Thursday, November 11, 2010

Of Signs and Wonders

"There was another method of capnomancy which consisted of observing the smoke arising from poppy and jessamin seeds cast on burning coals."
---John Bumpus, Demonologia, 1827

"I been watchin' the roads, I been studyin' the dust."
--- B. Dylan

Just this night, I took myself en promenade to the Stadium, to do my dance in the chill Evening. While Exercises give enjoyment enough, trimming the Belly & quickening my sluggish Blood, the viscous & frigid Air adds a piquancy all its own. For what man does not enjoy the Shadow of his own breath on the ground? That most insubstantial part of him, made thick enough to catch light in its twirling curlicues? Or perhaps the razor-sharp thrill of a harsh Breeze, blown south by way of the Great Lakes?

I shudder to think that those self-same breezes that brush my branches have also touched a redoubt of Ft. Duquesne, or jolted an Acadian into watchfulness. Some nights, I think that I can see the very Eyes through the trees - as tho' a baleful visage appeared in the Face of the Appalachians, and mouth'd its Gallic nonsense at me.

My father was a great Interpreter of signs; he studied most prodigiously the Dents of Traffick-signs, the Colours of horse-Mucus, the arrays of Pine-needles, the emissions of Pocosins, and most especially what Wrinkles & stains happen'd to the rare English Pound he cou'd find. But his friends, esp. the noble Doctor Wigham Dodd, wou'd counsel him, ye have but little wisdom in ye, if ye wou'd seek the word of God in the flecks & Daubs of a fallen World!

But my father held it different; that just as Christ liv'd with the Sinners, so too he would betake his Intelligence to the meagerest Figures of God's creation; so he would seek the natural Philosophy in the Crannies. Sic, on the subject: Epaph, the world is a glorious, whirring Machine; the Great God wou'd have us check its parts & manage well the Grease.

& it is true that the Ancients held their mancies & Predictions in the highest. For who appears most as Wisdom's body in the Greek Dramatists, but sexless Tiresias, teller of hidden Truth? Who gives the Ides for Caesar's death, but a broken old Hag? And what gave Rome the sign of Caesar's Ascension, but a streaking Comet?

It wou'd appear that, tho' lacking a Caesar, the Heavens nonetheless offer Wonders. First in California, that distant shore of unparalleled Villainy; then in New York, quagmire of that peculiar business-wisdom, that pretends to Vision, but only by vast Ignorance. For ne'er have I met a Trader, dealer or worker of the Docks generally that did not boast eagerly of his Ignorance - that did not make it a very Badge of his manhood.
& this from them that would deal most with the Work of the World! But here we revisit a Common-place, that a professor of Literature hath no Ear for Poetry, and that a Engineer wou'd ignore an aqueduct, that a man wou'd sooner gaze upon a fresh Beauty than on his long-practic'd Wife - no matter how lovely she may be.

But so it is with the world, that Beauty, in the sense of the Philosophers, disappears when we stand too close to her. We must make a hard Journey past siren & Cyclops before we may see Ithaca afresh. It is no accident that Pausanias shows us an instance of divination with a Mirror - Captroptomancy - for it shows us the world again.

Thus it may well benefit the be-numb'd soul to have ghostly Strands, or fiery Comets, or phantom Missiles running thro' the skies, if only to bolden the glass and stone Skyline. Tho' the threat of Gallic duplicity & Weroance-wickedness has no mean weight, I wou'd not sacrifice the Wonder of a water-fall for the safe Trickle of a Creek.

When I walk'd across the Macadam-path that lines the Sherando Valley, to the Stadium for a moment of Exertion, I saw a Comet break through the heavenly Spheres like a flaming Pearl.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

July, July!

This invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. --Phaedrus, Plato.

The Life of a country Parson cou'd have no greater Distractions & attendancies than mine; for every night I must spend in divers Quandries, Plans, and Executions. The bed 'pon which I recline offers the Figure of Mme. Bainton, taken to Complaint, crouch'd thro' her morning Hours above a Basin, heaving; the Candle by which I compose my Post-mails recalls Goodman's false Promise to retrieve newe Wax from Winchester, suppos'd to burn with a nigh-perpetual Flame; the open Window, by which a Breeze replenishes the starch'd Air, is yet fill'd with the groaning Murmur of Cattle, and the whisper'd Urgencies of fitful Loves that betray my Estate's Harmony with a Kiss.

