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Dostoevsky’s Nightmare

Raskolnikov’s horrible dream, from early on in Crime & Punishment: Raskolnikov had a fearful dream. He dreamt he was back in his childhood in the little town of his birth. He was a child about seven years old, walking into the country with his father on the evening of a holiday. It was a grey and heavy day, the country […]

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The Business of Hell (new crime poem)

The Business of Hell If you were in a room with them, you were in a room full of people that you had to believe would deservedly end up in hell. I guess I will see them there soon. – CIA Counterintelligence Chief, James Jesus Angleton Being in the world is the business of hell. That’s the song they sing […]

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Seamus Heaney’s “Beowulf”

From the end of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, here is an immense mourning for a person and a civilization, the sound of all of society at war: The Geat people built a pyre for Beowulf, stacked and decked it until it stood four-square, hung with helmets, heavy war-shields and shining armour, just as he had ordered. Then his warriors […]

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The Detective (poem)

The Detective The detective, he’s a father too, and when he plays with his girls in the park he remembers some dead girl’s hairdo, and the hill or ravine or tree reminds him of some old crime scene where a rape or attack got out of hand. The grit of dirt like sand, the lay of certain land, the shadow […]

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Archibald MacLeish, “Voyage West”

Archibald MacLeish, “Voyage West” There was a time for discoveries — For the headlands looming above in the First light and the surf and the Crying of gulls: for the curve of the Coast north into secrecy. That time is past. The last lands have been peopled. The oceans are known now. Señora: once the maps have all been made […]

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Marsden Hartley, “Fishmonger”

Marsden Hartley, “Fishmonger” I have taken scales from off The cheeks of the moon. I have made fins from bluejays’ wings, I have made eyes from damsons in the shadow. I have taken flushes from the peachlips in the sun. From all these I have made a fish of heaven for you, Set it swimming on a young October sky. […]

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Robinson Jeffers, “Shiva”

Robinson Jeffers, “Shiva” There is a hawk that is picking the birds out of our sky. She killed the pigeons of peace and security, She has taken honesty and confidence from nations and men, She is hunting the lonely heron of liberty. She loads the arts with nonsense, she is very cunning, Science with dreams and the state with powers […]

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Robinson Jeffers, “Vulture”

Robinson Jeffers, “Vulture” I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling high up in heaven, And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit narrowing, I understood then That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-feathers Whistle […]

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Ted Hughes – “Crow’s Song about God”

Ted Hughes – “Crow’s Song about God” Somebody is sittingUnder the gatepost of heavenUnder the lintelOn which are written the words: “Forbidden to the living.”A knot of eyes, eyeholes, lifeless, in the life-shapeA rooty old oak-stump, aground in the oozeOf some putrid estuary,Snaggy with amputations,His fingernails broken and bitten,His hair vestigial and purposeless, his toenails useless and deformed,His blood filtering […]

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H. D., “Sea Iris,” “Sea Violet”

Sea Iris I Weed, moss-weed, root tangled in sand, sea-iris, brittle flower, one petal like a shell is broken, and you print a shadow like a thin twig. Fortunate one, scented and stinging, rigid myrrh-bud, camphor-flower, sweet and salt – you are wind in our nostrils. II Do the murex-fishers drench you as they pass? Do your roots drag up […]

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Ezra Pound, “Portrait d’une Femme”

Ezra Pound, “Portrait d’une Femme” Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea, London has swept about you this score years And bright ships left you this or that in fee: Ideas, old gossip, oddments of all things, Strange spars of knowledge and dimmed wares of price. Great minds have sought you – lacking someone else. You have been second […]

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W. B. Yeats, “Meru”

W. B. Yeats, “Meru” Civilisation is hooped together, broughtUnder a rule, under the semblance of peaceBy manifold illusion; but man’s life is thought,And he, despite his terror, cannot ceaseRavening through century after century,Ravening, raging, and uprooting that he may comeInto the desolation of reality:Egypt and Greece, good-bye, and good-bye, Rome!Hermits upon Mount Meru or Everest,Caverned in night under the drifted […]

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Carl Sandburg, “Chicago”

Carl Sandburg, “Chicago” Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler; Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders: They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys. And they tell me you are […]

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20th Century Poetry #19: Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Wednesday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here. Louis MacNeice at Wiki, Poetry Foundation […]

