Sunday, August 29, 2010

Browne miscellanea



In addition to the major works of Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82), namely Religio Medici, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, the 1658 two-in-one Discourses, 'Urn-Burial' and 'The Garden of Cyrus' and the posthumously published 'Christian Morals', there are a number of minor and miscellaneous writings by Browne.

Foremost amongst his minor writings are the 12 miscellaneous tracts. Topics as diverse as botany in the Bible, the Saxon language, ancient earthworks, a Nostradamus-like prophecy on the world's future including interesting conjectures upon America and a Museum inventory of lost and imaginary books, pictures and objects, constitute the bulk of the 12 miscellaneous tracts available on-line. However, to mark the occasion of my 100th post coinciding with my 1000th visitor since installing a counter 14 weeks ago, I thought it an original notion to take a quick look at Browne's miscellaneous writings and make available a few snippets previously unavailable online.

The collected miscellaneous writings of Sir Thomas Browne are a detailed portrait of the learned physician and his many hobbies and interests; they also give a unique insight into life in 17th century Norwich and Norfolk. Browne's notes on the Natural History of Norfolk in particular remains a valuable and fascinating record. Reprinted as a separate volume in 1905, it was considered worthy of study by the renowned Naturalist Ted Ellis. Browne's descriptions of rural Norfolk in the 17th century read as a much wilder habitat, densely populated with all manner of bird-life. His occasional usage of the phrase 'Broad waters', from where the very term 'Norfolk Broads' originates is of particular note.

Browne describes Norfolk bird-life and his witnessing of bird behaviour against a predator thus-

Teale, Querquedula, wherein scarce any place more abounding. The condition of the country & the very many decoys, especially between Norwich and the sea, making this place very much to abound in wilde fowle..........Divers sorts of Eagles come over & are seen in the winter, & especially such as pray upon fowle in broad waters & marshes.......Fulicae cottae, cootes, in very great flocks upon the broad waters. Upon the appearance of a Kite or buzzard I have seen them unite from all parts of the shoare in strange numbers, when if the Kite stoopes neare them they will fling up and spread such a flash of water up with their wings that they will endanger the Kite, & so keepe him of agayne & agayne in open opposition;

Although Falconry terms are alluded to in Religio Medici (Part 1 :10) and there is a short tract on Falconry among the miscellaneous tracts (tract 5), the question as to how much Browne was a keen bird-fancier and a participant in the gentleman's sport of hawking is made clearer through a perusal of the miscellaneous writings.

Some fenne Eagles shott in the wing, I have known kept a year or 2 after & fed with guts, fish herrings, or any offell; very tame and inoffensive. An Aquila Gesneri, or of the great sort, was given me in this countrie which I kept 2 years feeding it only with cats, puppes, and rats, without any water all that time. I offered it a gentleman to make a flight at the Bustard, butt it succeeded not. It was presented at last to the College of Physitians at London, where it perished in the common fire.

Far from being a puritan in his tastes, Browne was in fact inclined towards epicurianism in his dining habits. In an age of few pleasures its amusing to read in his Notes on the cookery of the Ancients

I wish we knew more clearly the aids of the ancients, their sauces, flavours, digestives, tasties, slices, cold meats, and all kinds of pickles. Yet I do not in dining know whether they would have surpassed salted sturgeons’ eggs, anchovy sauce, or our royal pickles.


Suspicions upon Browne's gourmet tendencies are confirmed in this commonplace notebook entry -

Take a Legge of mutton, roast it gently & slash it that the gravie may come out & so agayne till it will runne: then take the gravie & lett it seperate the fat by cooling, then put thereto a quarter of a nuttmegge, a small sprigge of Rosmarie, & a little Thmye: set it upon a gentle fire and add unto it 2 spoonfulls of claret & a little salt. You may if you please beat up the yelke of an egge therewith & take x or xii spoonfulls. 2 neat pickles may bee contrived, the one of oysters stewed in their owne liquor with Thyme, Lemon pill... olive, onyon, mace, pepper; adding Rhenish wine, elder vinegar, 3 or 4 pickle cowcumbers. Another with equall parts of the liquor of oysters & the liquor that runs from herings newly salted, with the former Ingredients, adding upon occasion, dissolving anchovie therein, or pickling therin a few smelts, or Garlick, especially the seeds thereof. High esteem was made of Garum by the ancients, & was used in sawces, puddings, &c. If simply made with Aromatic mixture, as is delivered, it cannot butt have an ungrateful smell, however a haut goust & appetisant tange, for it was the liquore or the resolution of the gutts of fishes, salt and insolated. This way may bee tried by us yeerly, & is still continued in Turkey. And may bee made out of the entralls of mackarel, the liquor that runs from the herings, wh. may dissolve Anchovies other Apnia's, & with mixture of oysters & Limpetts & testaceous fishes,....whereof every one makes his one pickle varieth the taste of sea water. The neatest way is to have pickles always readie, wherein wee may make additions at pleasure, or use them simply in sawces. The ancients loaded their pickles with cummin seed & the like, distasteful unto our senses.

