This was a curious book to read;  rather like exploring an unknown country through a keyhole.  Marie's style, in translation, was warm and familiar and sort of like reading a letter from a favorite aunt.  Her prejudices and social opinions were clues to the type of person she was, friendly and perhaps a bit naive, habitually regarding her world with a cheerful and accepting point of view.  I quite liked it.


Sunday, May 2, 2021



 


PEDAL AND PATH:  ACROSS THE CONTINENT AWHEEL AND AFOOT

George B.Thayer  (1853-1928)

George was already an experienced cyclist in 1887, having made trips through New England of 500 and 1200 miles, the former in 3 weeks and the latter in six.  By the time April arrived, he was eager for something new and challenging so he determined on riding to San Francisco for the pleasure of it.  He was not out to set any records, he just wanted to see what was out there.  Also, since he was a sometime journalist, he planned on keeping the newspapers in Hartford, Connecticut informed as to his discoveries and adventures via his letters.  His vehicle was an "Expert Columbia", 46" in height and he carried a 15 lb. pack for clothes and bicycle stuff.  The tires were solid rubber.  The first day was tiring, as he hadn't ridden in three months, and the initial destination of New Haven was only arrived at after a full day's arduous toil over sandy and rutted roads.  He stayed there for three days, touring the city and visiting the Peabody Museum which was renowned for its fossil collections.  George had some interest and knowledge in geology and described some of the local formations and the origins of the Appalachian and Adirondack mountain chains.  The latter, composed of basement rocks from the billion year old Laurentian orogeny, are some of the oldest mountains in the world.

He was pedaling away near Tarrytown, after visiting the Sleepy Hollow graveyard, when he was almost knocked off his bike by explosions.  Investigating, he located the headquarters of the project-in-progress of the aqueduct extension designed and in the process of being excavated to provide water to the city of New York.  Talking to one of the supervisors, he was offered a chance to descend a vertical shaft 360 and to examine the operating procedures of the miners who were digging the tunnel.  The plan was to push the tunnel under towns, rivers and mountains forty miles all the way to the city.  George didn't go because of some of the horror stories told him by some miners lolling about the entrance.  Eventually the tunnel was completed in spite of the dangerous working conditions.

For the most part, cycling over the mountains was a non-pedaling event, as George usually had to push the bike up the steep parts and often over not-so-steep ones.  But he loved coasting down the other sides.  His technique was to extend his legs over the handle bars and steer with them while hanging on to the seat at the same time.  His progress, once across the mountain ranges, was often difficult, dealing with rutted roads covered with sand and/or mud that meandered back and forth over the Hudson and other rivers.  Sometimes even horses got stuck and had to be pulled out using boards as levers and fulcrums.  Dogs were common and most of them had developed a taste for shoes. He usually stayed  overnight with farmers, but sometimes in hotels.

At Niagara Falls he rode out onto Goat Island to get a better view and an old lingerer told him a story about an argument between the American and Canadian authorities that ended up with a steamship being pushed over the Falls while on fire.  Ohio was a rather depressed countryside, with dilapidated houses and seas of mud.  There were lots of sheep and pigs on the road.  The soft coal that was commonly used for heating and cooking coated all the buildings and people with black dusty tar.  He got tired of fighting the grueling conditions and took the train for the last 120 miles into Chicago.  Leaving that city, he pedaled on toward the confluence of the Missouri river.  One local resident told him about the fierce cyclones common in that area.  One recent one had destroyed two stone buildings in five minutes and killed 58 people.  Coasting down a hill in Iowa the bike hit a chuck hole and George flew over the handlebars and landed on all fours and his pack hit him in the back of the head.  Soon afterward he caught a freight train to Omaha and liked it so he continued on to Denver.