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Amy Lowell, “Lilacs”

Amy Lowell, “Lilacs” Lilacs, False blue, White, Purple, Color of lilac, Your great puffs of flowers Are everywhere in this my New England. Among your heart-shaped leaves Orange orioles hop like music-box birds and sing Their little weak soft songs; In the crooks of your branches The bright eyes of song sparrows sitting on spotted eggs Peer restlessly through the […]

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Edith Wharton, “Terminus”

Edith Wharton, “Terminus” Wonderful was the long secret night you gave me, my Lover, Palm to palm, breast to breast in the gloom. The faint red lamp Flushing with magical shadows the common-place room of the inn, With its dull impersonal furniture, kindled a mystic flame In the heart of the swinging mirror, the glass that has seen Faces innumerous […]

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Translating Kafka’s Life: An Interview with Shelley Frisch

I have posted about my love for Franz Kafka’s work many times in these pages. Today I’m lucky enough to talk with Shelley Frisch about translating Reiner Stach’s three-volume biography of Kafka into English. Frisch holds a Ph.D. in German literature from Princeton University, taught at Columbia University and Haverford College, where she served as Chair of the German Department, […]

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20th Century Poetry #18: T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Saturday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here. T. S. Eliot at tseliot.com, […]

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Wordsworth & Eternity at St. Paul’s

I’m stunned every time I read this: one of Wordsworth’s best short poems (& that’s saying something), & perhaps one of the great poems period: St. Paul’s Pressed with conflicting thoughts of love and fear I parted from thee, Friend! and took my way Through the great City, pacing with an eye Downcast, ear sleeping, and feet masterless That were […]

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Picasso’s Blue Sympathies

Picasso’s Blue Period–or basically anything he did before Cubism–has always struck me as more powerful than anything he did later, which seems mostly theoretical playing. Not that I think somebody as vast as Picasso could stay in one phase forever (I’ve asked before what a genius is supposed to do when they’re almost too good.) Works like Guernica and his […]

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Dante, Through the Fire

Here’s one of the great moments in poetry: Canto 27 of Dante’s Purgatorio, where Dante passes through the fire, and Virgil crowns him on their way up to the summit of Mount Purgatory. This taken from the translation of Allen Mandelbaum, and the Digital Dante site at Columbia University. *** Just as, there where its Maker shed His blood, the […]

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The Unfinished Kafka

Reiner Stach, in the middle entry of his three volume biography of Franz Kafka, writes, “Anyone who studies bibliographies today will envy Kafka’s earliest readers, who knew very little about his life and could enjoy his work as literature and not as an accumulation of autobiographical codes.” (186) Stach’s biography (and its beautiful translation into English by Shelley Frisch) seems […]

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William H. McNeill – History as Myth

A few years ago, the great historian William H. McNeill died. I still have surprisingly endearing memories of reading his A World History one winter, in the middle crowded New York City Wendy’s, surrounded by high school kids just done with their day, his narrative silencing every one and every thing.  His obituary can be found here. Below is a […]

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Adrienne Rich: 4 Love Poems

from 21 Love Poems: 1 Whenever in this city, screens flicker with pornography, with science-fiction vampires, victimized hirelings bending to the lash, we also have to walk . . . if simply as we walk through the rainsoaked garbage, the tabloid cruelties of our own neighborhoods. We need to grasp our lives inseparable from those rancid dreams, that blurt of […]

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Ship in Air

Here’s a nice anecdote told twice, first from some anonymous Irish source, and then Seamus Heaney’s version of it in verse. This was the first poem of Heaney’s I ever saw, back in high school when someone showed me the New York Times, perhaps when his book Seeing Things was reviewed there, or when he’d won the Nobel Prize. But […]

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Blindness, War & History

(this essay was originally published in the Fall, 2014 issue of the Concho River Review. Since it is no longer available for purchase, I will post the essay here)  when you kill another honor him with your tears when the battle is won treat it as a wake —Tao Te Ching 31, tr. Red Pine   1. Blindness I often […]

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Heaney Comes to Poetry

Here are some of Seamus Heaney’s memories of reading, writing, and poetry, from earliest schooldays to university, all taken from Dennis O’Driscoll’s wonderful book-length interview with him,  Stepping Stones. Yes, my memory of learning to read goes back to my first days in Anahorish School, the charts for the letters, the big-lettered reading books. But I don’t think I showed […]