Thus do I carp & moan. I took myself to walking about, a pasttime Mme Bainton has had me surrender, as my legs have creak'd more than an old leather Strap. Beneath my Knees a mysterious Fiber has been strain'd; the Physick's Counsel, thusly:

"Ye are sturdy & well-built. But Keep ye apprized, Sir, that eatin hevvy of the Hamm-hock, & then pursuin the Duckk in the feld, will only bring sorrow to ye. You must give mor rest to yr jints than ye have, for runnin and walkin cross these hilltops, and dinin in as uncommon a way as Ye do, ye must in time break yr poor body's heart. Remember, sir, a man is only so rich, as he can learn to let things in this world alone."

My Physic, tho' intention'd well, for it is true that I frequent those Siam & Indian Currees, that I delight my Tongue with the rich Flesh of the Duck, and that I have of a time stout'd myself with Drink, is yet not to be mistaken with a Galen. His Note came yesterday, while I was travailing the country with Ned Bearskin; &, like a meddlesome Beau, it had kept Company with my wife all the while, so that, besteam'd with Exertion & pleas'd with Spoil, I must needs revert to Contrition, lest Mme. Bainton threaten again to spatter my poor Frame with buckshot.

& so it was with some Risk that I took myself down the Plank-road to peer at the Moon, risen waxing over Massanutten Ridge. A pair of tiny Lights implied a Jett headed to the Federal City, as the flash of silver Earrings in a Garden hints at a demoiselle. The Interstate, usually a river of Commerce, lay silent as a Brook in August, dried up to bare Sand.

There is a Story, of this already storied Day, that in Albermarle Co. there liv'd an Enthusiastic Democrat, who believ'd Jefferson had "rais'd himself and his party one step higher in the temple of fame," by dying on the anniversary of Independence. When inform'd that Adams had died as well this die, he wou'd not credit such, and in the end wou'd only admit a "damn Yankee trick!"

"[Jefferson] remark'd on the tendency of his mind to recur back to the events of the Revolution. Many incidents he wou'd relate...he remarked that the curtains of his bed had been purchased from the first cargo that arriv'd after the peace of 1782." - Col. Randolph, grandson, of the deathbed.

It was a scene of Augury. George Wythe Randolph, who wou'd later chew up Pages of oratory in favor of Secession & dividing his grandfather's Country, was then only 8, & stood uncomprehending at the Old Sage's bedside. Old Tho. utter'd his advice, his admonitions, his final testaments to his grandchildren, & seeing the namesake of his old teacher so befuddled, he smiled, that "George does not understand what all this means."

Tho' much business is usually made of Old Tom's insistence that his Gravestone be simple, and no mention of his vaunt'd Presidency, Vice-Presidency, &c., be made, the more peculiar was this Command in his Instructions: that the Stone be hewn from the same Rock as his coarse Columns, that no one be tempt'd to destroy it for the value of the materials.

How well had Tom taken the Temper of his new Citizens! For sure as he said, his Countrymen have chopp'd at the Past, taking as little Reverence for an old Building as a Ploughman has for an uncut Field. For tho' a woodpile provides plenty enough warmth in Winter, in Summer it is only a dusty Refuge for Rattlesnakes. & thus have we treat'd our Patrimony, that we shou'd only make it a cold & zoned Museum, girdled apart from human Intercourse; or, that it should be slic'd up & grill'd, for the better Delectation of an Asphalt Impressario.

Up the Seaboard John Adams turn'd to Death in Peacefield. Thus did two Lights whisper, flicker, & vanish.

End, then, this copybook Post-Mail, with a copybook entry. Tho sat by his wife, who was sickly & dying. She cou'd no longer read, so she began to copy, in regular school-book Hand, these Lines from Sterne's Tristram Shandy:

"Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity life follows my pen. The days and hours of it are flying over our heads like clouds of a windy day never to return - more every thing presses on -" [and here her Pen dropp'd, & Tho finish'd with] "and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which follows it, are preludes to the eternal separation which we are shortly to make!"

