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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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 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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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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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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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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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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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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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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Books for Days

With June finally done and the rush of bringing out two books behind me, let me thank everyone who has purchased copies. There are still a few of each book left from my initial batch; if anyone is interested, I’m selling them myself much cheaper than Amazon etc., & they will be signed. If you would like a review copy […]

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Deep History & Old Childhood: 3 New Poems at Isacoustic

Immense thanks to Barton Smock, who just published three of my poems at Isacoustic. You can read them here. They are among my favorites from the past few years, and so it’s wonderful to see them all together; whatever it is I’ve been trying to say with history and mythology, landscape and autobiography, are all there.  Thanks also and obviously and […]

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“Cauldron & Drink” – New Poem at Crannóg

Many thanks to the editors of Crannóg, who published my poem “Cauldron & Drink” in their most recent issue. It’s one of my favorites from my upcoming book of poems from old Europe.  For readers outside of Ireland and the UK, I’ve pasted an image from the journal below, although I would encourage everyone to subscribe.  

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