Sunday, 17 June 2007

The Winnowing Oar

I ran recently into the works of Conrad Shawcross, a British artist who produces sculptures inspired by scientific/philosophical themes: for instance, The Nervous System, a kinetic piece that weaves double-helix rope from coloured strands.
      His Winnowing Oar, that appeared as part of his Continuum installation at the National Maritime Museum, is intriguing for its literary allusion. Homer's Odyssey, Books 11 and 23, report how the prophet Tiresias told Odysseus how to know when his journey is over. He's to carry an oar and keep walking inland, and when he's so far from the sea that people don't recognise it and think it's an αθηρηλοιγον (athereloigon, an instrument for separating grain from chaff) he'll have come to his journey's end. A variety of instruments fit that function. It's often translated as "winnowing fan" or "winnowing fork", neither of which resembles an oar. Did (the collective known as) Homer mean something like a winnowing shovel? Conrad Roth's Varieties of unreligious Experience blog has an excellent exploration of this question: see The Unknown Object: Part I and The Unknown Object: Part I.

While skimming surrounding links I found several approving references to Jamie Riger's vigorous commentary on the Odyssey. The site's defunct, but findable on the Internet Archive: Jamie Rieger reads the Odyssey. (I'd recommend it as a study guide; it's a funny but mostly accurate gloss that makes this complex and nonlinear narrative highly accessible - the style reminds me of John Barth's Chimera). Rieger has given the same treatment to the Iliad. A sample from the Odyssey, Book 23:

Eurycleia: Ohmigod ohmigod ohmigod! Wake up, Penelope!
Penelope: (Stretches, blinks.) What? Nurse, is that you? What are you-
Eurycleia: Ohmigod, Odysseus is here. He came back. He totally killed all the suitors. Ohmigod!
Penelope: Impossible. What you say is impossible. My husband is dead.
Eurycleia: He had a bow, and he shot Eumaios, and Eumaios was like "Aaaargh!" and he made a face like this, you see the face I'm making, like this, and the suitors were like, "Mercy!" and he was all "Eat this!" and he started shooting them.
Penelope: That does sound like my husband.

(As I said, mostly accurate: Eumaios was Odysseus' ally against the suitors. Still, if even Homer nods, Rieger can be forgiven the occasional lapse).

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Arsenical matters

I've just been re-reading The Poison Principle by Australian pharmacist and writer Gail Bell. It's an enjoyable cross-genre book starting from a family mystery - Bell's grandfather was accused of poisoning two of his young sons with strychnine - and she uses her investigation of this as the core of a wide-ranging exploration of the science, history, mythology and cultural impact of poisons and poisoners.
      Another good book in this territory is Professor Andy Meharg's Venomous Earth, a "scientific, cultural and political history of arsenic", whose varied topics include the Madeleine Smith case, William Morris wallpapers, the Scottish prejudice against green sweets (down to 19th century Greenock traders' use of Scheele's Green - copper arsenite - as a food dye in confectionery "for the bairnies"), and arsenic's continuing significance in regions such as Bangladesh where tube well projects to provide cleaner water have exposed large populations to a different health risk, arsenic-contaminated groundwater.
      Arsenic - 'the king of poisons' - is rich in historical interest. It's a well-trodden theory that Napoleon may have been a victim of 'Gosio gas' (the result of volatilisation of arsenical pigments in wallpaper by microbial methylation). But as "Was Napoleon a junkie?" mentions, arsenic was also taken deliberately for its stimulant properties, as famously used by Arsenic Eaters of Styria, 19th century Austrian peasants who habitually ate, as a tonic, normally lethal doses of arsenic. James Maybrick, Jack the Ripper suspect, was an arsenic addict, a fact that led to the almost certainly wrongful conviction of his wife for his murder by arsenic. Because of its ready availability, arsenic was popular with Victorian poisoners, and also caused some spectacular accidental mass poisonings, notably the Bradford Poisoning.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Of academic interest