Beneath, in another hand, written by Jefferson, alone:

"...quo fata trahunt retrahuntque sequamurquidquid erit, superanda omnis fortuna ferendo est." -Aeneid V.709.

"let us follow, where the fates take us or take us back: whatever will be, every Turne of Fate can be overcome, by Endurance."

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Under the Volcano

Once again, wild Eyjafjallajokull has burbl'd his Indigestion 'cross Europe. Not since John Rolfe, our fair State's Aeneas, sent back to England his Tobacco Roote, & made a curing-house of the Colony, has this Monster stirred from its icy Bounds. Like Loki, strapp'd & chain'd to the Misery of dripping Death, the Volcanoe has shiver'd, & left a mighty Tremble in its Wake.

& such grievous Consequence, for poor Europa! How shall her Parcels & Communiques travel from point to point, without the continual work of Posts? How shall the rich community of Scholars, the easy & liberal Discourse of Minds tutor'd in humane studies, continue unimpeded, when a Cape of ash clouds out the Sun? How shall burnish'd Britons, already inconvenienc'd by the noisome Unrest in Siam, ever return to their Couches in commodious time, ever sip again the cocoa-Spring of dulcetted Coffee, ever rest their confidence on the Wings of weary Transit, drain'd of vigor?

Such miserable Circumstance, such unmitigat'd Suffering, stretches my Hand to that worn Volume of Plinius Secundus' Epistulae, a font of Wisdom & experience:

"A cloud, from which mountain was uncertain, at this distance (but it was found afterwards to come from Mount Vesuvius), was ascending, the appearance of which I cannot give you a more exact description of than by likening it to that of a pine tree, for it shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall trunk, which spread itself out at the top into a sort of branches; occasioned, I imagine, either by a sudden gust of air that impelled it, the force of which decreased as it advanced upwards, or the cloud itself being pressed back again by its own weight, expanded in the manner I have mentioned; it appeared sometimes bright and sometimes dark and spotted, according as it was either more or less impregnated with earth and cinders. This phenomenon seemed to a man of such learning and research as my uncle extraordinary and worth further looking into." - Epistulae, VI. 16.

Like a Stone-pine, Vesuvius branch'd over Italy, spreading its poison Bowers & reaching south, for the Gulf of Salerno. As the Cries of abandon'd Wretches echoed on the Tongues of Slaves, pleading Rescue! Rescue!, Pliny thought only of his Science.

From Misenus he sail'd, in a quick Cutter. At the Shore he greet'd his friends, but the Winds that had steer'd him 'cross the Bay suddenly Doldrumm'd, & abandon'd him to the growing Shadow of Ash. As the Sun blacken'd they supp'd on a Picnick Lunch, & Pliny retir'd to a nap. His friends look'd upon him, worried at his sudden Indolence; yet he stirr'd not, & cou'd not be convinc'd to return to his Ship

So they relinquish'd him, left him to nap in a Tomb of Pumice-ash. When next they return'd, he was found, in an attitude of Repose, dust'd & blacken'd.

"What is the body, but a loathsome Masse
Of dust and ashes, brittle as a glasse."
-- William Prynne

In Afghanistan, the women & boys gather up broken glass, for whatever may fill up their bellies. This glasse is then ground down to the finest silt-dust, at which point it can be built again into - a Kite-string.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

I refute it Thus!

But yester-day, an Incident, common enough in the Traffick of daily Existence, yet singular in Import, & to the profit to humane Learning, requiring acute Attention & a pretty Interpretation to justify its Profundity, came to pass, tho' quickly, & so common, that it wou'd defy the sharpest of naturall Philosophers to capture. For it has been said, that no Observation can be made, without subtly changing the Observ'd; so does my Quill quiver at the Thought of recording so particular, & yet so instant, an Occurence.

Brick Stairs ascend to the Door of Lantz Chapell. This Work of ancient artisanry reflects the finer religious Sentiments of this porcinely profane Valley. Its stained-glasse depicts noble Scenes, exemplary Tales of Biblical History; its Gables aspire into the Sky, as do the pious & noble Souls praying therein.

