Tag Archives: History

In the Face of Kitsch

The birds of fortuity had alighted once more on her shoulders. There were tears in her eyes, and she was unutterably happy to hear him breathing at her side (78).
—Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being


Strangely, when I picked the book up off a friend’s shelf, I couldn’t quite remember if I had read it— Kundera’s most beloved novel. But I couldn’t put it down (again?). Thanks to my soveryvery archive I can go back and relive The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (a post, now that I am speaking of not remembering, which I coincidentally titled “What I Remember”—but with Kundera one can never clearly delineate the remembered from the forgotten) and Slowness (in which I posted the excellent Slow Love by Prince to accompany my thoughts which is sadly no longer available for viewing, but you can sing it to yourself while you read if you are so inclined).

Happiness, as Kundera writes, is to repeat: “the sweet law of repetition” (299). The unbearable lightness of the non-repeatable is what leaves us in a state of abject unease. And so I let myself be taken away, repeated or not, inside the weight of love between Tereza and Tomas.

Woven in between that story is the tragic story of political hypocrisy and fakery, or as Kundera names it: kitsch.

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!
The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!
It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch (251).

In these days where we appear on the brink of a cyclical, reactionary return to the dark and stupid days of authoritarian bleakness, it is the fakery of it all that really rankles me: The forced cheers of political pyrrhic victories, the outright lies and gaudy veneer of those claiming to represent the “real folks.” The intellectual dishonesty and cowardice is sickening at best, deadly at worst.

When I say “totalitarian,” what I mean is that everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life: every display of individualism (because a deviation from the collective is a spit in the eye of the smiling brotherhood); every doubt (because anyone who starts doubting details will end up by doubting life itself); all irony (because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously); and the mothers who abandons her family or the man who prefers men to women, thereby calling into question the holy decree “Be fruitful and multiply” (252).

What to do? In this novel, Kundera takes seriously this question. We only live one life. We can not repeat. At this point in time, most of us can choose to shout out against the fuckery of injustices facing our environment and fellow inhabitants—but there is a time looming in the future, and already here for those at the margins, where laughing out loud, shouting, resisting, and fighting against the backward steps, leads to our hastened ignominious erasure.

Which is why I find such solace and sweetness in Tomas and Tereza. It’s not that they describe a perfect love—theirs is full of troubles, pain, and worries, in addition to the crushing political world around them. Their love is a vagabond pushed, or pushing them, farther and farther away from the vacant up-righteousness of kitsch. Tereza nearly lets it go uncredited as love, believing that their love can’t be equal since her love acted as a mission that Tomas seemed incapable, to her, of sharing. But their love is not a mission. It must be. In the end, it’s simple.

“Missions are stupid, Tereza. I have no mission. No one has. And it’s a terrific relief to realize you’re free, free of all missions” (313).

It’s an obvious statement to say—we only have one life to live, but this makes it clear to me that there is no mission, there is only each day and hour. The weight of that is freeing. “Haven’t you noticed I’ve been happy here, Tereza?” Tomas asks. Reason and love will meet us on the other side of history. It must be.

The Meaning is the Question

[O]ne might refer without irony to man’s superior irrationality. Certainly human development exhibits a chronic disposition to error, mischief, disordered fantasy, hallucination, ‘original sin,’ and even socially organized and sanctified misbehavior, such as the practice of human sacrifice and legalized torture.
Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine (11)


I love that excerpt from Lewis Mumford’s Myth of the Machine because it appeals to our myopic sense of superiority and then makes plain that, truly, it is our irrationality with which we maintain a clear lead. As I always say, if you’re not laughing—it’s just fucking depressing. I am not suggesting that Mumford’s book is a laugh-riot, only that he does have a certain level of wryness which he employs to point out many ridiculous qualities of the culturally induced assumptions that we seem to hold dear about ourselves.

For man to feel belittled, as so many now do, by the vastness of the universe or the interminable corridors of time is precisely like his being frightened by his own shadow (33).

Why? Because “time,” as we understand it, is a human construction—the vast universe cares nothing about the particular matrix we use to describe time. But this misunderstanding of how we see ourselves in relation to all else is at the heart of Mumford’s thesis. The myth is that human beings are foremost toolmakers, and machine makers—that our tools describe us better than any other measure, and therefore our tools are our only means of progress.

In short, if technical proficiency alone were sufficient to identify and foster intelligence, man was for long a laggard, compared with many other species. The consequences of this perception should be plain: namely, there was nothing uniquely human in tool-making until it was modified by linguistic symbols, esthetic designs, and socially transmitted knowledge (5).

We are so inured in the idea that our tools have been the formative objects of our human development we can hardly see that tools are merely the formative objects our our human history. It’s simply the story as we tell it. Just think of how we define the ages: the stone age, bronze age and, iron age without ever taking into account the more ephemeral aspects of our history—the greatest of which must be language. And what of our imaginative minds? our playful (and ernest)curiosity? which are elements without which we can not even begin to explain ourselves.

