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 […]
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.
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 […]
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 […]
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 […]
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 […]
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 […]
Among the earliest photos taken of Paris were those of Eugène Atget, beginning in the late 1800s. Here is only a sample:
I first came across Claude Lorrain’s fantasies of classical Greece and Rome on the cover of an old paperback of the Aeneid. These are my favorites, but there are many more of them here. Click on each image to enlarge:
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. […]
At an antique store a few years ago, I spent $10 on an envelope of old photos. I love to imagine their stories, and thought others might too. And perhaps someone out there knows them? Click on the slideshow to begin:
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 […]
Scroll through this selection of preliminary studies & photos of the canvas as it was worked on & completed. Pretty astonishing, & all done in about five weeks.
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 […]
One of the most heartbreaking stories I know relates the last day in the life of Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame). Suffering from what today we would simply call depression, signs of the illness even appear in the journals he kept while on his journey west with William Clark, when flurries of meticulous reportage are replaced by weeks […]
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 […]
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. […]
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 […]
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 […]
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 […]
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 […]
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 […]
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 […]
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 […]
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. […]
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, […]
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 […]
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 […]
Many thanks to Tom Zimmerman at The Big Windows Review for his review of Bone Antler Stone. I’ve pasted an excerpt below, and you can read the entire review here. Excerpts and reviews from the book are here. “… [Bone Antler Stone] is an act of powerful sympathetic imagination that forges a connection between lost cultures and our own and that […]
Many thanks to Bill O’Driscoll and Pittsburgh’s 90.5 WESA for interviewing me about Bone Antler Stone. You can listen to an audio interview, with a longer story on their website, here. Excerpts and reviews from the book are here.
I began this blog in earnest almost six years now, with a post called “Silence in London,” which offered a handful of photos from a recent trip to England. I only made that post, though, because during the trip I left a long comment on a poetry blog, and found that it made me want to write more about poetry […]
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 […]
Many thanks as always to David Cooke over at The High Window, who just published four new poems of mine in their spring issue, and are the last batch before The High Window Press brings out my entire collection of poems from ancient Europe, Bone Antler Stone. Please also consider following them on WordPress, Twitter, and Facebook, that’s how all the cool […]
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 […]
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.
Many thanks to Richard Smyth, editor of Albatross, for including two of my poems from Old Europe in Albatross #27. You can download a .pdf of the entire issue here.