Earth Fables

. . . mountains can be annihilated, land can be conveyed from place to place, peaks raised and lowered, and even more things can occur which at first we would be inclined to regard as fables.

Georgius Agricola (Georg Bauer), “Father of Mineralogy.” [seen in Canada Rocks]

Georgius Agricola (1494-1555) is best known for his monumental De Re Metallica (On the Nature of Metals/Minerals), published in 1556. [Interestingly, the 1912 English translation was produced by (future) President and Mrs. Hoover.] Agricola applied scientific logic to the study of minerals and mining, and this resulted in a comprehensive understanding of minerals, mining, and even some basic geologic principles that were previously unknown. He was the first scientist to differentiate between igneous and sedimentary rocks, and as the quote above shows, understood that rocks that appear stationary and eternal are actually moving and changing all the time. He was also a physician and was very concerned about the health of mine workers. He advocated an 8-hour working day, opposed slavery, and was also a supporter of social programs for the poor. He was so far ahead of his time that De Re Metallica was the standard text on the subject for at least two centuries. Georgius Agricola was a remarkable man.

De Re Metallica, Book V
This figure from Book V of De Re Metallica shows a woodworker shredding sticks so they can catch fire easily in damp conditions, and a miner lighting a fire to heat a vein and running away from the noxious fumes.

Daphne and Marcela

Today, while listening to Richard Strauss’ opera Daphne and reading some explanation in my mythology text, I noticed some similarities between her and Marcela from Don Quixote. Daphne is (or was) such a well-known tale that it could have been the inspiration for Marcela. You decide:

Companion of Diana, [Daphne]’s joy was in the depths of the forests and the spoils of the chase; a headband kept her flowing hair in place. Many suitors courted her, while she cared not for love or marriage; a virgin she roamed the pathless woods. Her father often said, “My daughter, you owe me a son-in-law and grandchildren”; she, hating the marriage torch as if it were a disgrace, blushed and embraced her father saying, “Allow me, dearest father, always to be a virgin. Jupiter granted this to Diana.” [Her father] Peneus granted her prayer; but Daphne’s beauty allowed her not to be as she desired and her loveliness ran counter to her wish.”

—Ovid, Metamorphoses

To make a long story short, Apollo, after being struck by Cupid’s arrow, chased after her and to escape, Daphne asked her father to turn her into a laurel tree, which he did. Thereafter, the laurel was always sacred to Apollo and became the symbol of victory. I wonder if this was part of the reason why Cervantes had Marcela, the shepherdess, escape into a forest? Perhaps he also took the theme of unwanted beauty from Daphne.

As for Strauss, I wonder if he borrowed from Cervantes when he had Daphne chased by two shepherds, one real (though he later dresses as a woman to get close to Daphne), the other Apollo disguised as a shepherd (also to get close to Daphne). Interestingly, in Ovid’s account, Apollo tries to convince Daphne with, “Yet consider who loves you; I am not a mountain peasant; I am not an uncouth shepherd who watches here his flocks and herds.”

Whatever their relations, I enjoy seeing these stories and works of art intertwine. Here is one more branch in Daphne’s tree:

Bernini's Apollo and Daphne
Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, Borghese Gallery

Amadís de Gaula

In honour of Don Quixote I thought I’d post some pages from a 1526 edition of Amadís de Gaula, Quixote’s greatest role model. The website is Portuguese, and the text is in (16th century) Spanish, but the printing and illustrations alone are beautiful to look at. Enchanting, no?

Amadís de Gaula

Addendum: If you go to the website and click on a page image it will open a new tab with a higher resolution image that you can zoom in on with your browser (IE7 has zooming built in; I’m not sure about Firefox).

The Shepherdess and her Sheep

Tilting at WindmillsCross-posted from Tilting at Windmills

“I was born free, and in order to live free I chose the solitude of the countryside.”