On yesterday, Marcus Hockaday, a Musician, one skill'd in Composition & the arts of Conduction, strode towards the Chapell. Carrying to this, his Place of work, a sheaf of Papers, musics, notes, the Papers of his Students, he hurry'd & hoped to gain the Chapell before his Strength yield'd. As its Construction seems accomodat'd to Giants of both Spirit & stature, its Stairs are an easy Foot in height. He tripp'd his Toe against the tip of the Brick, stumbl'd, & explod'd into a Torrent of paper. & from the Depths of this white Whirlwind erupt'd a Cry, a horrid Expression of turgid Rage - "F_____!"

Marc. H. came to me, grievously cut & troubled that he wou'd lose his employ. Seeing the grizly Wound, smudg'd verdant, vermillion & teal, & hearing Marc. H.'s acc't of the terrible Incident, where by Pain & startl'd Rage he found himself utterly unmann'd, I found myself troubl'd. A nagging Sore had appear'd in the Tissue of my Thought, & I cou'd not rest till I found Balm & Bandage.

Why shou'd we, when fill'd with Disgust, or enflam'd with Agony, yelp out that one Word that signifies Copulation, the sacred Act of Love? Or, given the other Choice, why hurl from one's throat, "Excrement!", or "Scally-wampus!"

Such Reactions are all the more peculiar, for they cross-breed Instinct, with Learning. Pain inspires a natural Cavill to rise from our Throats, & yet we must be taught these Words, before we can employ them as the supposed instinctive Flexes of outraged Sense.

First, a distinction: that there are Curses, where one might wish Evil upon another; this is what Montaigne means when he describes, "In times past, when those of Crete would curse any one, they prayed the gods to engage him in some ill custom." Thus, when we say, "Fie on ye, & yr wretch'd whorish Family entire!", we wish that the Gods wou'd descend & violate their bodily Dignity.

Otherwise, there are Oaths, where one invokes, as Witness, a Deity or spirit presumed Oblivious. Id est, when Hamlet cries,
"Swounds! I shou'd take it: for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver'd and lack gall
To make oppression bitter."
we know that he calls upon the very Wounds of Christ's Passion, both to evoke the Depths of his abasement, & to stand as Emblem of his monstrous Iniquity.

But before we proceed to the finer Analysis, we must ask - which, then, of the two, shou'd be nobler? Is the untrammel'd Sincerity of the Heart to be valued, so that pure Exclamation gains Weight, in direct proportion to its unthinking Utterance? Or shou'd we value that man, that on a Sea of troubles, refuses to relinquish his Piety, & calls to lofty Heaven to scan his Misery?

Picture, then, monstrous plum'd Vanity, that with an outrag'd Toe, stubb'd to blood, cries to our Saviour Himself, dragging the Attention of our Almighty Redeemer to the gory Stubb that he trails along the Ground. Or a Strumpet, suddenly blossom'd with Cankers all along her most intimate Parts, giving out a cowish Bellow that summons the very Spiritu Sancto to her splay'd Legs - a Nothing, a Trouble sprouting on a Naught.

Nothing outrages the Reader so, as settling on a Void; so let us return to our favored Word: "F_____!", & our Theory of the Exclamation.

Earlier I claim'd it as a signal Mystery that, when in Pain, we evoke that supreme conjugal Pleazure. Even aside Ned Bearskin, I have seen him slice his Palm with an oyster-shell, & faster than Blood sprung to the Wound, the very word, "F____!" burst from his brazen Lips.

& yet this Digamma gives the Clew to the Mystery entire. For any Exclamation is an Excess of feeling - an o'erbrimming of sentiment that crushes the Frame, firing our Fury further with its own wheezing Torrent.

Linguists, in their prettiness, call these words "Expletives," from L. expleo, "I fill up." This descends yet further from the Greek - pleio, "more or many"; & plethon, "plenitude" (vide "plethora"). On the one, pain, or Frustration, to excess, inspires our ejaculation; whereas amatory Desire, fuelled by the tender Twigs of conjugal Ardor, explodes in that Burst of pent-up longing.