The meticulous attention to detailed description in Browne's cookery notes is equally evident in his 'elaboratory' operations. Indeed some alchemists even likened the art of alchemy to cookery. I've often wondered just what kind of evidence those who refute the claim that Browne was an alchemist need to alter their misconception. Not only is alchemy discussed in Religio Medici, but many esoteric authors are listed as once in his library. There's also the fact that the 1658 Discourses are constructed upon esoteric schemata, skillfully employing highly-original symbolism of considerable psychological depth; as well as his recording of many experiments in his 'elaboratory', as evidence to reflect upon. If the preceding facts and the following passage does not convince skeptics, nothing will !

Take 2 ounces of purified sylver and with twice or thrice as much of the best aqua fortis dissolve it in a boltshead. Then poure your solution into a glassse body covered with his Alembick, and so upon sand drawe of about half the humidity of the Aq. fortis. Let your vessells coole, and you will find you have obtained a substance somewhat like salt, which putt into as good a crucible as you can gett, lett your fire bee gentle at the beginning least your matter boyle over; and so encrease it by degrees till it commeth to bubble, and looke like an oyle at the bottome of your cruicible. Then you may pour it out into such a pot as is used for Regulus antimonii or any other as you shall thinck more convienient. This is the sylver caustick.

Although he heartily recommended William Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood to his disciple Henry Power, and is credited in the OED for introducing words such as 'medical' 'pathology' and 'hallucination' into the English language, Browne also entertained some ideas on medicine which are nowadays considered bizarre by modern sensibilities! In fact, Browne's medical credentials, like his scientific credentials are Janus-like and float between the rational, modern world and the older, esoteric tradition of correspondences and amulets.Here's his medical recommendation for gout, a common consequence for members of the English gentry who lived a leisurely life with a rich diet.

If you have a mind to proceed farther, you may trie amulets & transplantation: may trie the magnified amulet in Muffetus of spiders leggs worne in a peece of deeres skinne, or tortoyses or froggs leggs cutt of alive and wrapt up in the skinne of a kid: may give pultisses taken from the affected part of a dogge & lett a whelp lay in the bed with you. And may also consider the Sigill of Paracelsus.

A great deal of original eye-witness material upon the social life of Norwich can be found in Browne's miscellaneous writings, especially in his letters and note-books. Always interested in the human aspect, in particular the unusual element, a short note exists on a 'binge-drinking' session in seventeenth century Norwich. With the preciseness of a reporter and without any moralizing on the matter, doctor Browne writes with evident interest -

Rob. Hutchinson at the Wheatsheaf in St. Peters in Norwich dranck a gallon of Brandie burnt & sweetend in the month of June 1675 in the space of 14 howers. Hee drank it hot, fell into a fever & complained of an extra-ordinarie burning in his stomack, butt recovered in 7 dayes, with a great loathing for Brandie after. He is aged 56. Another man who drank with him dranck also a gallon of burnt brandie for his share & road home into the countrie after it, and seemed not to suffer any more then a burning heat in his stomack for some days. Hee dranck a good quantitie of beere after hee made an end of his gallon of brandie.

And finally just occasionally, whenever the demands of his profession abated, his duties as head of a large household eased and upon completion of religious worship and prayer, Browne somehow found time to jot down the odd philosophical aphorism, some of which were later embedded into his literary works. These little-known aphorisms are an assortment of curious psychological self-portraits, occasional prophetic remarks, witty aesthetic judgments and tiny gems of wisdom. Such examples include-

* I attained my purpose and came to reach this port by a bare wind, much labour, great paynes and little assistance.

* I cannot fancy unto myself a more acceptable representation or state of things then if I could see all my best friends, and worthy acquaintance of fourtie yearres last past, upon the stage of the world at one time.

* Hee that found out the line of the middle motion of the planets holds an higher mansion in my thoughts then hee that discovered the Indies, and Ptolomie that sawe no farther then the feet of the Centaur, then hee that hath beheld the snake of the southern pole.

* The rationall discoverie of things transcends their simple detections whose inventions are often casuall & secondaries unto intention.
Many things are casually or frequently superadded unto the best authors & the lines of many made to contain that advantageous sense which they never intended.