I loved the chapters in Don Quixote about Marcela the “shepherdess” and all the heart-broken “shepherds” who chased her in vain. Then, as now, people couldn’t believe that a woman, especially a beautiful woman, would choose a life of her own instead of marriage. Judging by the fools who wooed her, I’m not in the least surprised at her choice! These well-to-do, supposedly intelligent men, students at university at Salamanca, traded their academic’s robes for shepherd’s clothes as soon as they caught sight of Marcela tending her flock. Were they were attracted more by her beauty or her wealth? Certainly they felt entitled to a shot at both, and were deeply offended (apparently to the point of death for one of them) when she refused them all. If she is such a prize, she must be won by someone, right? No, she insisted on belonging only to herself, and this threw the social order into disorder and madness, bringing much opprobrium upon herself as a result.

If you read my last post on mimetic desire you probably picked up on that dynamic here. First Grisóstomo imitates Marcela by dressing as a shepherd. But what sets him off? He begins to desire after inheriting the second-largest estate in the vicinity—Marcela’s is the only one larger. He must marry her if he wants to be top dog, so he gives chase. All the other bachelors no doubt see that by wooing Marcela they can overleap Grisóstomo in status, so they imitate him with enthusiasm. The chances that any of them really care or desire Marcela for herself are minute, and she seems to know it. She has no intention of becoming a trophy wife and greatly prefers “the solitude of the countryside” and “the honest conversation of the shepherdesses” to the finery and flattery of society. The fact that the spurned “shepherds” malign her completes the mimetic triangle—the struggle between rivals often ends in the destruction of the object of desire, which reveals the false nature of that desire. Though the shepherds don’t threaten Marcela physically, they do their best to destroy her reputation and go so far as to accuse her of murder.

The comic finale to the section is when Don Quixote threatens anyone who would dare to follow her, and then proceeds to follow her himself, supposedly to offer his assistance to that damsel in distress. As I read in later chapters, his devotion to Dulcinea can lapse at convenient moments, so I have no doubt that his intentions were no more honourable than those of the “shepherds.” (There is much that could be said on the topic of virtue in this book.) Luckily Marcela manages to give him the slip, and Don Quixote’s “adventures” continue, as before, with another bruising.

Don Quixote: Part One of the First Part

Tilting at WindmillsCross-posted from Tilting at Windmills.

The subtitle of this post is suitably absurd for an absurd tale of a humble nobleman who is driven mad by books of chivalry and decides to become a knight errant. But is it an absurd tale? Eight chapters into it and I’m certain that this amusing story has a thoroughly serious undercurrent below the surface (and marvellous) slapstick and satire. Don Quixote’s indefatigable imitation of fictional knights has set of all my René Girard alarms ringing: If this isn’t an exposé of mimetic desire, I don’t know what is!

René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire states that our desires are not our own but are imitated in an effort to acquire the sense of identity we perceive in the model(s) for our desire. Don Quixote imitates the actions of those whom he perceives as valiant and virtuous in hopes of feeling the way he supposes they must feel, that is, like a valiant and virtuous man. The fact that these men are fictitious is irrelevant because if everyone is imitating other people’s desires, there is no authentic identity to imitate in anyone anyway. We might as well imitate characters in a book or (for us) actors on the screen.

Mimetic desire is spoken of as a contagion, spreading from person to person, which is evident in chapter 6, when Don Quixote’s library is subjected to an inquisition by his associates. They subtly influence and parrot each other (“His niece said the same” “‘That’s what I say too'”) in blaming the books for Don Quixote’s madness, even though it is evident that the barber and priest, at least, have read them all, without apparent harm.

That chapter also beautifully illustrates the arbitrary nature of scapegoating. When mimetic desire leads to competition for the thing desired, it can cause either the chaotic violence of all-against-all, or it can coalesce into the scapegoating violence of all-against-one. The byproduct of scapegoating violence is a profound sense of solidarity, and humans quickly learn to resort to scapegoating whenever some crisis threatens the social order. In this case, it is Don Quixote’s books, which no sensible person would think are the cause of his madness, that are chosen as convenient culprits and subjected to an imitation Inquisition. Here is also another case of mad mimesis, as the priest mimics his superiors in trying and sentencing books to immolation, imprisonment, or even purging with herbs, as if they were human beings. Again, it doesn’t matter that the books are not people because scapegoating is not about the victim but about the social cohesion brought about by the victim’s “death,” whether ritual or actual.