[F]or ninety-five percent of man’s existence, as Forde points out, man was dependent upon food-gathering for his daily nourishment. Under these conditions his exceptional curiosity, his ingenuity, his facility in learning, his retentive memory, were put to work and tested. Constantly picking and choosing, identifying, sampling, and exploring, watching over his young and caring for his own kind—all this did more to develop human intelligence than any intermittent chipping of tools could have done (101).

This book was first published in 1967, and so there were times when I felt it was, of course, dated—there seems to me much more consensus on these ideas by this point in time. But it is still well worth the read because what Mumford does is alter the reader’s perspective, and then shows other possible explanations for rituals, social organization, and onto the “magamachines” (his term) which are “composed solely of human parts.” Meaning our long history of kingships, priesthoods and bureaucracies that make these human machines (slavery, feudalism, serfdom, slave minimum-wages, debt-based societies) a necessity for their own existence: “forced poverty made possible forced labor” (206). The ritualization and moralization of work have long held sway and are forces that, in many ways, describes capitalism.

In sum, where capitalism prospered, it established three main canons for successful economic enterprise: the calculation of quantity, the observation and regimentation of time (‘Time is Money’), and the concentration on abstract pecuniary rewards. Its ultimate values—Power, Profit, Prestige—derive from these sources and all of them can be traced back, under the flimsiest of disguises, to the Pyramid Age (279).

What happens if one acknowledges that there may be something built into the power structure that gives us a propensity to view ourselves as inherently selfish and warlike beings, and that that may in fact, and very likely is, simply untrue? What is not, and never will be dated about Mumford’s work is that one must always question. Question our beliefs, question authority, question! That is our human gift.

Is intelligence alone, however purified and decontaminated, an adequate agent for doing justice to the needs and purpose of life? (288)

The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development
Lewis Mumford
London, Secker & Warburg, 1966

The Paper of Housewives

Women create thread; they somehow pull it out of nowhere, just as they produce babies out of nowhere. The same image is latent in our own term lifespan. Span is from the verb spin.
Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, (238).


Textile from Mexico given to me by my grandmother

About a year ago I had the pleasure of attending a lecture given by Elizabeth Wayland Barber on the history of fabrics. I wrote down the title of one of the books she wrote (mostly because I loved the title—and the title’s sense of humor was very much in line with her personality which made for a wonderfully lively, fascinating, and fun lecture style). More than a year later, I finally got around to reading it.

If the productive labor of women is not to be lost to the society during childbearing years, the jobs regularly assigned to women must be carefully chosen (29).

Barber begins by working out what we are talking about when we use the term “women’s work.” She points to Judith Brown’s criteria in which women’s work must be suitable for the people that are bearing and tending to children (and there are no societies in which men take on the latter—the former being, obviously, unlikely). Therefore: “such activities have the following characteristics: they do not require rapt concentration and are relatively dull and repetitive; they are easily interruptible and easily resumed once interrupted; they do not place the child in potential danger; and they do not require the participant to range very far from home” (30). Spinning, weaving and sewing all fit nicely into this criteria.

Cloth survives poorly in most of Europe, subject to the destructive effects of alternating wet and dry weather; yet our surviving textiles from Neolithic are astonishingly ornate. Clearly these Neolithic women were investing large amounts of extra time into their textile work, far beyond pure utility, far beyond our concept of “subsistence level” (90).

This suggests that a reconsideration of our assumptions of what ‘level’ humans historically lived at needs to be reexamined, as well as the obvious (to me) fact that—human beings like making the useful beautiful. As I always say—art is the constant.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is that Barber herself weaves. This enables her to reconstruct ancient textiles so that the arm-chair archeologist’s assumptions about the level of sophistication of a given society are not only challenged, but disproven. Only a weaver would know what the warp and weft denote. Only a weaver would know that a given pattern makes no sense unless more than one color is being used—thereby pushing certain knowledge in the dying of fabrics to significantly earlier dates than had been thought.

By looking at murals, previously discarded archeological evidence of spindles, looms, weights and the odd scrap of fabric, as well as art, a tremendous fount of the previously silent or discarded history of women can be known.

Simply following the language trail reveals so much of how and when sewing and weaving skills emerged.

But it is Barber’s knowledge that exists in her hands, rather than her head that so greatly impressed me. Understanding what one is looking at—true understanding of the art involved is an enormous advantage. For instance, in regard to the historical ubiquity of “string skirts” which are used (Barber cogently conjectures) to signify a woman’s readiness for childbearing—and thereby again shows how the visual is used as a form of language, perhaps even a precursor to language—Barber notes that on a Paleolithic Venus figure the sculptor has rendered the string skirt as fraying out at the bottom into a “mass of untwisted fibers” which shows that in c. 20,000 BC certain knowledge of twisted fibers, and therefore knowledge of sewing, existed.

Barber weaves a wonderful history of textiles. A history that greatly contributes to one’s understanding of ancient societies, language, myth, culture, and art.