* In a peece of myne published long ago the learned Annotator/commentator hath paralleled many passages with other of Mountaignes essays, whereas to deale clearly, when I penned that peece I had never read 3 leaves of that Author & scarce more ever since.

The whole art of blogging may be justified by a single sentence entry from Browne's commonplace notebooks; in a maxim later woven into the rich tapestry of Christian Morals, a non-stop compendium of aphorisms and advice upon how to live a virtuous life, the worthy physician declares-

* If the substantial subject be well forged out, we need not examine the sparks, which irregularly fly from it.


The Magic Christian


Last night I watched Joseph MacGrath's adaption of Terry Southern's 1960 novel 'The Magic Christian' (1969). Call me culturally biased but it seems to me that this British production of a Southern novel is a slightly more sympathetic adaption than 'Candy'. Nevertheless like 'Candy' it was creaky and badly-outdated viewing in places, even with the author writing the screen-play. The film has a song written especially for it by Paul MacCartney, with the band Badfinger performing 'Come and get it', as well as a number of cameo appearances, including British comedians, Graham Garden, Spike Milligan and John Cleese.

By far the highlight of the film and the funniest sequences occur aboard S.S. Magic Christian, a luxury cruiser including Yul Brynner in glamorous drag and boa-feathers crooning 'Mad about the Boy' to a shy Roman Polanski, a rampaging escaped King Kong gorilla, Dracula in the form of Christopher Lee frightening passengers, a genial but drunken Captain at the helm of S.S Magic Christian (Wilfred Hyde White) which is motored by galley-mistress Raquel Welch wearing a fur bikini and cracking a whip on topless female rowers; I lost count of how many celebrities make a fleeting cameo appearance in this film.

The message that, 'Everyone has their price' by the multi-millionaire Sir Guy Grand, acted by Peter Sellers, to his adopted son Ringo Starr, is demonstrated throughout the film, sometimes with funny consequences. The film's conclusion which highlights Sir Guy Grand's message, is a scene which shows that people will do anything, no matter how degrading to acquire money, even climbing into a large vat of vile fluids to collect bank-notes scattered in it. In essence, Terry Southern's black satire is an acerbic indictment  which satirizes the effects of amoral consumer capitalism upon ethics and morality.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Sunflower


I'm not a very green-fingered person so I was well pleased that at least one seed from the packet flowered! Poets seem to be inspired by Sunflowers, often favouring the wilting, withered kind. The American poet Allen Ginsburg (1926-97) in his 'Sunflower Sutra' 1955 was inspired by the Sunflower to write-

Look up at the Sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust....
A perfect beauty of a sunflower! A perfect excellent lovely sunflower existence!

The British Liverpudlian poet Brian Patten (b.1946) in a first-line entitled poem from the collection 'Vanishing Trick' 1976 wrote of sunflowers

You missed the sunflowers at their height
Came back when they were bent and worn
And the gnats, half-froze, fell one by one
Into the last of the sprawling marigolds.

Floating somewhere between meticulous 'occular observation' and 'cosmic awe', Sir Thomas Browne in his Discourse 'The Garden of Cyrus' notes-

A like ordination there is in the favaginous Sockets, and Lozenge seeds of the noble flower of the Sunne. Wherein in Lozenge figured boxes nature shuts up the seeds, and balsame which is about them. - Chapter 3

It cannot be a coincidence that the Sunflower is featured in the Discourse, 'The Garden of Cyrus',  as symbolically it's the Solar half of the 1658 literary diptych. The pattern enclosed within the seed-structure of the Sunflower-head is a fine example of 'how nature geometrizeth' and exemplary of the 'Quincunciall Lozenge' pattern as illustrated in the Discourse's frontispiece.



1658 Frontispiece to The Garden of Cyrus

The pattern of seeds in the Sunflower is also a good example of the Fibonacci sequence of numbers in Nature. The Fibonacci number sequence, a mathematical progression can be detected in many works of nature. The spiral structure of the Pineapple and Pine-cone also have the Fibonacci numbers in their structure. They too are noted in 'Cyrus'. Browne's own highly symbolic number, the number five is included as part of the Fibonacci sequence - 0 - 1- 1- 2- 3- 5- 8- 13- 21 - 34 - 55

Fibonacci pattern in Sunflower head

There's a big difference between the first photo at the top and the bottom photo's posted. Taken within a few minutes of each other , one against a background of sky, the other in a dark corner, reveals the strong effect that bright light and shade has upon colours.