I think we must be careful not to sit back and laugh at these characters. We are by no means exempt from mimetic desire and scapegoating violence, and this book, like all great art, is a mirror showing us ourselves, not a telescope showing us some far away place that doesn’t concern us. Don Quixote is us, and we are mad insofar as we live our lives by imitating imitators.

What impresses me about this book so far is that it works on so many levels. Yes there is a deep level of anthropological insight, but also scathing satire on various subjects (about which much could be said), and a wonderfully written humorous story to move things along. I’ve been told that this is what makes a work truly great. If you want a ripping yarn, its there, if you want philosophizing on the human condition, it’s there too, along with a few juicy jabs at king, country, and fellow writers too. It’s early days yet but I think it’s safe to say that Don Quixote is a crowd-pleaser.

For more on mimetic desire see Wikipedia (brief), Search.com (long), or the first chapter [pdf, very long, bring a dictionary] of Chris Fleming’s René Girard: Violence and Mimesis.

Don Quixote: Getting Started: Prologue

Tilting at WindmillsCross-posted from Tilting at Windmills

I thought I’d get the ball rolling by posting my thoughts on the Prologue to the first book of Don Quixote. I must say I was very impressed by how much business Cervantes took care of in these casual few pages. Using the conceit of advice from a “friend,” he is able to state his purpose (”an invective against books of chivalry”), expose the fraudulent means by which authors give the appearance of weight to their works (sonnets, allusions, quotations, annotations), and he introduces us to the main characters, Don Quixote (who is described as if entirely real) and Sancho Panza (who is described as if entirely fictional). The latter point interests me because I gathered from Bloom’s introduction that it is Quixote who is out of touch with reality and Panza who is the more grounded one. I also wonder if the Latin quotations which are supposedly given off-hand will be relevant later on? Considering how much work the rest of the Prologue does, we might do well to keep an eye on them.

I especially love how Cervantes addresses his audience: “Idle reader.” Perhaps he was poking fun at the hidalgos, the lower nobility who abhorred gainful employment as beneath them, no matter how poor they were. Because of that non-work ethic, Spain lacked a productive industrial economy, its agriculture was backward, and monarchs had to declare bankruptcy repeatedly. If it weren’t for the influx of New World gold and silver, Spain might have been a primitive backwater instead of the dominant force in Europe. Some in Spain, called the arbitristas(”projectors”) were aware of this and tried to advise reforms, but the monarchs were more interested in fighting wars.

As I said, I was very impressed by the Prologue. At the risk of sounding Bloom-ish, I think we are in for a work of genius here.

Luminarium, where have you been all my blog-life?

How is it that I’ve been blogging about classic literature for two years and haven’t run across Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature? Do roll your mouse over that link to get a taste of the gorgeousness of this site. It is not only a beautiful website but a comprehensive one, with texts, essays, biographies, and resources for scores of great English writers from the 14th to 18th centuries.

Luminarium is the creation of Anniina Jokinen, who, in 1996 (which she calls the “Internet Dark Ages”), saw a need to gather together online resources on English literature and so she went ahead and did it. Her Letter from the Editor describes that as it has grown in popularity (now at 10 million page views per month!) she has had offers that would turn the site into a paid service, but for the sake of starving students everywhere she has opted to continue as a volunteer, supporting the site with unobtrusive Google ads and book and poster affiliates. Jokinen has received many (many) awards for her site’s content and design, but I think she also deserves one for generosity.

via Don’t Point That Thing At Me

Romeo and Juliet: Hormones and Happenstance

I had no idea Romeo and Juliet was so raunchy! Shakespeare’s vast vocabulary was apparently not deficient in the area of human anatomy. All the skewering of young Montagues and Capulets seems to be their way of burning off hormonal urgings.