We women do not need to conjure a history for ourselves. Facts about women, their work, and their place in society in early times have survived in considerable quantity, if we know how to look for them” (300).

Knowing how to look at what is, as well as, significantly, what isn’t, is true scholarship.

*title from p 232

Salt of Words

The object in which power is inscribed, for all of human eternity, is language, or to be more precise, its necessary expression: the language we speak and write.”
—Roland Barthes, A Barthes Reader, edited by Susan Sontag. From the essay “Inaugural Lecture” (460).


Bons mots, bon app’!

I have been deeply engaged in reading as many books about the French Enlightenment figure: Denis Diderot as my wearied eyes can manage. I love the way his mind is organized around a passionate principle of discursive delights. I am planning on writing a short research paper about him, but I have gotten so involved in so many varied primary source essays, novels, and secondary source material— not to mention the impetus of my  fascination: l’Encyclopedie des Sciences— that I was complaining to a friend that I had read far too much to be able to write a mere 7-8 page paper. He suggested that I get some sort of learning disability dispensation stating that my inability to stop reading requires that I be allowed to write twice as much.

Worsening my condition, thanks to Diderot, I now have a new person of interest: Roland Barthes. I got the book A Barthes Reader because it had an essay about the plates of  l’Encyclopedie (the area I will try to narrow my focus upon), but was unable to rest until I had read all of the other varied and wonderful essays within and then, yes, request another book of his: A Lover’s Discourse (but how could I resist that title, I ask you?), possibly, I need help. But nevermind that–

The act of stating, by exposing the subject’s place and energy, even his deficiency (which is not his absence), focuses on the very reality of language, acknowledging that language is an immense halo of implications, of effects, of echoes, of turns, returns, and degrees. […] Writing makes knowledge festive (464).

In Roland Barthes’ essay “Inaugural Lecture,” which is a lecture that he gave upon the inauguration of his position as Chair of Literary Semiology for Collége de France, asserts that it is literature alone which can “understand speech outside the bounds of power” (462). He breaks his argument into three parts based on Greek concepts: Mathesis, Mimesis, and Semiosis. 

Mathesis, or acquisition of knowledge, of which literature is replete—this is not to say that literature is a manual from which one studies, nor is it an either/or proposition—simply, it is really something more: “science is crude, life is subtle” (463) and it is literature that negotiates that line. For Barthes it is significant that the French words (this essay was translated by Richard Howard) flavor and knowledge have the same root. Beautifully put:  literature is the “salt of words,” and it is this, this quality in literature, this “taste of words which makes knowledge profound, fecund” (465) that lifts the burden of acquiring knowledge.

For all knowledge, all sciences are present in the literary monument. Whereby we can say that literature, whatever the school in whose name it declares itself, is absolutely, categorically realist:  it is reality, i.e. the very spark of the real. Yet literature, in this truly encyclopedic respect, displaces the various kinds of knowledge, does not fix or fetishize any or them (463).

Mimesis is of course related to representation, “literature’s second force” (465).

The real is not representable, and it is because men ceaselessly try to represent it by words that there is a history of literature (465).

This is the aim of literature, this realism which the writer will persist “according to the truth of desire” (467) in demonstrating even though, as Barthes’ concedes, “literature is quite as stubbornly unrealistic; it considers sane its desire for the impossible” (466). But even at its most modernistic, literature is based in describing the real, that is what allows a reader to connect to the work.

[The semiology of the speaker] is not a hermeneutics: it paints more than it digs, via di porre rather than via de levare. Its objects of predilection are texts of the image-making process: narratives, images, portraits, expressions, idiolects, passions, structures which play simultaneously with an appearance of verisimilitude and with an uncertain truth (475).

Semiosis is then the effort to “elicit the real” (474). Barthes only concedes that semiotics has a relation to science, not that it is a science. It “helps the traveler” but is not a “grid” meant to make clear a “direct apprehension of the real” (474). It can’t possibly because  it is affixed to a moving target. Language is not static, nor apolitical, nor ahistorical: “I cannot function outside language, treating it as a target, and within language, treating it as a weapon” (473).

It is a fascinating and thought-provoking essay, and it is just one of many in the book. I knew I had to read them all when the premier essay was the very first one Barthes had ever published in 1942 on one of my favorites: André Gide. The penultimate essay described here is “Inaugural Lecture” and it stays with me. He recounts towards the end his experience of reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and how he was struck, powerfully, by the force of reading that historically removed novel about a disease which he himself had had and yet which was, because of modern treatment, a different disease than it had been in Mann’s time. This realization of a connection, through his body, of being linked to the past, was something he said he must forget so to be free for a vita nuova. He distilled his insight into his closing remarks which left me with chills:

There is an age at which we teach what we know. Then comes another age at which we teach what we do not know; this is called research. Now perhaps comes the age of another experience: that of unlearning, of yielding to the unforeseeable change which forgetting imposes on the sedimentation of the knowledges, cultures, and beliefs we have traversed. This experience has, I believe, an illustrious and outdated name, which I now simply venture to appropriate at the very crossroads of its etymology: Sapientia: no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom, and as much flavor as possible” (478).