Ginseng


It's often imagined that the use of the root plant Ginseng in 'complementary' or 'alternative' medicine is a relatively new phenomenon, but in fact the trade and medical use of Ginseng has a long history.

There are several claims surrounding the discovery and trade of Ginseng in North America. One source states that it was found growing in Quebec in 1716 by Father Lofitau, a Jesuit Missionary to the Iroquois Indians. Another source claims that American settlers discovered Ginseng in New England in the mid 1700’s. It is known for certain however that by the late 1700's the trade in the shipment of Ginseng from America to China made considerable profit.

Perhaps because the fleshy Ginseng root is shaped resembling the body and limbs of a human, all manner of medical and 'all-healing' properties have been attributed to it. It is scientifically recognised for its anti-carcinogenic and antioxidant properties. Widely cultivated in China for centuries Ginseng is used in Chinese medicine as a muscle relaxant. As early as the 17th century one English doctor noted of Ginseng -

Deare Sonne, - You did well to observe Ginseng. All exotick rarities, especially of the east, the East India trade having encreased, are brought in England, and the profitt made therof. Of this plant Kircherus writeth in his China illustrata, pag. 178, cap. "De Exoticis China plantis".

This extremely early reference to Ginseng, highlights the deep similarity of mind shared by both seventeenth century scholars. Sir Thomas Browne established a European reputation for himself as a scientist, botanist, archaeologist and commentator upon comparative religion with the publication of his encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-76); a work which also frequently cites, 'that eminent example of industrious Learning, Kircherus'.

The various scholastic commendations applied to Kircher as "the last Renaissance man" (Edward W. Schmidt), "a giant among seventeenth-century scholars", "one of the last thinkers who could rightfully claim all knowledge as his domain" (Alan Cutler); and perhaps most aptly of all, 'the supreme representative of Hermeticism within post-Reformation Europe' are equally applicable of Kircher's follower, Sir Thomas Browne of Norwich. As to whether either Kircher or Browne actually ever acquired or ingested Ginseng, it is not known, perhaps not!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Candy



These days I often purchase books from Charity shops enjoying finding random literature to read. Terry Southern's 'Candy' (1958) was one such book. Hailed as the 'first and best of our new wave of American writers, defining the cutting edge of black comedy' (Joseph Heller), Terry Southern's 'Candy' is a parody of Voltaire's 'Candide'. It's a satirical story of a big-hearted blonde who finds her affectionate nature invariably exploited. Candy's adventure to find the meaning of life discovers that American society is obsessed with sex and that every man she so innocently encounters only wants to have sex with her!

Well-written snappy dialogue, quite funny and playful in its depiction of sex, it's hard to believe that in England a book as tame as D.H.Lawrence's 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' with its occasional vulgar word was the test-case for the Obscene publications Act of 1959, while in America, 'Candy' a non-stop erotic comedy which borders on pornography at times, could be published with little public concern. It does get a little tiresome to read the phrase 'clitoral stimulation' over and over again, as if a naughty school-boy is writing, but then for 1958 that is quite a daring phrase. Ten years after its publication a film of the book was made which quite frankly must be one of the biggest turkey's of all time. Luckily a friend's phone-call interrupted my viewing a hammy performance by Richard Burton, a mere 17 minutes into the film. I simply could not return to watch further cringe-worthy performances by the likes of Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau and Ringo Starr.

Early in his career Southern seems to have met and been revered by nearly everyone associated with the 'Counter-Culture'. In Greenwich Village he associated with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Living in Paris he heard musicians such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis perform. He also met leading French intellectuals Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. In London he befriended the painter Francis Bacon, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, appearing on the cover of 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart Club' album in sun-glasses.

Interspersed in Terry Southern's life (1924-1995) one of promise, disappointment, unsuccessful projects and an increasing reliance upon amphetamine pills, are several note-worthy screen-plays for 'cult' films. His career as a screen-writer developed when the maverick actor Peter Seller's gave a copy of his favourite book, Southern's 'The Magic Christian' to the film-director Stanley Kubrick to read. Terry Southern's screen-plays includes the films Doctor Strangelove (1964), Barbarella (1967), Easy Rider (1968) and the film of his novel 'The Magic Christian' (1969) which like Candy was written ten years earlier.

'The Magic Christian' is the vehicle for some of Southern's blackest humour in which he demonstrates that people will do anything, absolutely anything to acquire money. The writer Hunter S. Thompson said of the novel , 'I started reading The Magic Christian and I thought I was going to go insane... it was an incredible influence on me.' The film of 'The Magic Christian' (1969) is not a complete turkey but episodic and uneven with many cameo appearances including Roman Polanski, Yul Brynner, Raquel Welch as well as British comedians, John Cleese, Grahame Chapman and Spike Milligan.