He met a friend in that city and they biked together for quite a while.  They traveled south to Pike's Peak and climbed it.  George got altitude sickness but toughed it through to the top at 14,000 feet.  They stayed several nights in the mountain chalet there and saw fantastic sunrises 150 miles away.  Like a true geologist, he and his friend spent some time rolling rocks off the top.  They visited the Garden of the Gods and continued north, stopping in Ft. Collins, where George noticed that water was scarce at that locality.  Citizens had to pay for it there, whereas in the more eastern states people had to pay to get rid of it because of the seasonal flooding.  The two cyclists took the northern wagon train thoroughfare through Laramie and Rawlins.  They got tired of fighting the constant headwind, a constant presence on that route, and took the train to Green River where they admired the red cliffs in Echo Canyon, then continued on to Salt Lake City.  George took a swim in the Great Salt Lake and was amazed at the floatational qualities of the fluid.  He admired the city and some of its inhabitants, but criticized some of the Mormon churches for their sleazy atmosphere.  Crossing the desert seemed counter-productive so they entrained to Lake Tahoe where they stayed for a week.  Liking that mode of transportation they continued on the railroad over the Sierras to Sacramento.  Bicycling through the Valley by himself, George toured the Calaveras Big Tree monument and then did a lot of hiking in Yosemite Valley before taking the train to San Francisco.  

After several weeks partying and visiting he caught the train to Monterey and stayed for awhile.  Back in San Francisco he boarded a ship for Portland, Oregon and was seasick much of the way, along with most of the other passengers.  They were cooped up in a smallish cabin with insufficient traveler's aids so he spent most of the time sleeping on the deck.  He left Portland on the train but got out at the Snake River so he could ride to Shoshone Falls.  He noted the extensive areas of flood basalts and speculated on their origin.  On the train once again to Pocatello, Idaho, he left that city on his bicycle and headed toward Yellowstone National Park where he visited many of its 71 geysers.  One of the handlebars stripped out on the bicycle, so he had to find a blacksmith to fix it.  He found the shop but the smith was absent, so George found a tap and die set in one of the drawers and hacksawed off the stub of the bar, threaded it, and screwed it back together.

On the return to Connecticut, he went further south, through Kentucky where he was feted and celebrated by some but chastised by others for violating the Sabbath.  He ended up entraining through Ohio again but rode a long section along the Potomac River until he reached Baltimore, then took the railroad home to Hartford.

This was an impressive feat for that era.  The book was attractively written and easily comprehensible.  George faced the trip's dangers and pleasures with equanimity, maintaining his psychic balance in difficult and occasionally provocative situations.  He seemed to take the bad with the good in quite a philosophical manner, and consequently achieved a kind of objectivity not often found in descriptions of personal endeavors...  i liked it, and probably most readers would also...  The book is listed in the files of the Gutenberg Project.

Sunday, April 25, 2021



 


CURIOSITIES OF LITERATURE, VOL I


Isaac Disraeli  (1766-1848)


Mr. Disraeli's father had emigrated from Italy early in the century, disgruntled and oppressed by business failures in that country.  His son Isaac took the new country to heart and converted to the Protestant religion at an early age.  He was left a considerable amount of money when his father passed on and used it to support his family while pursuing his fascination with history and literature.  The "Curiosities" in three volumes was a product of his maturity, although it occupied some twenty years of research and authorship before it was published in 1791 by John Murray, a long-time friend and dinner companion.  (My copy was published in three volumes in 1824 by Murray).

The book is constructed quite like an encyclopedia, consisting of short essays on subjects that Disraeli found interesting:  they range from the ancient Greeks, through the Roman and French civilizations, up to recent historical events in the 16th century.  This first volume has 97 entries;  a few samples are characterized below:

Libraries:  Pisistratus in ancient Egypt is recorded as regarding libraries to be "medicine for the mind".  Caesar Augustus apparently compiled the first Imperial library, borrowing and stealing works liberally from the collections accumulated by ancient Greece.  Nicholas Nicoli established the first public library in Italy.  Later it was augmented through the efforts of Cosmo d'Medici.  In 1364 the Royal French Library had 20 books, but they acquired a sufficient number by the next century to sell 900 of them to England.  Early English collectors were Robert Cotton whose collections were the base of the Bodley Library, and Robert Burton, author of "Anatomy of Melancholy".  By the Elizabethan age, books were popular enough that the Queen occupied her idle hours by sewing her own book covers.