God that’s lovely.

*French macarons with raspberry or chocolate hazelnut filling.

Vita Activa

If it were true that sovereignty and freedom are the same, then indeed no man could be free, because sovereignty, the ideal of uncompromising self-sufficiency and mastership, is contradictory to the very condition of plurality. No man can be sovereign because not one man, but men, inhabit the earth 
—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (234)


I took my twelve-year-old son to a college lecture last week called Creatures Who Create: Should We Bring Back Lost Species? given by Bruce Jennings the Director of Bioethics For Humans and Nature. He began the talk with a quote from Hannah Arendt. As it turns out it was from her book The Human Condition—a book that has been on what I call my “bbq” (beckoning books queue) for over a year. So it seemed time to read it.

To live an entirely private life means above all to be deprived of the reality that comes from being seen and heard by others, to be deprived of an “objective” relationship with them that comes from being related to and separated from them through the intermediary of a common world of things, to be deprived of the possibility of achieving something more permanent than life itself (58).

Divided into five major parts: The Public and Private Realm, Labor, Work, Action, and The Vita Activa and the Modern Age, Arendt gives a deeply thoughtful and historical account of the permeating modern angst of alienation. I could hardly do it justice to it in this format—even pulling quotes seems a bit violent to the content. Overwhelmingly, though, I feel that quickening— my perspective, my ability to contemplate the nature of our “condition” has been cracked open that much more. An intellectual expansion brought about by respect for her method of inquiry, as well her sensitivity to her subject.

Man cannot be free if he does not know that he is subject to necessity, because his freedom is always won in his never wholly successful attempts to liberate himself from necessity (121).

This false expectation of ever being free of labor which is a necessary child of necessity is key to Arendt’s thesis and a fascinating entré into how work differs from labor and ultimately how labor has been subsumed in our culture into a cult of productivity instead of a healthier recognition of  labor’s true status as a cycle, an unceasing necessity, as well as an appreciation of product-less work which has a permanence and immortality which humans need to feel connected to life.

Works of art are the most intensely worldly of all tangible things[…] they are not subject to the use of living creatures, a use which, indeed […] can only destroy them. […] It is as though worldly stability had become transparent in the permanence of art, so that a premonition of immortality, not the immortality of the soul or life but of something immortal achieved by mortal hands, has become tangibly present, to shine and to be seen, to sound and to be heard, to speak and to be read” (167-8).

There is so much in the book my head is still in a stupor of reader’s gluttony. When my son and I left the lecture I asked him what he thought of it. Being a little contrarian, he said he had understood nothing. But as we discussed the topic I pointed out to him that his opinion of the matter aligned very nicely with what the speaker had presented. Yes, he was forced to admit, he had understood and thought about plenty. I told him even if 40 minutes of the 60 minute lecture was impenetrable to him I was not concerned, boredom is a good and profitable condition as far as intellectual and creative stimulation are concerned, and the 20 minutes that sunk in gave us an evening’s worth of contemplation together, and lifetime’s worth individually.

As Arendt points out, all action stems from contemplation and the lack of contemplation when considering actions which inevitably, indeed— ALWAYS have unforeseen consequences  is a vastly underused skill in our culture. We are all thrown into this world and we must, and can, forgive the others thrown-in before us for their actions which led to what looks like an environmental catastrophe in the making. That does not mean that we should withdraw into isolation, or give up on the only thing that gives our lives meaning—each other. We must profoundly, prudently, and compassionately contemplate the decisions that we make which impact our selves (which is always a plurality), our planetary cohabitants, and our world. And then we must act.

Compassion’s Hero

“This world is no place of rest,” Thomas Dent Mütter taught his students. “It is no place of rest, I repeat, but for effort. Steady, continuous undeviating effort.” 
— Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels (Mütter quoted, 301).

I am grateful

I remain grateful

The story of Thomas Mütter’s life as told by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz in Dr. Mütter’s Marvels, is one of compassion, intelligence and restless improvement. 19th century surgery was not for the faint of heart: neither for surgeon, patient nor reader!  And yet, what I remain in awe of is the human capacity to endure. It should be said that I write that as someone who knows excruciating and sustained pain. After all I have experienced natural childbirth in which the average length of my labors was around 27 hours (with my third child seriously undercutting the average by coming in at an “easy” ten hours—perhaps easy only to my mind by sheer comparison, but still, I remain ever so grateful).

So, I do know—one does what one must do. Yet still, it astounds me— the surgeries that men, women, and children endured; often without so much as a sip of wine.