Devolving my Theory thus, I tugg'd at the Ear of young Goodman Stubb, as in his assoc. with the commoner Sort, he must have more Occasion to philosophize on the Meanings of colorful Language. When we had bandag'd Marc. H., & sent him off fie'ing & thumbl'ing the World in his Waggon, Goodman turn'd, with sagacious Humour in his Eyes. I cou'd only assume that my Physick of the Emotions had convinc'd him fully. "I must say, Sir;" and here he paused, searching my Face for Clews of my Honesty, looking for Hints of Hostility surging at my Brows, or some other, more obscure Passion, clamoring for expression in another Part of the Plantation. "I must say, I don't understand why you talk on so; seems to me, you go to some Lengths, to give a f______ about a nothing."

"On life’s vast ocean diversely we sail,
Reason the card, but passion is the gale."
--A. Pope, Essay on Man

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Original of Laura

"Nel dolce tempo della prima etade..."

683 yrs ago, Petrarca passes thro' Avignon, by the Rhone. Greet'd by Good Friday, in starch'd & solemn Garb, he betook himself to Church for the Commemoration of the Lord's Passion - that Moment when the Earth crack'd, as a single Man's heart split, on a Roman cross.

But the laughing Princes of Serendip looked down at him in kind Cruelty, granting him a softer Suffering than those cronish Parcae cou'd have dispens'd. Laura, the fair-hair'd & shapely, lovely as a Rhyme, cross'd him. & henceforth he had not the Safety of himself:

On every side Love found his victim bare,
And through mine eyes transfix'd my throbbing heart;
Those eyes, which now with constant sorrows flow.

Leaving aside umbrous Remnants and fork-tongued Rumors, we find Laura as unknown, reclusive, and confounding as Petrarca himself did, when he cried

Her, who, unshackled by love's heavy chain,
Flies swiftly from its chase, whilst I in vain
My fetter'd journey pantingly renew.

At that Moment when he seems dismember'd by Love, Petrarca has the Wisdom to acknowledge truth - that Love gathers his Fragments.

& yet, if a pauper takes to the Highway, he comes not a King. Last night, I betook myself to do my Dance on the running-track opposite my Plauntation grounds. Yet, I cou'd discern within myself such Disorder, such tumbling Madness, that I knew my Dauncing wou'd profit me none.

So I hied away, up into the Frenchman's Woods, towards the Massanutten range. The rocks hung a looming purple Mantle before my eyes, whilst all round, the creaking Crickets & the scuttering oppossums crumpled through the Grasses. I laid eyes on the lit Windows of strange Houses; gnarl'd Posts lining the fields, strung together by rotted Wire; and the Trees risen into the Stars. Near the Cemetery Rd., I heard a thrushing & heady Sound, echoing up to me - the Shenandoah, breathing & vibrating along in eddies & Ripples, serpentine & great like the coiled Ouroboros.

The Learned have claim'd, for years past, that Shenandoah signifies daughter of the skies - & that the pleasant Air, so call'd "Oh, Shenandoah," elegizes the Love of a trader for fair & dusky savauge Princess. I queried Ned Bearskin, but he shook his head, & resum'd his prior activity - unrolling his leather Bag, plucking a choice Fragment of beef-jerky, & gnawing in the Face of my Curiosity.

Shou'd Shenandoah be the daughter of the Skies, then she has for certain a Sister - the Nile. For only otherwise does the Nile flow northerly, contrary to the conventional course of Waters thro'out the World. From the Nile did Isis net the mangl'd & fish-bitten Remains of her husband, Osiris; and sew him back together. At the Nile Delta did the Worship of Isis spring - & fitting, that a Goddess shou'd associate with a Form, so feminine in shape, as to remind one of the female Delta.

Isis, too, was daughter of Nut, the Sky-goddess in dusky Aegypt. & in her time, when such Figments were venerated - Isis was lovely, too.

Passing down the Cemetery Rd., I came to Main st., cross'd up the rd. to Fairview, head'd towards to the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians. There the sound of I-81, a flumen of Traffic, roar'd up across the Darkness on the spring Air. Down the Spring-house St., then across the Valley Pike; then home.