Recovery of Manuscripts:  Cotton was in a position to do the developing society a great favor.  He happened to be passing a tailor's shop in London shortly after the signing of the Magna Carta and noticed the tailor with scissors in hand about to slice up an old piece of parchment to make a pattern.  Cotton was able to rescue one of the few remaining copies of the document in existence through his abrupt entrance into the shop.  John Aurispe spent years investigating the cellars and attics of old monasteries for old manuscripts and found hundreds of forgotten Greek and Roman works moldering away in solitude.  Even Dr. Dee, Queen Elizabeth's astrologer, had a small hoard of arcane editions, although his treasures were disbursed after his decease.

Sketches of Criticism:  Homer was accused of plagiarism.  He was accused of stealing the works of former poets from the Vulcan Temple in Memphis, as well as from locales in Syragus and Suidas.  Plato's children said he was a lunatic.  Plato was caught in the act of trying to burn Democrites' works.  Plutarch wrote a treatise on the malignity of Herodotus.  Xenephon wrote novels and Horace was only known because Virgil and Varus popularized his work.

Amusements of the Learned:  Tycho Brahe relaxed by constructing mathematical instruments.  Richelieu amused himself by trying to jump over walls;  Samuel Clarke liked to jump over tables.

Patrons:  When the Cardinal d'Estes first read Ariosto's Orlando, his reaction was "Where the devil have you found all this nonsense?"  

Poets, Philosophers, and Artists made by Accident:  Cowley was inspired to write through admiration of Spenser's "Fairy Queen".  Vaucanson, the early roboticist, was galvanized into making his first clock by watching a pendulum for hours;  later he created a flute-playing robot.  LaFontaine, a large, ugly, awkward person, was motivated into writing his charming little tales by reciting poetry in the forest.  Benjamin Franklin got interested in inventing things from reading "Essays on Projects" by De Foe.

The Progress of Old Age in New Studies:  Socrates took up music in his later years.  Cato at 80 studied Greek and Plutarch took up Latin.Dr. Johnson learned Dutch at 70 and Dryden held the record for the most poetry written by one person in English by the time he passed on.

Men of Genius Deficient in Conversation:  Corneille, Descartes, and Addison were all known for their non-participation in general conversation.  ID:  "the Countess of Pembroke said Chaucer's silence was more agreeable than his conversation".

Singularities Observed by Various nations in their Repasts:  Inhabitants of the Maldive Islands eat by themselves.  The ancient French Kings were served by waiters on horseback.

Joan of Arc:  Rumors of the time indicated that she escaped the flames but the ceremony was carried through to appease certain officials.  Also that she was actually a man in disguise.

Spanish Etiquette:  Phillip III died of heat stroke in 1621 at the age of 24 because his fireplace could only be attended to by a servant who wasn't available at the time.  His sister was caught in a house fire and rescued by a common soldier who was condemned to death for touching royalty, but later forgiven.  Don Carlos, son to Phillip II, made a book with empty pages to contain the voyages of his father.  The latter's trips consisted of traveling from Madrid to the Escurial and back.  The son later lost his life through his father's agency as a reward for his sense of humor.

A Senate of Jesuits:  King Sigismund of Sweden spent years as king of Poland.  During the interim, Jesuits were honored to take over the government in Stockholm.  When they arrived at the capitol aboard their ship, the reigning governors bombarded it to pieces and subsequently expelled all the Jesuit citizens from the city.  The Swedes had been mostly Catholic, but soon after they converted en masse to Lutheranism.