“However, his declaration, that a surgeon would be ‘without pity,‘ is most fallacious, ” he told them firmly, “for surely there is no other profession, in the performance of the duties of which such frequent and urgent appeals are made to our sympathy, and he must be more than man—or worse than brute—who can contemplate unmoved, the agony and torture to which his patients are so often subjected.
No, gentlemen, I would say to you,
cultivate your sympathy, but learn to control it…” (237)

Thomas Mütter was, unfortunately, the rare man that let his humanity rule his morals. At a time when so many doctors treated patients as mere case studies, he treated them as brothers and sisters, no matter who they were in society’s eyes, no matter how monstrous their appearance. Perhaps due to his own status as an outsider, orphaned at a young age, alone in the classist world of 17th century Philadelphia, and suffering from his own life-long infirmities, his true empathy and kindness to his fellow human beings, whom he strove to help both physically and psychically, was in fact remarkable.

It is rather the sweetness of his character which I love most to recall; the kindness of his heart, which seldom allowed, even towards his enemies, an act of retaliation to escape him, and I believe his colleagues, in musing over his name, will have their feelings mellowed by a similar sort of retrospection” (Joseph Pancoast quoted 294).

So Pancoast, a fellow professor and doctor at Jefferson Medical College in Pennsylvania,  eulogized Mütter. But who were these said “enemies?” Incredibly, they were fellow practitioners who refused to accept the evidence of commutative diseases, (fifty years before germ theory, yes, but come on! deduction, dear Watson—the evidence, as some clearly saw and reported was apparent!), or who saw pain as some sort of divine retribution and so eschewed anesthesia—after just reading  some of the horrific yet amazing life saving and life-altering surgeries (Mütter was at the fore-front of what today is called cosmetic surgery: repairing cleft palates, restoring movement and normalcy to severe burn victims, inventing the eponymous ‘Mütter flap’ which enabled successful skin transplants, etcetera) it is difficult, in hindsight, to understand the reluctance, inertia of the status quo and arrogant hubris which compelled these men to prefer to see their patients in incomprehensible pain. The ubiquitous ability to divorce oneself from simple empathy can boggle and depress the mind. I need hardly mention the fact that a doctor could witness a surgery in which a woman who had sustained hideous burn injuries and then CHOSE (in order to once again be able to move her head or close her mouth) to undergo  restorative surgery in which she was essentially flayed while awake, sitting up and held down by a few men with barely a moan! barely a moan! that some of these same doctors could have the blinding audacity to declare women too weak to endure the rigors of being doctors themselves. It not only defies but enrages logic.

And yet, thanks to the sweet sun of each new day, we seem, ever so slowly to progress. Between all my children (mostly boys), I having naturally spent my fair share of hours in emergency rooms and I deeply appreciate the advances medicine has made and continues to make. We, as a species, are so fortunate to have among us compassionate and gifted people who labor ceaselessly for the greater good and who appreciate that the patient is somebody’s child, somebody’s parent. But I don’t think I am being cynical to wonder if a man like Edward Robinson Squibb (student of Mütter) who invented a way to make ether safe and then gave that discovery away for free to the world, would have any place in the corporation Bristol Myers Squibb that follows him.

I can’t help feeling that it is a shame on us all that such men are so remarkable. One can only hope for a day when Mütter’s ethic of compassion and progress is the norm. As a bit of history of the art of medicinal sciences, Aptowicz tells a fascinating and moving tale while also making plain that a man such as Thomas Mütter needs to be remembered, admired, and emulated. In the meantime, we endure.

Polysyllabic Sesquipedalianisms (and other annoyances)

These subtle but prized typographic conventions find themselves under threat from the wretched “hyphen-minus,” an interloper introduced to the dash’s delicate habitat in the late nineteenth century. Too crowded to accommodate the typewriter keyboard required a compromise; the jack-of-all-trades hyphen-minus was the result, and its privileged position at the fingertips of typists everywhere has led to it impersonating dashes and hyphens alike with alarming frequency. In print and online, the well-set dash is an endangered species (146).
~ Keith Houston, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks

IMG_2591Keith Houston’s book Shady Characters is a sheer guilty pleasure of a read. I know people get very precious about their punctuation, but I am not one of them. I am far too flawed to get caught up judging others by their adherence or lack-thereof in regard to an elusive ideal of punctuation. Particularly as such a thing, of course, does not exists. Yes, we have meandering conventions (that differ by country). And, largely thanks to the printing press and the limitations of the keyboard, there is some agreement now-a-days, but as Houston’s romp through the history of punctuation attests, it has not always been thus.

We can lament the hyphen-minus, but for most, just getting to the em dash (shift/option/hyphen on a mac) is asking a lot. One would have to have been berated by a passionate letterpress professor to make the effort. And I have. So I (mostly. often enough) do. But do I care if others properly use an en, or em dash without mixing it up with a hyphen or, heaven forfend, a hyphen-minus? When all is said and done, it is an aesthetic visual experience to read…after a while one feels sorry for the pedant and annoying grammaphiles that sniffily insist there is only one “right” way to do things. After all, before the age of the printing press, and long after, people just winged it. Sure, there were attempts to codify, but really, when it comes to reading one always has to adjust to a writer’s style and, flexible creatures that we are—WE DO! Clarity is the only important thing and once one gets into a writer’s way of writing, there is no crisis. Well, for the most part:

In the eighth century the first chinks of light appeared in the claustrophobic  scripto continua that had dominated writing for a millenium. English and Irish priests, in an attempt to help reader decipher texts written in unfamiliar Latin, began to add spaces between words (13).