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20th Century Poetry #16: Vernon Watkins

VERNON WATKINS (1906-1967) One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Saturday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here. Vernon Watkins at Wiki, Poetry Foundation […]

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Week of the Bomb: Friday

What to make of any of these voices? This week’s posts—the words not of those protesting the bomb after, but of those who made and decided to use it—are the sum of something I have wanted to put together, quite literally, for years, and talking with my wife about each of them has convinced me that I have to at […]

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Week of the Bomb: Thursday

Finally, voices from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When The New Yorker dedicated its entire August 31, 1946 issue to John Hersey’s Hiroshima, the editors wrote that they did so “in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of […]

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Week of the Bomb: Wednesday

Many of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project had families in Europe, or were refugees from Europe themselves, and so the atomic bomb they were helping to make had an obvious adversary in mind. When Germany surrendered, however, many felt much less animus against Japan, and in part this conflict is narrated in the voices below. Also included […]

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Week of the Bomb: Tuesday

Impossible decisions remain impossible, even after they’ve been made. Following on yesterday’s post, here are the voices of those scientists and politicians who admitted the horror of the atomic bomb, but saw its creation and deployment as unavoidable; who felt caught up and even powerless in the equally inevitable march of scientific discovery; those who naively thought that such a […]

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Week of the Bomb: Monday

With the anniversary of the Trinity Test just passed, and the anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki this week, I realize the atomic bomb has been following me for years. The first book of poetry I ever owned was the anthology Atomic Ghosts, which featured dozens of poets responding to the nuclear age; and after I first moved away from home to […]

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Robert Pinsky, “The Figured Wheel”

The Figured Wheel, by Robert Pinsky The figured wheel rolls through shopping malls and prisons, Over farms, small and immense, and the rotten little downtowns. Covered with symbols, it mills everything alive and grinds The remains of the dead in the cemeteries, in unmarked graves and oceans. Sluiced by salt water and fresh, by pure and contaminated rivers, By snow […]

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20th Century Poetry #15: C. Day-Lewis

C. DAY-LEWIS (1904-1972) One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Saturday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here. C. Day-Lewis at Wiki, Poetry Foundation […]

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Heaney on Writing

Here’s Seamus Heaney talking about writing, from Dennis O’Driscoll’s book-length interview with him, Stepping Stones: On Inspiration On the week in May 1969 when he wrote “about forty poems”: It was a visitation, an onset, and as such, powerfully confirming. This you felt, was “it.” You had been initiated into the order of the inspired. Even though most of the […]

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What’s a Genius to Do?

It’s been said of Picasso: “At the age of sixteen, he produced two paintings which were of academic perfection…. So what do you do with your life if you’re producing academically perfect works at the age of sixteen? Every step afterwards is an innovation.” Indeed, whether you like where Picasso went or not, it’s undeniable that he never stopped moving. […]

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The Past is Not Dead: There is Only Continuity

from Peter Ackroyd, at the end of his first volume of the history of England: Other forms of continuity are also evident. Modern roads follow the line of old paths and trackways. The boundaries of many contemporary parishes follow previous patterns of settlement, along which ancient burials are still to be found. Our distant ancestors are still around us. There […]

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The Popular Press in 1918 was Garbage Too

From Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, published just over a century ago. Our bad relationship with information and disinformation didn’t start with cable news or Twitter: … Man does not speak to man; the press and its associate, the electrical news-service, keep the waking-consciousness of whole peoples and continents under a deafening drum-fire of theses, catchwords, standpoints, scenes, feelings, […]

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The Endless Variety of Hinduism

Gandhi himself said that, “If I know Hinduism at all, it is essentially inclusive and ever-growing, ever-responsive. It gives the freest scope to imagination, speculation, and reason.” Here are a handful of quotations from Wendy Doniger’s astonishing book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, that say much the same thing. Religion, as always, is variety, response, change: You could easily use […]

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How Alice Munro Chose to Write Short Stories

  from the introduction to her Selected Stories: I did not “choose” to write short stories. I hoped to write novels. When you are responsible for running a house and taking care of small children, particularly in the days before disposable diapers or ubiquitous automatic washing machines, it’s hard to arrange for large chunks of time. A child’s illness, relatives […]