Gloves:  Xenophon said Persians wore them (he thought they were effeminate).  Homer implied the same of Laertes, who he said wore them while gardening.  Glove giving was associated with seating of an individual in office.  Later they were used in knightly challenges.  Gloves were meant to be removed, during the middle ages, when working with horses and their effluent.

Relics of Saints:  From the Ninth to the Twelfth Century and beyond, they were made, purchased, sold and stolen with religious fervor.  Stealing a relic was termed "translation" so as to avoid accusations of criminality.  Monks in despair for one reason or another frequently beat up their relics with rods to get what they wanted.  Prince Radziwill's Keeper of Relics accidentally lost some of his master's holy items and in fear of reprisal, made some to replace them.  When the Prince discovered the bogus artifacts, he pardoned the Keeper and turned Lutheran.  The bottom fell out of the relic market during the destruction of English monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII.


The other volumes were about the same size as this one, so that would amount to about 300 essays altogether.  Isaac had a great sense of humor, as many of the ones i read were really funny, bordering on sarcastic.  And the prose was very readable;  it could well have been produced in the 19th C. without much revision.  I don't know why the books aren't better known;  they're a pleasure and a great distraction from our over-populated and tediously busy "civilization", haha...  anyway i had a lot of fun reading Disraeli's wry and revealing selections from human affairs as they evidenced themselves through history...  that's not to say that he was one hundred percent accurate in all the information he proffered, but he certainly managed to convey a striking impression of himself:  intelligent, resourceful, industrious and loving in spite of his somewhat jaundiced attitude toward human activities.  He had five children and it must have been a wonderful ambiance for his son Benjamin to grow up in.




Saturday, April 17, 2021



 


THE SUNLESS CITY


 James Edward Preston Muddock (1843-1934)


Josiah Flintabbaty Flonatin was a physical scientist and a member in great standing with the Society for the Exploration of Unknown Regions.  He was a short person with a large bald head and prehensile arms and skinny legs and a pipestem body.  At one of the meetings of the Society he heard about a bottomless tarn recently discovered in the Rocky Mountains.  Another explorer had gone to great efforts to determine its depth and had dropped 1200 feet of rope into the water and not touched rock or anything else.  He named the lake Avernus.  Flonatin (familiarly known as Flin Flon), after a little research, gave a lecture to his fellow members outlining his intention to explore the depths of the mysterious body of water.  He had decided to build a submarine equipped with all the modern tools and conveniences with which to conduct an extensive survey of the lake.  Once constructed, the sub was shipped to the location in pieces and assembled on the shore.  With Flon at the helm (he was alone except for a goat, 2 hens, 6 rabbits, a cat and a dog) he pointed the nose of the 34 foot long vehicle downwards and started pedaling.  Motive power was supplied via weight-assisted cranking as on a bicycle.  At two miles down Flon observed goggle-eyed pipefish stating at him.  After four hours the sub was precipitated over a waterfall and caught in a strong current that carried it along at 20 knots an hour until it ran into a rock.  Igniting some magnesium wire he'd brought along for the purpose, Flon saw that he was in an immense cavern lined with monstrous calcite crystals, some of them resembling plants or animals in their stalactitic or stalagmatic accretions.  After some difficulty encountered in the forms of obtrusive rocks, the sub was sucked into a huge smooth-sided tunnel and carried along until the river split into numerous deltaic branches and lost much of its forward momentum.  Flon took the opportunity to do a bit of exploration, finding depositions of plutonic strata, interbedded with granite, quartz monzonite, porphyritic assemblages and some gneiss and schist inclusions.  He described the area as a "myriorama" of formations and determined that it must be the base of an extinct volcano.  Returning to his vessel, he discovered it missing;  apparently he'd not moored it correctly.  He walked downstream for a long time until he saw before him two large eyes glowing in the dark that turned out to be the headlights of the sub.  It was undamaged and Flon continued on downstream to another large open space, where noted that the air was sparkling with tiny blue flashes of light which he attributed to errant electrical discharges from differing potentials in the local mineral bodies.  Blue flames and lightning bolts occasionally lit up the atmosphere.