Terry Southern's life, like so many artists associated with the 'Counter-culture' was cut short prematurely through his heavy drinking and drug-abuse. His black humour and sly surreal perspective upon American society and its values has many imitators but he was one of the first American 'counter-culture' writers to gain fame and notoriety. His influence endures.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Peruvian Bark


Because throughout history to the present-day malaria is a world-wide killer of thousand of lives, the discovery of Peruvian Bark is a well-documented chapter in the history of medicine. The ability of bark from the cinchona tree to combat the symptoms of malaria, its eventual synthesizing as Quinine, and its subsequent world-wide usage is a vast subject. However one small footnote on Peruvian Bark in the history of British medicine may yet be added.

The discovery of Peruvian Bark's medicinal properties is attributed to several people. The Jesuit priest Agostino Salumbrino (1561–1642) who had trained as an apothecary is credited as among the first to observe that the indigenous Quechua or Inca people used a diffusion of the bark from the cinchona tree to alleviate the symptoms of malaria. Indeed the original Inca word for the cinchona tree bark, 'quina' or 'quina-quina' roughly translates as 'bark of bark' or 'holy bark'. It's also recorded that in 1638, the countess of Chinchon, the wife of a Peruvian viceroy used the bark of the cinchona tree to relieve the fever-induced shivering symptoms experienced during the onset of malaria to remedy a 'miracle cure'.

While its effect in treating malaria and also malaria-induced shivering was unrelated to its effect to control shivering from rigors, Peruvian Bark was nevertheless hailed as a successful medicine for malaria. Modern science has detected that the bark of the cinchona tree contains a variety of alkaloids, including the anti-malarial compound quinine which interferes with the reproduction of malaria-causing protozoa, and also quinidine, an antiarrhythmic.

It was the Renaissance maverick alchemist Paracelsus who first urged the physician to examine and analyse substances from the vegetable, mineral and animal kingdoms in search of new medicines. By the seventeenth century with the colonization of South America by the Spanish and Portuguese, as well as migration to North America, an abundance of published reports upon the flora and fauna of the American continent became available to the physician. Foremost amongst such reports were those of the Jesuit missionaries who collected facts on all manner of botanical, geographical and social phenomena they encountered in their imperial-orientated colonization; including the discovery of the Cinchona tree's medical properties. For these reasons Peruvian Bark was also widely-known as 'Jesuits' powder'.

In 1658 the English weekly Mercurius Politicus announced that: 'The excellent powder known by the name of 'Jesuits' powder' may be obtained from several London chemists'. However Peruvian Bark did not achieve full official approval and was not entered into the British Pharmacopoeia until 1677. This was mostly due to religious prejudices. Because it was known as 'Jesuits' Powder' it was associated with Catholicism. Even seemingly well-educated persons such as King Charles II, who took an active interest in the scientific inquiries of his age, sanctioning approval for the Royal Society was wary of 'Jesuit's Powder' because of its presumed association with Catholicism. However when suffering from malarial fever Charles II consulted Mr Robert Talbor, who had found fame for his miraculous cure of malaria. Talbor was obliged to give the King the bitter bark decoction in great secrecy. The treatment completely relieved the King from malarial fever and he rewarded Talbor with a life-times membership of the prestigious Royal College of Physicians.

Incidentally its alleged that Oliver Cromwell died of Malaria, refusing Jesuit's Powder as a remedy, simply because of his hatred of Catholicism! But as autopsy's were inaccurate in the seventeenth century, this allegation may simply be nothing more than Royalist propaganda enhancing the virtue of 'progressive monarchy' in contrast to the anti-monarchist Republic which was established by Cromwell.

Many physicians throughout England in the seventeenth century were interested in reports of the healing qualities of Peruvian Bark, in particular those who lived in regions prone to the spread of malaria; East Anglia with its many marshes, broads and Fens; geographic areas whose large tracts of low-laying land and many slow-flowing or stagnant stretches of water were ideal for the spread of the insect-borne virus. In correspondence dated 1667 to his youngest son, Dr. Thomas Browne of Norwich requested-

When you are at Cales, see if you can get a box of the Jesuits' powder at easier rate, and bring it in the bark, not in powder.

Its suggestive from this letter in his request to his son to obtain Jesuits' powder from a Continental source and not from London, that Dr.Browne may have been wary  the thriving trade in Peruvian Bark could be vulnerable to dilution by apothecaries. Its also evident from his preference to obtain it from a continental source and insistence on  bark and not powder that he was well-familiar with Peruvian Bark's composition.