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The Best of Albert Camus’s Notebooks

A random scattering, some barely aphorisms, from the first two volumes of the notebooks of Albert Camus. They are gold: One must not cut oneself off from the world. No one who lives in the sunlight makes a failure of his life. My whole effort, whatever the situation, misfortune or disillusion, must be to make contact again. But even within […]

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Go Ahead and Fuck Up

  I’m not sure who the equivalent is for you, but Albert Camus was one of the first authors I found outside of Stephen King and Dean Koontz. The high school teacher who introduced me to him also laid an egg it took years to get over: the apparently insurmountable gulf between “popular” and “serious” literature. Even more than other […]

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History is An Accident

from Peter Ackroyd, at the end of his first volume on the history of England: When we look over the course of human affairs we are more likely than not to find only error and confusion. I have already explained, in the course of this narrative, that the writing of history is often another way of defining chaos. There is […]

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Will the Real Psalm 23 Please Stand Up?

Probably the most lucid example of how religions both change drastically, and yet remain meaningful, is right here in James Kugel’s two pages on Psalm 23. Kugel, himself an Orthodox Jew and an astonishing scholar, shows that the life of any scripture precludes its being owned by any one religious, interpretive, or scholarly community. In this case, the real Psalm […]

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20th Century Poetry #13: Basil Bunting

One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Saturday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here.   Chomei at Toyama (Kamo-no-Chomei, born at Kamo 1154, […]

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A Housewife in the 1960s

One of the saddest interviews from Studs Terkel’s Working (talk about Human Pages!) comes from a Chicago housewife named Therese Carter: How would I describe myself? It’ll sound terrible—just a housewife. (Laughs.) It’s true. What is a housewife? You don’t have to have any special talents. I don’t have any….       It’s not really a full day. You think it […]

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Manet the Mystic

Manet’s 1862 painting The Old Musician is a great human riddle. Just what everybody is doing here, and why they’re gathered together, is a mystery. Yet it’s a puzzle more emotional than academic. Held in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., you can read their page about it here, or the Wiki page.

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Caravaggio’s Dirty Feet

The affront that many of Caravaggio’s greatest paintings presented to their first audience must have been astonishing: casting a local girl as the Virgin Mary being visited by pilgrims, or the body of a prostitute as her corpse after death; filling almost the entire canvas of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus with the horse he’s just fallen from; […]

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Death in Ancient Egypt

Here, Erik Hornung refutes the old cliché that ancient Egyptian religion was “death obsessed,” or that constructions like the pyramids are nothing more that huge tombs. In fact I can think of few religions both more anxious to deny death and affirm, somehow and some way, the continuation of life:   For the Egyptians even death itself cannot call into […]

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5 Elegies by Seamus Heaney

from “Clearances” When all the others were away at Mass I was all hers as we peeled potatoes. They broke the silence, let fall one by one Like solder weeping off the soldering iron: Cold comforts set between us, things to share Gleaming in a bucket of clean water. And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes From each other’s work […]

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Picasso & Sex

from John Richardson’s biography of Picasso: When questioned much later about his earliest sexual experience, Picasso claimed that his sex life had started very early on: “Yes,” he says smiling, with a sparkle in his eye, “I was still quite small”—and he indicated a diminutive height wit his hand. “Obviously I didn’t wait for the age of reason. If I […]

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New story at Cutthroat: “The Frog”

Many thanks to the editors at Cutthroat (Pamela Uschuk, and fiction editor Bill Luvaas) for publishing my story “The Frog” in their spring issue. It is only available in print (I’ve pasted the first two pages below), and you can subscribe the journal here. The story is part of a larger collection of poetry and fiction called School of Night. […]

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The Religion of Ancient Egypt

A handful of passages from one of the best books on religion I’ve ever read, Erik Hornung’s Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. His eloquence on religious ideas foreign to so many of us today is astounding. As he asks rhetorically at one point: “Did the Egyptians think wrongly, imprecisely, or simply in a different […]

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Heat & Light at Lascaux

  The environment in which some of humanity’s first–and still best–works of art, in the cave of Lascaux nearly thirty thousand years ago, is described here by Randall White: Plant materials, especially wood, would have been important fuel for cooking, heating, and light. Again, the excellent preservation at Lascaux indicates that certain species of trees and shrubs were sought, especially […]