Proceeding at 25 knots per hour, the sub raced downward into another vast cavern where Flon noticed rainbow-colored clouds produced by static electricity and lots of plants and trees alongside the river.  He saw birds and animals flickering through the jungly overgrowth and saw that instead of being green, the foliage was all bronze-colored.  A little further down he stopped the sub to investigate a sighting of a yellow colored mineral and realized that the countryside was literally covered with gold.  There was millions of tons of the stuff.  Flon went a bit nuts and began grabbing up all he could hold and stuffing it into the sub.  Later, after meeting the local inhabitants, he was chagrined to find out that gold was not valued except as a construction material;  it was used for buildings and houses.  The really valuable mineral there was tin which was very scarce.

The sub soon floated into the outskirts of a local city where the citizenry viewed him and his boat with alarm.  He was laughed at by the denizens because he didn't have a tail.  The presence of a tail indicated that the owner was a true human being at the ultimate peak of development, as opposed to those without caudal appendages who were considered to be inferior.  As he later found out, the city had been there about two million years and was founded initially on top of another one that had disintegrated over time. Flon was taken in hand by the local authorities and conducted to the court of the king.  He had difficulty communicating  until an ancient scholar taught him the language.  He realized that with a slight change of intellectual apprehension the language was quite easy to comprehend.  For instance, the court doctor's name was Yrekcauq and the vizier was Ytidrusba.  The name of the country was Esnesnon.  The government was a matriarchy in spite of having a king and one of the principal functionaries was entitled Ms. Sregdorpittemmocaig.

After familiarizing himself with the political situation and the  customs and cultural amenities, and after a period of incarceration during which the authorities had time to get him used to local deportment and legal strictures, and after the King's daughter (Princess Yobmot) became interested in him, Flon was permitted to wander at large in society and to study its members.  He found that there was a lot of unrest, principally having to do with social status, and that the citizenry spent a lot of time quarreling with each other.  At one point Flon is arrested for treason for interviewing Mrs. Ytidrusba and implying that women were not the most ideal persons to run a government. By this time Yobmot had fallen love with Flon and she was pivotal in lining up the city's best legal counsel who managed to get the charges dismissed.  

Yobmot told Flon about a nearby mountain that she had attempted to ascend that seemed to have a large cave on its peak.  Being tired of the city and its argumentative residents, he arranged with the King to finance an expedition to investigate the curiousity.  Coincidentally a revolution began in the city, mainly between two members of the upper classes who disagreed about the efficacy of cab-drivers.  One of them wanted to kill them all and the other didn't, all due to the drivers' penchant for sassiness and over-charging.  The  palace was assaulted by hordes of raging citizens and Yobmot and Flon barely had time to escape with their provisions and assistant climbers, but they successfully climbed the mountain and entered the mammoth cave at the top.  Yobmot was in love with Flon and wanted to go with him to the surface.  The others followed, but grew disconcerted and either  died or left.  After weeks of trudging through volcanic conduits, lava tubes and magma chambers they reached a large lake, presumably formed at the base of another volcano.  Yobmot laid down and expired, having given her all for love.  Flon by this point had fallen in love with Yobmot as well, but in spite of his sorrow, he forged ahead, climbing lava cliffs and clambering up endless series of rough passages and lava galleries.  Eventually he saw daylight and emerged in an amorphous mountainous region.  He stumbled along until he ran into two gold miners who guided him to safety, in the town of San Francisco.  After recovery, he returned to his home in New York and made arrangements to give a talk at the SEUR society.  But he found, after speaking for quite a while, that none of the other members believed him;  they thought he'd lost his marbles.  So Flon retired and stayed home reading and tending his garden until he passed away at the age of 100.