Incidentally, it was for the entertainment and education of his youngest son Thomas that Sir Thomas Browne penned the Latin work Nauchmachia, a descriptive account of a Sea-battle in antiquity. Tragically however, young Midshipman Thomas was listed as lost at sea, presumed dead shortly after receiving this letter, he was most probably a  fatality in the Anglo-Dutch naval-battle of Lowestoft in 1665.

But by far the most detailed document in British medical history of a physician's assessment of Peruvian Bark occurs in an undated and untitled note concerning the Cortex Peruvianus or Quinana Peruve by Dr.Browne.

I am not fearful of any bad effect from it nor have I observed any that I could clearly derive from that as a true cause: it doth not so much good as I could wish or others expect, but I can lay no harm unto its charge, and I have known it taken twenty times in the course of a quartan. In such agues, especially illegitimate ones, many have died though they have taken it, but far more who have not made use of it, and therefore what ever bad conclusions such agues have I cannot satisfy myself that they owe their evil unto such medicines, but rather unto inward tumours inflammations or atonie of parts contracted from the distemper.   Source: Brit. Mus. Sloane MS 1895
 
Because the above statement is undated with no addressee, there's no evidence for who, where or when Dr. Browne penned his assessment of Peruvian Bark. One would like to imagine that it was an assessment made for the benefit of King Charles II who had met and knighted Browne in 1671. It could theoretically have been surreptitiously passed onto Charles II via Browne's eldest son Edward who resided in London, had access to the Royal Court and was later President of the Royal College of Physicians. But it could as easily have been written for the benefit of any enquiring member of the gentry. In any case it demonstrates that not only was Dr. Browne well informed of the latest medical discoveries, even aware of excessive and 'illegitimate' usage of 'Jesuits' Powder', but was also able to independently assess such discoveries.
Flower of Chinchona pubescens

Friday, August 13, 2010

Pears

Ripening Pears first appear in late summer only to disappear early winter.

The current World recession has resulted in economic hardship and unemployment for many. However, the suffering engendered by natural disasters such as the Haiti earthquake earlier this year, the floods in Pakistan and China in which millions of people face enormous challenges of survival are quite simply beyond the imagination and endurance of much of Western society. Such natural disasters firmly place mere economic hardship into perspective.

One wonders how many individuals in Western society who continue to enjoy a comfortable life-style could ever begin to cope with the suffering faced by those experiencing natural disaster. And yet our comfortable life-styles are often maintained by exploitation, inflicting great suffering upon innocent fellow humans, even if geographically remote, in the form of Warfare, military occupation of land and unfair trading conditions.

The Renaissance physician and alchemist Paracelsus possessed a deep insight into human nature. He was not only a radical doctor but also a theologian as profound as Luther; even though much of his writings remain untranslated from an obsolete Middle German dialect; nevertheless Paracelsus made important observations upon human nature worthy of contemplation.

The following quotation is exemplary of Biblical and alchemical notions of the trial of metals being likened to the testing of the human soul.

It is in extremis, things reveal their nature and become visible; then we can say: he is an upright man, a steadfast man, he manifests his inner being.....One man reveals more traits of loyalty and less of disloyalty; one man is to a large extent this, another man that. Therefore we should keep an eye on the outward characteristics which nature gives a man by shaping him in a certain way. For nature shapes the anatomy of a pear in such a way that the pear develops into a pear tree; and she creates a medlar's anatomy, in such a way that it develops into a medlar bush; and the same is true of silver and of gold. Nature also forges man, now a gold man, now a silver man, now a fig man, now a bean man.



Quotation from -Parcelsus Selected Writings ed. Jolande Jacobi Princeton Uni. Press 1951

The Kingdom of this World



I've just finished reading the El reino de este mundo, 'The Kingdom of this World' (1949) by Alejo Carpentier. Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980) was a Cuban writer and musicologist who lived in Europe from 1928-38. He returned to Cuba in 1939 to marry but disliking its political atmosphere choose to live in Venezuela instead. However, when the Cuban revolution occurred in 1959 he returned to become Vice-President of the National Council of Culture, Professor of the History of Culture and eventually Director of the Cuban State publishing House.Carpentier's novella (112 pp.) is set in Haiti at the end of the eighteenth century. It describes the events in which African slaves fought French colonists for their freedom and human rights to establish a short-lived Black Republic. It's written from the perspective of the protagonist Ti Noel, a black slave who witnesses the events in Haiti first-hand.

