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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What the Earliest Forms of Literacy Looked Like

from David Carr’s book on literacy and the creation of literature in the ancient world: … many ancient texts were not written in such a way that they could be read easily by someone who did not already known them well. Indeed, classicists long ago noted that the oldest Greek manuscripts, written as they are all in capitals and without […]

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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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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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Eleanor Roosevelt Finds Herself

From Geoffrey Ward’s biography of the Roosevelts comes this moving account of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Dickensian childhood, complete with neglectful mother and alcoholic father. Following the early death of both parents, the intervention of an aunt changes her life:    …[Eleanor’s father] Elliott was delighted at her birth, and called her “Little Nell” after the relentlessly virtuous orphaned heroine of Dickens’s […]

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The Invention of Harmony

from two essays on the origins of the aesthetic impulse in Becoming Human: Innovation in Prehistoric Material and Spiritual Culture:   The earliest current evidence for handaxes comes from West Turkana, Kenya, dated to 1.65 Mya [Million years ago]. Similar finds have been made at Konso, again in Ethiopia, dating to 1.5 Mya. These tools show both lateral and bifacial […]

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Advice to a Young Poet, from Ezra Pound

The late poet and translator W. S. Merwin, who died only last month at ninety-one, has left us a remarkable account of visiting an aging and imprisoned Ezra Pound back in 1949, when Merwin was just starting out. I was in Washington, D.C., at Easter, during one of my last years as a student. I was visiting a college friend […]

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(Brain) Size Matters

from Richard Klein’s The Dawn of Human Culture:   More research is required to demonstrate that the brain enlarged abruptly in steps as we have suggested, but no one questions that brain size increased roughly threefold over the 5- to 7-million-year span of human evolution. Body size also increased over the same interval, but to a much smaller degree, and […]

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What Scientology Tells Us About How Religions Begin

Lawrence Wright’s recent book on the history of Scientology is an immensely important document for studying how religions begin. While much of it fills the reader with the amusement or horror of a colossal fraud—and a fraud which consciously sought out the money and influence of celebrities—Wright is also honest enough to include sections like the following, where he summarizes […]

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Notre Dame & the Liberation of Paris in 1944

  A moment from Matthew Cobb’s Eleven Days in August, on the liberation of Paris in 1944: [the voice of Henri Tanguy was heard on the radio proclaiming:] “Open the road to Paris for the Allied armies, hunt down and destroy the remnants of the German divisions, link up with the Leclerc Division in a common victory—that is the mission […]

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Understanding Religion

I’d been interested in religion and mythology long before 2004, when I first read this opening page of Mircea Eliade’s History of Religious Ideas. But from that day until now I have still not come across so brief and powerful a statement about why the study of religion is important, whether for scholars or believers, or for those who are […]

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Hart Crane, High & Low

Here is one the my favorite moments from a writer’s life, followed by one of the saddest. Only seven months apart, they typify the pendulum of great highs and awful lows in Hart Crane’s life. Desperate to write, and giving in his letters as articulate a record of that burning desire as any writer I know, it is hard not […]

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Joyce’s Dirty Letters

When James Joyce returned to Ireland in the closing months of 1909, leaving his wife Nora Barnacle in Trieste, it was the first time they had been apart for so long since they had fled Ireland together in 1904. Their separation, prompted by a business scheme Joyce hoped to succeed in, instead gifted the world with some of the most […]

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Michelangelo & Leonardo da Vinci

From Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of da Vinci, here is about as concise and colorful a summary of how true genius can, in the same century and even the same city, manifest itself in entirely different ways: When Leonardo left Florence for Milan in 1482, Michelangelo was only seven years old. His father was a member of Florence’s minor nobility […]

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Robert Frost: “Out, Out – ”

“Out, Out – ” The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood, Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it. And from there those that lifted eyes could count Five mountain ranges one behind the other Under the sunset far into Vermont. And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and […]

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Wordsworth & Eternity at St. Paul’s