It was hard to not recognize Jules Verne's influence in this book.  The language was similar, using a kind of upper class Anglo-Scientific jargon with elegant phrasing.  Even the names resembled Verne's:  Flin Flon, for example.  The commonalities with "Around the World in Eighty Days" or "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" were pretty obvious, not solely in the plots, but in the descriptions and the timing as well.  But i enjoyed it a lot because of the geology and because of ...  well, because of the geology, haha...  but it was imaginative and exciting and intellectually challenging:  vis a vi the language.  (If you spelled your name backwards, what would it sound like?)...  and lots of fun.  The book is listed in Gutenberg if you're at all curious...

Sunday, April 11, 2021






 THE HIGH HISTORY OF THE HOLY GRAAL

Unknown in part and continued by Chretien de Troyes c. 1200 A.D.
Trans. by Sebastian Evans

Flavius Josephus was the name of the guard that removed the body of Jesus from the cross, kept the spear he was stabbed with, as well as the cup with a bit of his blood.  Instead of flinging the body into the street like Herod told him to, he carried it away from the city and privately entombed it, where it was later revived by Mary.  Joseph was fired for disobedience and moved to Britain where he founded a dynasty comprised, eventually, of knights and ladies representing the upper classes.  This account describes the adventures and disasters relating to King Arthur and his courtly supporters, Gawain, Lancelot, and Perceval.  These three, as well as many of their associates, are all descendants of Joseph, hence are all related to each other.  The knights do a lot of wandering around in the woods and forests of Britain and elsewhere, rescuing damsels and punishing evil-doers, all in the name of Christianity.  King Fisherman lives on an island in which the Holy Grail is ensconced along with the lance Joseph brought from Palestine.  The Grail (Graal) is a holy object of veneration, capable of banishing evil and replacing it with good, all in the name of God, the superior being.  The only knight (Gawain) to have actually seen the Graal forgot the magic words that needed to be uttered in order for it to perform its enlightening function and he spends most of his time worrying about it while slaying bad knights and righting wrongs.  King Fisherman is permanently depressed because of Gawain's (his nephew) forgetfulness. 

There are other cross-currents.  Various and sundry rulers in other parts of the country, greedy for land and riches, are continually invading Arthur's kingdom and the three knights are more or less permanently occupied in squelching the interlopers' ambitions.  A kind of literary tapestry is woven throughout the long tale, with the same major and minor characters assuming different roles as time passes.  It is very much like watching a long soap opera series on television, and i suppose the stories performed the same sort of role in the medieval period.  

Perceval is the principle character in the book, as he is regarded as the Perfect Knight, the one most likely to fulfill the attainment of the Holy Graal.  Lancelot is always sad because of his love for Arthur's wife, Guinevere.  Gawain is kept pretty busy running around keeping his relatives out of trouble.

There's a lot of decapitation in the book, such that the reader begins to wonder if that was a reflection of every day life in the 13th century.  For instance, Arthur's son, Lohot, is killed by Sir Kay, Arthur's seneschal, either by accident or on purpose.  Lohot had slain a giant that was oppressing the peasants and, being weary, for some reason took a nap while lying on top of him.  Kay happens along and sees the two and for some reason cuts off Lohot's head as well as the giant's.  He tries to keep it secret for awhile but Arthur finds out and Kay flees the country.  He returns later, though, in company with Briant of the Isles, as they plan on decimating and occupying part of the Kingdom.  There is a lot of ecological destruction in the book, as the thought of preserving the land for their own uses apparently never occurred to them.

The start of most of the action begins, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight does, with a feast at court being interrupted by, in this case, a bald damsel with her arm tucked under her chin, riding in a cart followed by two other servant ladies.  She cries for assistance  and gets it immediately, which starts a whole series of rescues, jousts, tournaments, battles, carnivals, sea voyages, and extensive traveling, even to foreign countries.  Magic is not absent, and mysterious forces aid the heroes in their difficulties, illuminating dark dungeons, strengthening failing sword arms, moving sailboats in preferred directions and the like.
 