Gregory: The quarrel is between our masters and us their men
Samson: ‘Tis all one. I will show myself a tyrant: when I have fought with the men I will be civil with the maids—I will cut off their heads.
Gregory: The head of the maids?
Samson: Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads, take it in what sense thou wilt.
Gregory: They must take it in sense that feel it.
Samson: Me they shall feel while I am able to stand, and ’tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh.

Uh huh. Moving right along… The feud between the Montagues and Capulets is not explained (as far as I could tell) and judging by the readiness of each side to fight over the slightest slight (funny how Shakespeare gets into you) the cause of the feud was no doubt just as trivial. The results, however were not: a grand total of six noble Veronans had “aspired the clouds” by play’s end.

I’ve only read through the play once so I can’t really comment intelligently on it, but I will say that it was a bit of a slog at first but got much easier as I went along. The rhymes and jokes and other verbal gymnastics were very enjoyable and judiciously used. Here’s a taste of Juliet’s sharp tongue as she is accosted by her intended, Count Paris at the Friary:

Paris: Happily met, my lady and my wife.
Juliet: That may be, sir, when I may be a wife.
Paris: That ‘may be’ must be, love, on Thursday next.
Juliet: What must be shall be.
Friar Laurence: That’s a certain text.
Paris: Come you to make confession to this father?
Juliet: To answer that, I should confess toyou.
Paris: Do not deny to him that you love me.
Juliet: I will confess to you that I love him.
Paris: So will ye, I am sure, that you love me.
Juliet: If I do so, it will be of more price,
             Being spoke behind your back, than to your face.
Paris: Poor soul, thy face is much abused with tears.
Juliet: The tears have got small victory by that,
             For it was bad enough before their spite.
Paris: Thou wrong’st it more than tears with that report.
Juliet: That is no slander, sir, which is a truth,
             And what I spake, I spake it to my face.
Paris: Thy face is mine, and thou has slandered it.
Juliet: It may be so, for it is not mine own.—
              Are you at leisure, holy father, now,
             or shall I come to you at evening mass?

Poor dear, the friar could save her from marriage with the courtly Paris but they both ended up littering the floor of the Capulet tomb. O me!

Friar Laurence, Herbalist

I’m a sucker for any praise of plants:

Friar Laurence, alone, with a basket:
Now, ere the sun advance his burning eye   
The day to cheer and night’s dank dew to dry,
I must up-fill this osier cage of ours   
With baleful weeds and precious-juiced flowers.   
The earth that’s nature’s mother is her tomb;   
What is her burying grave, that is her womb,
And from her womb children of divers kind   
We sucking on her natural bosom find,   
Many for many virtues excellent,   
None but for some, and yet all different.
O mickle is the powerful grace that lies   
In plants, herbs, stones, and their true qualities,
For nought so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give;
Nor aught so good but strained from that fair use,
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.
Virtue itself turns vice being misapplied,   
And vice sometime’s by action dignified.

—William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II Scene 2 or 3 (depending on edition)

The First Romeo and Juliet

According to my Norton Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written in the same year as Romeo and Juliet, features a play-within-a-play telling the story of Pyramus and Thisbe:

Pyramus and Thisbe, hero and heroine of a love-story almost unknown except from Ovid, Metamorphoses (4.55 ff.), who says (53) that it is not a common tale. They were next-door neighbours in Babylon, and, as their parents would not let them marry, they talked with each other through the party-wall of the houses, which was cracked. Finally, they arranged to meet at Ninus’ tomb. There Thisbe was frightened by a lion coming from its kill; she dropped her cloak as she ran and the lion mouthed it. Pyramus, finding the bloodstained cloak and supposing her dead, killed himself; she returned, found his body, and followed his example. Their blood stained a mulberry-tree, whose fruit has ever since been black when ripe, in sign of mourning for them.

Hmm, sounds familiar…

By the way, the hardcover Norton Shakespeare has been deeply discounted (as they say) at Amazon. If you don’t have a complete Shakespeare, now’s your chance to get a good one for peanuts. The in-line glosses alone are worth the price of admission, and the paper and printing are excellent. I’m seriously considering trading in my floppy (but apparently sturdy) paperback copy for the hardcover…