Okay, I will admit—that helped things enormously. Still, overwhelmingly, for me, the history of the how and why of our modern punctuation is fascinating and diverting fun. While the struggles with the hyphen and dash are directly related to the problems of the printer trying to justify his text, it is simply good fun to be aware of the different symbols and uses, and there is an elegance to the “well-set dash.”

The history of the pilcrow is a beautiful example of the metamorphose and efficiency of the nature of language. What started as a K to signify kaput, meaning head (of a section), in Latin is capitulum. The pilcrow, which some will recognize as that backwards P denoting paragraph, is really an elaborate C for capitulum, while the word itself, pilcrow, has its etymological roots in paragraph. As Houston describes it, the symbol become such a popular device in manuscripts that it effectually “committed typographical suicide” (16). In the production of manuscripts there were several distinct stages and persons whom performed the stages. A scribe would write all of the words but would leave spaces for the rubricator (in red ink) to add the versals and other notations, such as the pilcrow. As the pilcrow increased in popularity the rubricators couldn’t keep up. They simply ran out of time and began to leave some of them blank. When printing took over there was an earnest attempt to mimic manuscripts, when confronted with an un-rubricated space, they simply left it blank too. And there you have the blank indentation which denotes, for all of us, a paragraph.

The ampersand is another wonderful tale and its long lost brother, the Tironian et, equally so. We are inundated with text around the clock, a book such as Houston’s illuminates the long arm of our written history with all of its successes and failures (sarcasm punctuation anyone? Anyone at all? sigh. Apparently not). When one sees how capricious a history it is the hubris of the grammar snob is deflated just a bit. No good comes of static standardization after all, it’s unnatural.

*title from p. 130: the undesirability of long words undermining the typesetter’s ability to justify text easily, hence the promiscuous use, in incunabula (early printed books) works, of hyphens.




Enemy of Oblivion

Nicholas Basbanes’ book On Paper: The Everything of its Two-Thousand Year History is written, he adds on the cover, “by a Self-Confessed Bibliophiliac.” As I practically medicate myself with books, a dear friend of mine pretty easily surmised I would enjoy this one and sent it to me.


I have a particular weakness for books that take on seemingly mundane topics and then show them to be a fascinating and vibrant thread of history. Basbanes’ book goes far beyond that. What begins as a comprehensive history of the origin of paper becomes far more profound. Because paper is such a unique material in myriad ways, On Paper is a series of mini-histories of ridiculously wide scope. It couldn’t be any other way. In fact, the overwhelming impression one is left with after reading this book is that Basbanes could have taken the subject on from an innumerable amount of other angles and still, one would only have a peek at the awing influence, beauty and importance of paper.

Once paper took hold (particularly in the Western world) there was no turning back. Demand forced innovation or unsavory accommodations: while it was still made with rags, the materials to make it seriously outstripped people’s ability to come up with raw/used materials. In fact, Basbanes writes that in England a law was enacted that forbade bodies being buried in clothing made of anything except wool to help ease the shortages (63).

Papermakers were in high demand as well: from being excused from military service during America’s Revolutionary war (85) to a hilarious (to me) account of 14th century German, Ulman Stromer, who was seriously vexed by the Italian brothers he had hired, over their “quite disobedient”  preference to import more of their paesans rather than install a third water wheel to increase productivity.

Stromer had the men arrested and locked “in a small room” for four days, whereupon they acceded to his demands (60).

The alchemy of paper making is a marvelous thing: the special way that cellulose bonds together is what gives it all of its essential qualities: thinness, flexibility, and durability to name the obvious ones. It was in René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur book, History of Wasps  that wood was first suggested as an alternative to rags after the naturalist observed the nests of wasps cleverly made from their chewed-wood slurry. The intersection of science and paper, (not only in paper’s development but in its use both direct and oblique) starts to send chills down a person’s spine.

From dollar bills to toilet paper, before one even begins to worry about the fate of books, Basbanes’ reader is made aware of the probable permanence of paper in our lives.  But maybe we shouldn’t worry: after all, books and toilet paper have a long history together as well:

“I knew of a gentleman who was so good a manager of his time the he would not even lose that small portion of it which the call of nature obliged him to pass,” Lord Chesterfield wrote in the 1747 letter, [to his illegitimate son] noting that whenever his acquaintance found himself so indisposed, he seized the opportunity to read through all the Latin poets. “He bought, for example, a common edition of Horace, of which he tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first and then sent them down as sacrifice to Cloacina,” a reference to the goddess in Roman mythology who presided over the Cloaca Maxima, or “Great Drain,” which served as the main trunk of the sewer system in Rome. “I recommend that you follow his example. It is better than only doing what you can’t help doing at those moments and it will make any book which you shall read in that manner, very present to you mind” (124).