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Walking on Two Feet: The Evolution of Bipedalism

from Steven Mithen’s The Prehistory of the Mind: The evolution of bipedalism had begun by 3.5 million years ago. Evidence for this is found in the anatomy of A. afarensis, and, more dramatically, by the line of australopithecine footprints preserved at Laetoli in Tanzania. The most likely selective pressure causing the evolution of bipedalism was the thermal stress suffered by […]

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The German Origins of Michelangelo’s Pietà

from Thomas Cahill’s Heretics & Heroes: …. [Michelangelo’s] next work displays a grasp of human anatomy seldom seen in the history of art: a Pietà, his first but hardly his last interpretation of the subject. The Italian word has many grades of meaning: pity, compassion, mercy, piety, devotion. Capitalized, however, it refers to a scene not found in the gospels […]

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Jews & Muslims on Pilgrimage Together in the 1300s

From Mark Cohen’s Under Crescent & Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages: An aspect of Jewish-gentile sociability under Islam that seems to lack a counterpart in the Jewish-Christian world is the world of shared popular religious practices… particularly in the joint worship of saints. Here, interdenominational religiosity has its basis in the fact that the Qur’an honors biblical figures […]

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The Mysteries of Mérode

For some reason the Mérode Altarpiece, painted in the late 1420s by Robert Campin, has become an obsession of mine. I can look at it for hours, and its strangeness never ends. Better than any TV show, I’ve found one of the best uses of a flat-screen is putting the Mérode up on it, and staring. Held in the Cloisters […]

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Voices from 1900-1914

Below are a few dozen voices from the early twentieth century, culled from Philipp Blom’s The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914. In an almost uncanny way their concerns aren’t much different than ours: there’s worry over the spread of new technology and its invasion into and cheapening of everyday life; a deep paranoia over changes in previously stable gender roles, with […]

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The Melancholy of William Blake

No matter how poor he got, and no matter what of his belongings he had to sell to get by, William Blake always held onto a print of Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 work, Melencolia I; it was found in his workroom when he died. And so it is worth looking in detail, again and again, at anything which an artist and […]

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Martin Luther Reinvents the German Language

When, in 1522, Martin Luther agreed to a staged kidnapping that would keep him safe from Catholic and other authorities, he soon found himself out of danger, but also bored to tears. Hiding out in castle called the Wartburg, near Eisenach, he soon admitted, “I sit here idle and drunk all day long.” Thomas Cahill picks up the story: …this […]

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20th Century Poetry #9: Susan Miles

One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Saturday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here.   Microcosmos The brown-faced nurse has murmured something unintelligible […]

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The Painting that Lit a Million Conspiracy Theories

It’s too bad Nicholas Poussin’s Shepherds of Arcady/Et in Arcadia (Even in Arcadia, there am I) can’t get much attention except as a link to the Holy Blood-Holy Grail/Dan Brown stories. It’s magnificent enough on its own. You can also read more about it, including the conspiracy stuff, here. Click on the painting to enlarge:  

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Aldous Huxley Saves the Day

from Thomas Cahill’s Heretics and Heroes: In a collection of travel essays published in 1925, Aldous Huxley had called Piero [della Francesca’s] Resurrection, the fresco that decorates the Museo Civico of Sansepolcro, “the greatest picture in the world.” In the last days of World War II, as British soldiers began shelling Nazi-occupied Sansepolcro with the intention of reducing it to […]

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Primo Levi’s Hardest Thoughts on the Holocaust

From Primo Levi’s 1986 book, The Drowned and the Saved, remembering the concentration camps: On Levi’s own—and others’—guilt at having survived the concentration camps: At a distance of years one can today definitely affirm that the history of the Lagers [from Konzentrationslager, concentration camp] has been written almost exclusively by those who, like myself, never fathomed them to the bottom. […]

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A Working Definition of Yawheh

After rattling off the usually long list of reasons why the God of the Hebrew Bible is everything from in a bad mood to gleefully sadistic, Donald Akenson provides one of my favorite paragraphs from any book on the history of religion, and the great difficulties of belief: But not liking Yahweh is irrelevant. The reason the god of the […]

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Images: The Saint & the Lion