Current reading: The Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner's classic concordance to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass: a compilation of both books, with Gardner's detailed annotations on Carroll's contemporary references to mathematical, poetic and scientific topics.
      The Annotated Alice is a fascinating insight into the books. This excerpt at Norton Books gives a taster of the annotations. The book is 47 years on from its first publication, and has seen continuing updates. A recent development has been the discovery of a lost chapter, The Wasp in the Wig that appears to have been deleted because Tenniel, the illustrator, wasn't keen on it. The Alice Project quotes this chapter along with theories about what Tenniel disliked. I especially like the explanations of the parodies. Carroll's nonsense verse in funny in itself, but more so when compared to the pious improving poetry that it quite viciously satirises (see The poems in Alice in Wonderland for comparisons such as How doth the little crocodile vs. How doth the little busy bee).
      The Annotated Alice isn't to everyone's taste: Will Self's New Statesman review of the new Definitive Edition, Dirty old man, takes a hostile view of its avoidance of the always fraught question of Carroll's sexual orientation. This is by no means a clear issue. For instance, nowadays we are highly cautious, paranoid even, about the motives for child photography and tend to view Carroll's interest in this as automatically suspect; but it was a highly mainstream genre in Victorian times. Furthermore, the predominant view that Carroll was some flavour of repressed paedophile was heavily shaken in 1999 by Karoline Leach's book In the Shadow of the Dreamchild, which argued that much of the accepted view of Carroll is a stereotypical myth created in the vacuum left by his family's destruction and suppression of biographical material. Recently published letters and his diary (see "Lewis Carroll": A Myth in the Making) present a picture of a man who was neither shy nor reclusive, and whose female friends were mainly adult, these relationships in some cases skating on the edge of scandal. It's hard to assess whether this view will prevail, but the evidence coming from the increasing flow of primary sources looks at least likely to modify the traditional assessment. More on this evidence at Looking for Lewis Carroll and Contrariwise.

Not terribly related, except as an academic pursuit: this morning a customer asked - perhaps having seen the recent Times article, Nocturnal missions - about a book we didn't have, The Night Climbers of Cambridge, by the pseudonymous 'Whipplesnaith'. It's an underground classic in Cambridge, a book written in the 1930s about the illicit ascent of colleges and other buildings. I admit it rather takes me back. Many Cambridge undergraduates need to do at least some climbing due to the older colleges' archaic practice of locking the gates at night, and I remember those terrifying revolving spikes that topped some walls.

Night Climbers is online at InsectNation: interesting reading, akin to the accounts of present-day urban explorers. Andy Buckley, the site creator, admits that the copyright is a bit 'grey', but risked it given that all persons and companies related to the book are defunct.

Addendum: The Night Climbers of Cambridge was reprinted in 2007 by Oleander Press, Cambridge, to mark the 70th anniversary of the original edition.

- Ray

Friday, 8 June 2007

Beckett oddments

In some circles, YouTube has a bit of a reputation as a video dustbin, but I think this is unmerited as long as you're selective. I just ran into this video for kd lang's Constant Craving, which contains a beautifully-filmed recreation of the first Paris performance of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Seaching YouTube for Samuel Beckett finds many more directly related Beckett-related clips, such as the classic Lucky speech (a tour de force in free-association).
      Godot has been inspiration for a great many parodies. See, for instance, Godot Action Comics (from the excellent Book of Sequels written by National Lampoon alumni; or Francis Heaney's Holy Tango of Literature (a very clever collection of pastiches based on anagrams of the author's name; its concluding "Bake me Cutlets" takes Godot into a cookery show).
      Beckett probably wouldn't have liked these. According to Colin Wilson's litcrit book The Strength to Dream, Beckett wasn't pleased (despite the subtitle "a tragicomedy") that Godot came across as so comical, an aspect that is so easily parodied. His work is, by the way, renowned for the strictness with which Beckett's estate enforces his stage directions posthumously (under current law, this situation will persists until 2029). According to this DVD Review, the origin of the kd lang video was that its director, Mark Romanek, wanted to film Godot but was refused permission. (A great loss, if it had the intensity and style of the video). In a 2003 article, Damned to fame: the moral rights of the Beckett estate, Dr Matthew Rimmer told how productions of Godot have been contested (and in many cases stopped) for reasons including unauthorised music, female actors and a mixed-race cast. "It is a sad fate", Dr Rimmer writes, "that Samuel Beckett, the most innovative of playwrights, should have his work preserved in aspic". These issues are explored in detail - some text NSFW - at Gregory Aharonian's Waiting for Opradot.
      For material and links about Beckett himself, see The Samuel Beckett On-Line Resources and Links Pages site.

- Ray