Perceval retires at the end of the book, married and happily living the latter part of his life as an agricultural overseer.  His wife passes on and he gently fades away.  But also at the end, Britain is about to be invaded once again and things look dire for Arthur, Lancelot and Gawain.  According to some sources there was in existence a second volume in the series called the "Quest of the Holy Grail" but i haven't found a copy of that yet.

This was a very interesting book in some ways in spite of being rather gory and repetitive.  When i was very young i loved reading about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table and i suppose this book was in some way a continuation of that.  I can't say it was an easy read, because it was couched in more or less Elizabethan argot, but, as i've found with other old books like Chaucer, Langland and Lydgate, it gets easier the more you read it.  I'd love to read Arcadia (Sir Phillip Sydney) next, but I don't know if i have the energy;  i'll give it a try, i think, in which case it will be several weeks before i post on it as it's quite lengthy...

Sunday, April 4, 2021



 


WHEN  ELEPHANTS LAST IN THE DOORYARD BLOOMED

 Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)


When elephants last in the dooryard bloomed

Brought forth from dusts and airing attics where they

roomed

For many a year and faded out the roses on their flanks

And sucked the dust and trod the ancient grass in ranks

Beyond our seeing, deep in jungles on our parlor floor,

These old familiar beasts we led into the light

And beat upon their pelts and hung them in the sight

of sun

Which glorious made the panoplies of thread.

What grandeur here!

What pomp of Hannibal and Rome and Alps,

Egyptian cerements and tombs, Troy's ruins, Delphic

glooms-

Across such arabesques as these once walked Victoria.

Now in the lost great animal boneyard these lively skins

are stretched,

Unravel, fall to pollen and to rust.  Sic transit gloria.

All this has passed, is dim as ill-recalled rococo

But in my youth I stomped out cinnamons from these

God-awful paths and raised up such a flour of scents

As would reel down kings and make rise up to kingship

Lunatic lepers and foul penitents.


Old creatures, slung upon a wire in wind and light

And years' ebbtide

I beat you gently with my howdah wire-racket beater,

Search tigers in the shade of your deep hills

And stand, a monarch made, along your blind impatient old

And slumbrous side,

And know that modern carpetings and rugs, so bland, 

so broad

So nothing, and so shallow

Were made for snails

And men who breakfast, lunch, and dine

Upon the safe, sure, ever-recurring marshmallow.


Still somewhere in this world 

Do elephants graze yards?

In far towns toward the East and North toward Michigan

Do grandmothers and boys go forth to lawns,

And lines strummed there 'twixt oak or elm and porch,

And tie thereon great beasts of Indian grace

Loomed taller than their heads?

Still on such days do heartbeats throng the town

Whee elderwitch and tads,

Where toms and great-grand-crones gone feverish with

sweat

Goad Time out of the warp and weave,

The tapestry of treaded hearthwarm woolen flesh,

Beat Time into the breeze and watch the billion footfalls

Sift clouds into the greening insufferable beauty of

young trees?

Do old and young still tend a common ground?

Vast panoply and firewalk spread of God's most patient

brute

Whose firecoal eyes observe and well-worn hide

Now feels the woman tire, so Boy takes up the beat:

Where one thump dies, another heart begins.

Along the cliff of dusty hide

From either end, with centuries between as well

as miles,

Old looks to young, young looks to old

And, pausing with their wands, 

Trade similar smiles.


This is from Bradbury's book of the same name, 143 pages of poems in the Knopf edition.  It's quite suggestive to me even though i don't follow all of it.  Ray was fascinated from and early age by carnivals and circuses and that sort of imagery weaves a thread through much of his writing.  He began his career writing horror stories, copying Poe and Lovecraft, and that sense of lurking doom never quite disappeared even in his science fiction.  Always something unseen, something just out of touch...  


NB:  my posting will be more irregular in the future due to time constraints, weariness with the computer ordering my life, and the feeling that darkness is becoming more visible around the edges of my life.  Still, look for me from time to time, i may be here, or, ghost-like, hiding in the desk-top corner watching you, haha...