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 sufficient guide unto themselves, And step by step went pensively. Now, mark! Not how my trouble was entirely hushed, (That might not be) but how, […]

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Yeats Discovers Poetry

Here’s W. B. Yeats recalling his earliest experiences of poetry: ….This may have come from the stable-boy, for he was my principal friend. He had a book of Orange rhymes, and the days when we read them together in the hay-loft gave me the pleasure of rhyme for the first time. Later on I can remember being told, when there […]

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Yeats Comes to the Occult

Here is W. B. Yeats, remembering some of his early experiences with the occult and supernatural. All taken from his The Trembling of the Veil, collected in Autobiographies: When staying with Hyde in Roscommon, I had driven over to Lough Kay, hoping to find some local memory of the old story of Tumaus Costello, which I was turning into a […]

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Joyce & Proust Meet

From that greatest of literary biographies, Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, here is the account of Joyce meeting Marcel Proust, only a few months before Proust’s death: On May 18, 1922, Sydney Schiff (“Stephen Hudson”), the English novelist whom Joyce had met a few times, invited him to a supper party for Stravinsky and Diaghilev following the first performance of one […]

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Kafka Executes Josef K.

Josef K. is arrested for no reason at the beginning of Kafka’s The Trial, and at its conclusion he is put to death for no reason as well. Kafka, who worked by day as a lawyer at a Prague insurance company, was well able to illustrate not just the absurdity and inscrutability of bureaucracy, but also its deep cruelty and […]

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Kafka’s Great Fable: “Before the Law”

From Kafka’s novel The Trial: Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. A man from the country comes to this doorkeeper and requests admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he can’t grant him admittance now. The man thinks it over and then asks if he’ll be allowed to enter later. “It’s possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not now.” […]

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Virginia Woolf Meets T. S. Eliot

From Virginia Woolf’s Diary on November 21, 1918: I was interrupted somewhere on this page by the arrival of Mr Eliot. Mr Eliot is well expressed by his name – a polished, cultivated, elaborate young American, talking so slow, that each word seems to have special finish allotted it. But beneath the surface it is fairly evident that he is […]

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A Twelfth Century Love Letter: Heloise Remembers Abelard

An amazing passage from a letter of Heloise to Abelard, those twelfth-century lovers who ended up in a nunnery and a monastery after their affair was discovered. Strip away the contemporary details (their religiosity and its attendant guilt, etc.), and Heloise might be writing a blog today: In my case, the pleasures of lovers which we shared have been too […]

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The best job application letter that didn’t work

James Murray (1837-1915), the Scottish lexicographer and philologist, sent the following letter regarding a job at the British Museum in late 1866. Largely self-taught, he later became the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Before then, this letter somehow didn’t get him the British Museum gig: I have to state that Philology, both Comparative and special, has been my […]

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Ted Hughes: “Devon Riviera” (poem)

Strange to find a Hughes poem more populated by people than animals; & you can tell he’s not happy about it: Devon Riviera Under the silk nightie of the August evening The prepared resort, a glowing liner, Leans toward happiness, unmoving. The whole vessel throbs with dewy longing. Grey, dazed heads, promenading their pots, Their holiday shirts, their shrunk, freckled […]

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Nero & His Mother (poem)

Nero & His Mother I arranged to have her murdered at sea but she just swam to shore as the boat sank; I can see her doing that, unsurprised at the attempt but determined to live even the worst life. When the assassins showed up she screamed to put the sword lower, lower, thinking of her months of heaviness with […]

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Picasso & the Gestapo

from Simon Schama’s Power of Art In the winter of 1941, Pablo Picasso was living and working at the top of an old house in the rue des Grands Augustins in Paris. The Seine was a stone’s throw away. Hard northern light swept in over the rooftops. Pigeons perched on the sills. But Picasso’s Left Bank life during the Occupation […]

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Hart Crane & His Father

In early January, 1924, the poet Hart Crane, twenty-four and basically broke, received a letter from his father offering to hire him into the family business. To a friend, Crane wrote, “Along comes a letter from my father this morning offering me a position with him as travelling salesman! This is unacceptable, of course, even though I now can’t complete […]