Although Haiti achieved independence in 1804, the protagonist Ti Noel realizes that the newly-formed Republic is in some ways even worse than colonial rule, 'for the colonists... had at least been careful not to kill their slaves, for dead slaves were money out of their pockets'. Whereas in the new Black Republic the death of a slave is seen as an easily replaceable commodity, the high-birth rate ensuring a constant supply of new slaves. Thus as it ever was, the cry to defeat tyranny with freedom is replaced by the new ruling elite's justification of a new form of tyranny.

Alejo Carpentier's left-wing viewpoint on the human condition argues that-

...a man never knows for whom he suffers and hopes. He suffers and hopes and toils for people he will never know, and for who, in turn, will suffer and hope and toil for others who will not be happy either, for man always seeks a happiness far beyond that which is meted out to him. But man's greatness consists in the very fact of wanting to be better than what he is. In laying duties upon himself. In the Kingdom of Heaven there is no grandeur to be won, inasmuch as there all is an established hierarchy, the unknown is revealed, existence is infinite, there is no possibility of sacrifice, all is rest and joy. For this reason, bowed down by suffering and duties, beautiful in the midst of his misery, capable of loving in the face of afflictions and trials, man finds his greatness, his fullest measure, only in the Kingdom of This World.

Carpentier is credited with coining the term lo real maravilloso (roughly the "marvelous reality") in the prologue to 'The Kingdom of this World' and the novella is often cited as one of the very earliest examples of the genre of 'magic realism', in which reality and elements of fantasy are mixed to produce a cocktail of highly imaginative literature. Carpentier's familiarity with the Surrealist movement while living in Paris, his admiration of the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, his left-wing politics, interest in Voodoo and ethnicity, all amalgamate in 'The Kingdom of this World' to produce what is seen by many as one of the earliest examples of 'magical realism' writing.
The Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges is credited as one of the key innovators of 'magic realism' writing in which aspects of reality are blurred with magical elements. The Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel 'One hundred years of solitude' (1967) is also often cited as a seminal example of this genre. However, although 'magic realism' is frequently associated with the literature of South America, the human imagination transcends national boundaries.

Other novelists who have utilized elements of 'magic realism' in their writing include (and this inventory is far from inclusive) the Australian novelist Peter Carey's 'Illywhacker' (1985), Salman Rushdie's 'The Satanic Verses' (1988), Patrick Suskind's 'Perfume' (1985), Gunther Grass' 'The Tin Drum'(1959) and not least, the supreme worlk of Russian magical realism, if not the 20th century, Mikhail Bulgakov's 'The Master Margarita' (1940).

But in fact the employment of 'magical' or 'fantastic' elements in modern Literature, in particular English Literature can be traced as far back as Jonathan Swift's' 'Gulliver's Travels' (1735). 'Fantastic' or fantasy elements pervade English literary works, especially literature loved by children and adults alike, including Lewis Carroll's 'Alice in Wonderland' (1865), and Kenneth Grahame's 'The Wind in the Willows' (1908) .

Personally, dare I propose it, one of the greatest of all 'magical realism' writings is by an author whom Jorge Borges was a great admirer of, Sir Thomas Browne's 'The Garden of Cyrus' (1658). As T. S. Eliot long ago realized, 'Mankind cannot bear very much reality'.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Bus in a Hole



1988 - A surprise stop for the passengers of the number 26.
No-one was hurt.


Perhaps I should not have mentioned the other day that geologically Norfolk is predominantly composed of chalk, (Aug 7th post) because a new hole has now appeared in a Norwich road some 9 feet deep! Memories from 1988 when a double-Decker bus fell into a hole have now resurfaced. This world-famous image of an extraordinary event is well worth seeing again aS visible proof that living in Norwich can sometimes be exciting!

Norwich in fact  is renowned for having subsidence problems. Not only does it have many chalk mines, but also a network of tunnels underneath its streets and buildings, including more undercrofts than any other UK city.

It's possible that the chalk mines of Norwich date from as early as the 11th Century. Chalk was mined underneath the City and extracted in great quantities to burn into lime for mortar. Flint was also mined and used as stone for building. Mining tunnels known to exist under medieval Norwich can be found between 12 and 90 feet under the surface . They vary in size from 6 to 16 feet in height and from 6 to 12 feet in width . These tunnels and mines are often arranged in a grid-like pattern. City engineers have to regularly inspect these tunnels in order to determine their condition and to prevent any further collapses.

The most investigated system of these tunnels is a 1600-feet-square grid maze of tunnels beneath Earlham Road. It was re-discovered in 1823; coloured lights were fitted and some of the large passageways were given attractive names such as Beehive Lane, Bacchus Street and Royal Arch. They were once a popular attraction for tourists and local courting couples to wander through.