One of the great jazz standards of Medieval & Renaissance art, here’s only a selection of all the depictions of St. Jerome: studying indoors or out, with or without his lion or skull, probably translating the Bible as he goes, reading or writing always. All a good excuse for artists to place him in contemporary landscapes, or familiar book-lined rooms. […]

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One of the Most Haunting Paintings

At least for me, John Singer Sargent’s “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” is one of the more haunting paintings. What it appears to say about family, isolation, childhood, the lives of women and girls, and perhaps even the deleterious effects of being rich, seem quite endless. And the history of each of the girls’ later lives only adds to […]

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Images: The Painting Salvador Dali Couldn’t Get Away From

Salvador Dali - Archeological Reminiscence of Millet's Angelus (1935)

The way I heard it, Salvador Dali saw a reproduction of Millet’s Angelus in his classroom during childhood, and it became one of his great personal images: Jean-Francois Millet – The Angelus (1857-1859) Salvador Dali – Archeological Reminiscence of Millet’s Angelus (1935) Salvador Dali – Atavism of Twilight (1933-1934) Salvador Dali – Gala and The Angelus of Millet Before the […]

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Scholarly Peace: Muslim, Christian & Jewish Translators in Medieval Spain (essay)

  In the year 949, among the palaces and gardens of Madinat al-Zahra outside the city of Cordoba, a conference was being held. The host was the caliph of al-Andalus, Abd al-Rahman III, and his guests were representatives from the Christian emperor Constantine VII, who had just arrived from Constantinople. Only two centuries before, the first Abd al-Rahman had fled […]

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Burned as a Witch in Ireland in 1895

From Frazer’s Golden Bough: In March 1895 a peasant named Michael Cleary, residing at Ballyvadlea, a remote and lonely district in the county of Tipperary, burned his wife Bridget Cleary alive over a slow fire on the kitchen hearth in the presence of and with the active assistance of some neighbours, including the woman’s own father and several of her […]

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20th Century Poetry #5: Edward Thomas

One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Saturday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here. As the Team’s Head-Brass As the team’s head-brass flashed […]

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Sleepwalking into World War One

From Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914: Do we really need to make the case against a single guilty state, or to rank the states according to their respective share in responsibility for the outbreak of war? In one classical study from the origins literature, Paul Kennedy remarked that it is “flaccid” to dodge the […]

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Marc Chagall Struck by Lightning

  The artist Marc Chagall, meeting his wife Bella Rosenfeld in 1909; they were together for the next 35 years: I am at Thea’s, lying on the sofa in the consulting room of her father, a physician. I liked to stretch out that way near the window on that sofa covered with a black horsehair cloth, worn, with holes in […]

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The Great Myths #53: Thor Goes Fishing for the Serpent that Surrounds the World (Norse)

Read the other Great Myths here Long ago the slaughter-gods were eating their hunting-prey in the mood for a drink, before they were full; they shook the sticks and looked at the lots: they learned that at Ægir’s was a fine crop of cauldrons. The cliff-dweller [Ægir] sat there, child-cheerful, much like Miskorblindi’s boy; the son of Dread [Thor], defiant, […]

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20th Century Poetry #4: Laurence Binyon

  One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Saturday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here. Here, with Laurence Binyon’s “Hunger,” is the first […]

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The Hooded Lady of Brassempouy

from Randall White’s Prehistoric Art: The best known of the statuettes from Brassempouy is the 25,000 year-old “dame à la capuche” (hooded lady), carved from the dense, homogenous interior core of a mammoth tusk. She was found immediately below a fireplace and was covered by a small limestone slab. Although she has frequently been imagined to be the broken-off head […]

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William Blake Chooses Eternity

A wonderful paragraph from Peter Ackroyd’s biography of William Blake, where he shows how the poet slowly came to accept that if he was writing for anyone other than himself, it was for posterity; and how he charged ahead nevertheless: His independence meant that he could preserve his vision beyond all taint—and that integrity is an essential aspect of his […]

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Joseph Campbell’s Hero Sets Out

A piece of the beginning and end of The Hero with a Thousand Faces: Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Aquinas, or […]

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20th Century Poetry #3: W. H. Davies

One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Saturday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here. The Rat “That woman there is almost dead, Her […]

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How Picking Fleas Led to the Evolution of Language