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T. S. Eliot & His Father

Here is a favorite bit from a youthful T. S. Eliot (he’s just turned thirty but that’s young to me now). After leaving America for England and abandoning the job at Harvard his family was expecting of him, he made an unfortunate marriage and started a literary life of day job, essays and reviews. He eventually had enough essays for […]

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Fire Houses (poem)

If forced to choose a favorite short poem of mine, one that brings together nearly everything I’m interested in, it would have to be this one: Fire Houses All the old stories have their fire houses: hostels, banqueting halls, stopping places, some leading to the Otherworld, some made of iron, and all of them set afire, mansions made into ovens, […]

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George Orwell in the Coal Mines

As an addition to my last post, here is George Orwell’s complete description of going down into the coal mines of northern England, taken from the second chapter of his 1937 book, The Road to Wigan Pier.  The entire text of the book can be found here. *** When you go down a coal-mine it is important to try and […]

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George Orwell & Empathy

As usual, George Orwell says it better than anybody. Here he is in his 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier, asking his readers not to give up using coal, but just to recognize whose labor is providing them with that coal. Nowadays I would only add to the coal miners all the people behind our conveniences; because if we […]

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Missing Child (poem)

Missing Child The sound of them woke me in the morning, feet kicking up careful spirals of leaves and lean, low voices under my window. All the way to the woods there’s a line of them, a missing boy overnight their care won’t solve: the world is too small to search all of it. I find one to say about […]

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Jung’s Great Dream

Jung traveled with Freud and others to America in late September, 1909, and on the boat returning to Europe, he had a dream. Whatever you make of Jung’s overarching theories and scholarship, it always seems better to think of him more as a poet or mystic, and so his strength seems to lie in descriptions of intense inner experiences, and […]

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Daedalus & Icarus (poem)

Daedalus & Icarus The old craftsman came to Cumae after a long life of art and flight, love and theft, came alone to the Sibyl’s Italian shore wasted with age and reputation to the one who knew every alphabet, the seeress who saw the future in driven leaves: and warped with the same old age as him, she asked that […]

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Odin & Baldr (poem)

Odin & Baldr The High One heard the lowest prophecy: already riddled with the worst of dreams, his boy Baldr would be killed by his brother. And worse: another brother would avenge him, family hacking down family. And worse: these murders would lead to the end, to three winters of war and three more years of only winter, and all […]

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Unfinished Michelangelo (poem)

Unfinished Michelangelo The impossible bodies of apostles, messiahs and slaves, statues that couldn’t have stood had he finished them, faces half buried in membranes of marble that threaten to swallow and take them back; bodies climbing without hands or feet or legs out of the mineral morass in the great struggle for birth: a nearly headless body, torso only, drowning […]

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Robert Oppenheimer (poem)

Robert Oppenheimer Now I come to write in light and fire in a language of power we all know, beyond every letter and poetry and all the dithering of philosophy, all the prevarication of politics. The physicists have known sin, it’s true, but also the brilliance of a burden overcome in the ageless mountains, a foul display that was beyond […]

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Happy Black Friday

For those who are out stampeding each other for flat-screen TVs, and for those forced to work so others can get their amazing deals, here’s my usual Black Friday post: When asked if the news of the day surprised him anymore, the poet Joseph Brodsky—who grew up in Soviet Russia and came to America in his early thirties—said in part, […]

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Review: Bone Antler Stone by Tim Miller

Originally posted on Riggwelter:
Miller, Tim, Bone Antler Stone, High Window Press, 2018. ISBN: 9780-2440-0959-5. £9.99 As the title might suggest, (pre)history and nature feature strongly in Tim Miller’s collection Bone Stone Antler (The High Window Press), but also song, fire, life. The collection has four sections: Landscapes & Rituals, Burials (which I found particularly moving), Artefacts and Orkney. It also ranges…

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