A full history and record of the extensive underground passages, undercrofts and mines in Norwich has yet to be written.



Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Supper at Emmaeus






Here's another painting Sir Thomas Browne may have once viewed. 'The Supper at Emmaus' by Cornelis Engelsz (1575-1650).

Its a painting which is a great example of the Dutch 'Golden Age', combining two of the most popular of all Dutch genres, Biblical scenes combined with still-life. The detail of the various supper items depicted in the foreground, bread, fish and meat is exceptionally realistic. The central message of the picture is in the stark contrast between the very public, lavish and earthy supper in the foreground, to the private, frugal and heavenly supper depicted in the dimly-lit background. The Resurrected Christ, having broken bread has just revealed his identity to two of his disciples. (Luke 24 verses 13-35).

'The Supper at Emmaeus' (1612) was owned by the lawyer and MP Nathaniel Bacon (1550 - 1622) who was knighted in 1604. He was the uncle of Nicolas Bacon (1623-1666) also of Gillingham Hall. As Browne was a friend and visitor of Nicolas, even dedicating his Discourse 'The Garden of Cyrus' to him. it's highly possible he could have viewed this painting when visiting Gillingham Hall. The painting was subsequently purchased from the Bacon family by Norwich Castle Museum in 2004.

Hydrangea


Hydrangea thrive upon chalky soil of which there's plenty throughout the low-laying county of Norfolk.

The large hydrangea shrub in my garden is certainly over thirty years old, maybe as old as my plum and pear tree, planted when the houses and gardens of Woodlands Estate were first established early in the 1950's. I personally associate the large flowering heads with happy summer days spent with my grandmother as a child.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines hydrangea as - a shrub with flowering heads of white, blue or pink florets, native to Asia and America. Origin, mod. L. from Gk hudro -'water' + angeion 'vessel' (from the cup shape of its seed capsules).

Monday, August 02, 2010

Oscar and Lucinda


Last night I watched the film 'Oscar and Lucinda' (1997) directed by Gillian Armstrong. Set in the middle of the 19th century, it's the story of Oscar (Ralph Fiennes) the son of strict Plymouth Brethren parents and Lucinda (Cate Blanchett) an independent-minded Australian entrepreneur.

When attending Oxford reading theology, Oscar is introduced to the joys of gambling, specifically horse-racing. Frequently lucky and believing himself to be inspired by divine providence, the bumbling and socially-inept Oscar persists in donating his winnings to the poor. Meanwhile Lucinda discovers a passion for glass and purchases a Glass-works with an inheritance. Oscar and Lucinda first meet aboard a ship bound for Australia. The pretext for their meeting is ostensibly for the purpose for Lucinda's confessional, Oscar having recently been ordained and emigrating. The pair soon become friends with a shared passion for card-playing. Oscar's justification for gambling is that of the famous wager of Pascal which argues that all Christians are gambling their souls in hope of God's existence, love and redemption.

Without wanting to post spoilers, the crux of the romantic drama concerns a wager between Oscar and Lucinda of their respective inheritances, that Oscar can transport a glass Church from Sydney to Bellingen on the North-west coast of New South Wales, a journey which involves the crossing of no less than six rivers and hazardous terrain.

Based upon the Peter Carey novel which won the 1988 Booker prize, 'Oscar and Lucinda' is a film which established Cate Blanchett's acting career. The other notable star of this film is, as with 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' (Dir. Peter Weir 1975), the stunning Australian scenery. 'Oscar and Lucinda' also highlights the basic living conditions of the early Australian colonists.

The residue of Protestant ethics continues to associate gambling as a sin, even among those whose morality is no longer determined by Christian ethics whatsoever. This is primarily due to the fact that during the 18th century a day at the races spent gambling was viewed as a threat to the established social order. A Lord attending Newmarket races could by the day's end be a pauper and a pauper could acquire the wealth equivalent to a Lord. Primarily for this reason alone, the notion of acquiring wealth without industriousness, circumventing the Protestant work-ethic, preachers railed from the pulpit against the 'sin' of gambling. And to be fair, there is a scene in the film which highlights the very worst consequence of ruination from gambling, namely, suicide. However, as Oscar fully realises, many aspects of life and love are in fact far from being certainties, but very uncertain gambles in most lives.

At the present time of writing the author Peter Carey, who has won the Booker prize twice, is priced at 5-1 to win the Booker again, with the Greek-Australian Christos Tsiolkas, author of 'The Slap', priced at a 9-1. Personally, I'm considering having a small bet that Carey wins the Booker Prize for an unprecedented third time. Just don't put your shirt on it !