Indeed! Paper—good for hygiene and intellect. It’s influence can not be understated.  The very stirrings of revolutions, from the stamp act in America, to the tallow-dipped rifle cartridges stoking India’s fight for freedom from England, (the Hindu and Muslim soldiers wouldn’t countenance tearing the paper carriages with their mouths, as instructed by their religiously insensitive superiors) are wrapped up in paper.  All that we love, like poetry, plays, love letters and art as well as all that we hate: red tape or the “Little White Slaver” as Henry Ford called cigarettes (which also may have their origin, during the Crimean War, in rifles as well— as a way to efficiently use up leftover tobacco from cigars in the paper used in gun cartridges) make use of this remarkable ubiquitous stuff. Paper looms large and little over our lives.  But I must admit my love of paper can be turned cold at the thought of red tape…

During pharaonic times […] by sacred tradition, bureaucratic processes extended even to the afterlife, with the deceased required to present written statements of vindication on the day of final judgement (187).

Oh please no.

Basbanes keeps up a steady stream of priceless documents and contributions of artists, inventors, politicians, musicians, and obviously writers: Leonardo, Edison, Beethoven, Shakespeare, to name a few. And it is not just the historical importance of these figures that make their documents so valuable. In many cases the notes and bits of ephemera that have made it through time’s ravages reveal an almost endless amount of information about how these people thought, worked, developed, and created their works. Engineering, public planning, psychological implications, deception, and communication of both the living and dead…the list goes on. How we continue to archive, store and organize these papers is under Basbanes’ examination as well. Not to mention—paper’s future.

Going far beyond paper’s inherent artistic merit, as well as its vocational merit as a transmitter of ideas and information, Basbanes ends his enthralling book on an extremely poignant and moving note. Paper, it would seem, has a mysterious quality in which it utterly embeds our humanity, in all its stupidity and gloriousness, right into its very fibers.

*Title from: Sixth century Roman statesman and writer Cassiodorus words in praise of papyrus (9).

Good Luck to the Reader!

Should history tell of good men and their good estate, the thoughtful listener is spurred on to imitate the good; should it record the evil ends of wicked men, no less effectually the devout and earnest listener or reader is kindled to eschew what is harmful and perverse, and himself with greater care pursue those things which he has learned to be good and pleasing in the sight of God.
Bede’s preface to The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (3)


One of the most interesting aspect, for me, of Bede’s history was the amount of enjoyment I got from reading it despite its rather obvious propagandist leanings. There is something very likable in the man. His effort to make such an early historical record of England is, really, immeasurably worthy. And anyone who begins two out the five parts with an exhortation of “good luck to the reader!” is a friend of mine. That said…

But I neither praise nor approve of him in so far as he did not observe Easter at the proper time (137).

There were aspects that sent me deep into thought and bemused contemplation over the extent to which ‘rules’ and arbitrary customs take over in the determination of someone’s worth or belonging. I had no idea for instance that the question of Easter’s ‘proper’ date was so controversial. The preceding sentences to the one I quote above outlined Bishop Aidan’s copious recommendations. The man could not have been a finer human being as far as Bede tells us, and yet, and yet, Bede will withhold praise of his character over the agreement of a moveable feast?! That seems incomprehensibly pedantic.  Worse still because at this time there was open discussion regarding the co-opting of pagan festivals as a way to ease heathens into the ways of the church. Perhaps this merely exposes my own discomfort with the ‘letter’ over the ‘spirit’ that prevails in so many dogmas. But this is the stuff of strife. Viewed objectively,  it’s ridiculous, yet deadly.

Nevertheless, Bede spends so much time on this argument that I became fascinated by it. The problem seems to turn on the confusion of calendars (Julian v Gregorian) further complicated by astronomical science which makes following the stars too precise to rely (as the Jews apparently did) on the full moon to mark things properly. Some factions wanted to stick with the Jewish method, but again, this was explained as a temporary device by John the Baptist to ease potential followers of Christ (who were of course mostly Jewish at that time and place) into the fold gently. Wikipedia has a very handy chart that helpfully displays the resulting discrepancies:

Table of dates of Easter 2001–2021
(In Gregorian dates)
Year Spring
Full Moon
2001 8 April 15 April 15 April 15 April 8 April
2002 28 March 31 March 31 March 5 May 28 March
2003 16 April 20 April 20 April 27 April 17 April
2004 5 April 11 April 11 April 11 April 6 April
2005 25 March 27 March 27 March 1 May 24 April
2006 13 April 16 April 16 April 23 April 13 April
2007 2 April 8 April 8 April 8 April 3 April
2008 21 March 23 March 23 March 27 April 20 April
2009 9 April 12 April 12 April 19 April 9 April
2010 30 March 4 April 4 April 4 April 30 March
2011 18 April 24 April 24 April 24 April 19 April
2012 6 April 8 April 8 April 15 April 7 April
2013 27 March 31 March 31 March 5 May 26 March
2014 15 April 20 April 20 April 20 April 15 April
2015 4 April 5 April 5 April 12 April 4 April
2016 23 March 27 March 27 March 1 May 23 April
2017 11 April 16 April 16 April 16 April 11 April
2018 31 March 1 April 1 April 8 April 31 March
2019 21 March 24 March 21 April 28 April 20 April
2020 8 April 12 April 12 April 19 April 9 April
2021 28 March 4 April 4 April 2 May 28 March