From Steven Mithen’s Prehistory of the Mind: The anthropologist Robin Dunbar looked at the size of the brain of H. habilis [2.1 – 1.5 million years ago] from a very different perspective. Recall that we have already referred to his work regarding the relationship between brain size and group size—living within a larger group requires more brain-processing power to keep up […]

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The Earliest Human Communities

From Steven Mithen’s The Prehistory of the Mind: There is good circumstantial evidence that H. habilis [2.1 to 1.5 million years ago] would have been living in larger groups than his ancestors. If we again look at modern primates, there appear to be two ecological situations in which primates choose to live in larger groups, and suffer the accompanying social challenges. […]

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We Were All Animals Once: The Beginning of Anthropomorphic Thinking

from Steven Mithen’s The Prehistory of the Mind:   This propensity to think of the natural world in social terms is perhaps most evident in the ubiquitous use of anthropomorphic thinking—attributing animals with humanlike minds. Consider the Inuit and the polar bear. This animal is highly sought after and is “killed with passion, butchered with care and eaten with delight.” But […]

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Vermeer in Bosnia

If anyone asks you about the Why of art, especially in the face of atrocity or just its apparent impracticality—for the artist or the audience—this anecdote from Lawrence Weschler is about as good an answer as I know.   I happened to be in The Hague a while back, sitting in on the preliminary hearings of the Yugoslav War Crimes […]

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On Beethoven’s Deathbed

Here are two passages from Beethoven’s life. The first finds him on his deathbed, and is recorded in the memoirs of one of his friends. Beset by his final illness, the composer is rejuvenated for the last time by an astounding gift: the complete scores George Frederic Handel. The fact that Beethoven, so close to death, could still express an […]

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Understanding Religious Fundamentalism

I am always thrilled to reread these two passages by Erik Hornung, and to find in them just about the wisest things I’ve ever read about religion in general, and fundamentalism in particular. Although he hopefully assumes (the book was first published in 1971) that just because fundamentalism will become increasingly “inhuman” it will lose adherents, his words are still […]

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20th Century Poetry #2: A. E. Housman

One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Saturday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here.   “Loveliest of trees, the cherry now” Loveliest of […]

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Humanity’s Earliest Rituals

Three passages on prehistoric religion from the book Becoming Human:   One of the pervasive themes of [this book] is that spirituality and materiality cannot be separated. The roots of religion are to be found in ritual practice. And ritual practice, as documented by the material record goes back before the Franco-Cantabrian “explosion”, back indeed before the Blombos engravings [70,000 […]

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The Archaeology & Mythology of Caves

The archaeologist Jean Clottes writes that, besides the more famous paintings in the ice-age caves of France and Spain, it has also been observed that “various objects have been either deposited or stuck into cracks of the walls, or even stuck into the ground. Those apparently non-utilitarian gestures have been noticed from Asturias in Spain to Burgundy in France, from […]

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Oswald Probably Did It

It took 9/11 to show me the real damage conspiracy theories can do. Since then, the gleeful and gullible ability of many to believe any and all conspiracy theories has convinced me that Lee Harvey Oswald probably did kill John F. Kennedy, and probably alone. The reason for our desperate need for conspiracy theories hasn’t been put any more eloquently […]

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Neanderthal Compassion, Neanderthal Burials

from the book Becoming Human: Innovation in Prehistoric Material and Spiritual Culture:   Caring for severely disabled members of the community must be one of the indicators of respect for the individual and for human life. It is clear that Neanderthals fed and looked after severely handicapped members of their communities who were too disabled to contribute to the food quest. […]

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Kiyozawa Manshi Chooses the Buddha

From the Japanese Shin Buddhist Kiyozawa Manshi’s “My Faith,” written five days before his death, in 1903:   [My] study finally led me to the conclusion that human life is incomprehensible. It was this that gave rise to my belief in Tathāgata (Buddha). Not that one must necessarily undertake this kind of study in order to acquire faith. One might […]

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20th Century Poetry #1: Thomas Hardy

  One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Saturday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here. And it’s worth asking, as I start with […]

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Did Neanderthals Have Language?

from Richard Klein and Blake Edgar’s The Dawn of Human Culture:   The Neanderthals are fascinating because they were so much like us and yet so different. Before we abandon them completely, we want to address one well-known speculation for what could explain the difference. This is the possibility that they possessed only a limited ability to speak, that is, […]

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