At any rate, after much debate and detailed, repetitious explanation of the errors of everyone’s ways but the Church (as defined by St. Paul’s Rome) they come to agreement and can get onto other important matters such as the proper shape of a tonsure. I had to suppress many an urge to exclaim, “ah, come on fellas!” But my ire rose when matters moved to women…oh lord how it does gets old. I’m not even going to get started, but I will say this: I simply don’t understand the obsession with virgins. I also gave up trying to figure out if this bit from Chapter X. On marriage (182) means what I think it means:

Let none be guilty of incest, and let none leave his wife except for fornication


Huh. Okay then. I decided to re-direct. Yes, focus on the good. The notes by Judith McClure and Roger Collins are wonderfully droll in their polite but insisting correction. Something in the tone of their consul to “resist the temptation” to draw such-and-such a conclusion, or correct an “erroneous interpretation,” or “false impressions” given by Bede, left me smiling. My favorite may be when Bede’s phrase “an adequate number of followers” was dismissed with, “that’s a little weak.” It actually became fun to guess whether or not an endnote would be a benign expansion of information or a hilariously understated correction of a gaping error.

Errors aside, the greater difficulty is always in dealing with those who are assured they possess certainty.  This week (and it is hardly a unique week in human history) the events in Paris rear the ugly head of doctrine. It doesn’t matter to me that one can argue some are better than others. So long as one is fixed in their precious beliefs, real communication and peace are in serious doubt. Without the intellectual freedom to agree, disagree, or metanoia, we are all in danger. Perhaps that is why I was most deeply moved by this short speech by AEthelbert, king of Kent to Augustine and St. Gregory upon their efforts to convert him:

“The words and the promises you bring are fair enough, but because they are new to us and doubtful, I cannot consent to accept them and forsake those beliefs which I and the whole English race have held so long. But as you have come on a long pilgrimage and are anxious, I perceive, to share with us things which you believe to be true and good, we do not wish to do you harm; on the contrary, we will receive you hospitably and provide what is necessary for your support; nor do we forbid you to win all you can to your faith and religion by your preaching” (40).

Reasonableness itself. Would all of humankind were so civilized.

*photo of purse cover from Sutton Hoo

Drinking the Stars

“We can’t always be unlucky, in my experience. And so, my dear friend: courage, patience, and resignation” (Barbe-Nicole Clicquot quoted 117).
Tilar J. Mazze, The Widow Clicquot 


A few years ago when I was in the restaurant business I had the pleasure of attending a champagne tasting hosted by Veuve Clicquot. A champagne tasting! Hosted by The Widow! It was quite a treat.  The gentleman who led the event was one of the nine vintors that was employed by the company. He delighted our taste buds with comparative joys and regaled us with tales of the company’s history while mentioning  a book that had been written about the widow Clicquot. The book has remained in my memories until recently when I finally requested it from my library.

“Come quickly! I am drinking the stars!”  (apocryphal quote of Dom Pérignon 31) 

“I am drinking the stars” – oh, how lovely, gee I hope he said it!  The account of the history of “the devil’s wine,” (as was dubbed by those, like Pérignon, who was actually enlisted to rid the wine of the damnable bubbles that erupted in the processing) is a fascinating story on both historical and technical grounds.

The  champagne that François and Barbe-Nicole tasted wouldn’t have been a pretty blond color, either. We would probably describe it as rosé. The finest wines from the region were a brownish pink. In fact, one of the earliest uses of the word champagne as a color described it not as the pale golden straw hues of the twentieth century, but as “a faint reddish colour like Champagne wine” (26).

In these very early days of champagne production, (to which we have the English, rather than the French, to thank for its earliest appreciation) Barbe-Nicole Clicquot and her husband began their company. But before it was even establish, M. Clicquot died. The story of how the twenty-seven year old widow carried on and audaciously made the company what it is, as well, along the way, inventing techniques to improve the production and quality, is quite remarkable.

In the end I did find the book to be somewhat wanting. It is unfortunate that there is a dearth of emotional content to fill out the sketch of this remarkable woman but I became impatient with the attempts to fill in or speculate as to what Clicquot (or anyone else) may or may not have been seeing, thinking or feeling at any given time–I can’t help feeling that this would have made an excellent article for the New Yorker rather than a full length book. Nevertheless, it remains a fascinating and delicious bit of history. Yes, we are drinking the stars!

*Photo from a delightful pin-up calendar of harvesters and  winemakers: http://punchdrink.com/articles/behold-a-calendar-of-nude-french-wine-harvesters/