My Muscles seem'd finally tired by the Exercise, & I was loath to move, or to take another Step, beyond that which wou'd get me in a Tubb. Goodman Stubb knock'd, & hand'd me a Transcript of a singular History. Legend records that G. Washington nam'd the Shenandoah Valley, according to the Syllables of his Indian-friend, Oskanondonha; alias Skenando, Skonondon, baptiz'd John. A Giant, as his suppos'd Ancestors Powhatan & Opechancanough were, he assist'd the Glorious Cause of the Americans. Some Versions construe that the air "Oh, Shenandoah," tells of a trader that woos away Skenonando's daughter - the very daughter of the Stars.

But such has it always been, with the matters of History. We are manackled by faulty Recollection, imprison'd in a drab Mad-house, where chattering Idiots mumble the same Stories, repeating the same embroider'd Lines, reciting the same tuneless choruses: a Chronicle of Kings, done up in nursery-rhyme.

"Have ye not any interest, sir? Shall I take away the book?" Young Goodman looked at me over the splayed Covers, eager with a Discovery he hoped shou'd please me. But I waved him away, sending him out to the Yard to tend to Ned's hoggs before he bedded. As he part'd to leave me, he stopp'd at the Door, and turn'd to ask, "But sir, did not yr walk tonight divert you? Did it not take you far afield from yr cares?"

"No, Goodman," I said. And Goodman shut the Door, and bid me goodnight.

I found myself at the end, the same as I had been. For the passing Wonders of the world are fitful as the dancing Figures in a Phenakistoscope - they flit & sway in the closest Semblance of Life, but are only a Trick of the eye, a succession of dead Images, piled atop one another to conjure a cumulative Movement. I had climb'd Ventoux, & found the Majesty of the peak wanting.

But yet our Minds are wedded always to their Consolations - tho' they might find themselves separat'd. My hand shut the bedroom Latch quietly, so as not to stir Mme Bainton, who had slept since 9 of the clock. Her hair, auburn & soft, splay'd on the Pillow - rich Foliage spread 'gainst the autumn Sky. I stepp'd again into that chang'd River of memory, a perennial Stream since we court'd in Tidewater. And in the Darkness, the protean Murmur of the Shenandoah ran forward, a Chorus of a creeks & Runs.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

In the Land of Superstition

Calamitous Newes, from Georgia! That penurious Colony, with few enough Blushes to sweeten its tuberiform Appearance, offers up a Tale of Woe, & injurious Mischief.

Monsieur Please Please Me, the Soul Brother No. One, the Cotton Gin of Romance - a dancing embodiment of Burke's Sublime - James Browne, has failed to keep Hours at his Tomb, preferring instead to walk divers Fields & Streets.

I have monitor'd the Progress of M. Browne & His Famous Flames for some years, ever since I first sight'd him at a Cock-Tussle in Gloucester Co. Business demanded that I appear north of the James, & I was kidnapped by a penurious Gent. by the Name of Churm. This Churm had draggled me about his Lands for nearly a full Rotation of the Clock. Twelve hours of tedious marching, measuring, fretting; twelve wasted Hours, better spent in the Company of Mme Bainton!

But at last, as a Diversion, he suggest'd we view an Exhibition of Cock-Strength, and watch the Battle of two Noble Spurs - El Gallo, and Mickey. Mickey was a fine Black cock, festoon'd with a red Chapeau; El Gallo another sable, but with Sprays of wild Auburn decorating his obsidian Coat. A whole rawkous Mess of Activity surrounded; a human Ring of shouts, whistles, calls, & the occasional glubbing jug, toss'd up in the Air, only to meet a pair of receptive Lips. Few were the Maids present that Day (for the Cock-Match is a grim, manly Specktacle), but many a Man kiss'd his Bottle as tho' it had been his dearest Sweet-heart.

As a Gentleman's Sport, I find it difficult to recommend the Cockfight. Generally the Contest is held on a summer's Day, which contributes to a Slew of insalubrious Influences. Dust fills the Air & grimes the Eyes with a teary mud; Heat penetrates the deepest Folds of a Gent's cotton, crowding the gaps & Spaces of any garment with Oven's-breath; Spirits, easily pass'd from Hand to hand in jolly Fellowship, soon clouds the Senses & goggles the Mind with unwelcome Distortions. At such a Cockfight did I see a man, undone by drink, approach a Barrel with all the tendernesses of a Don Juan, and embark on a commendably earnest Courtship of the Tub - a pretty Figure for some of our Society Fops!

But I distract myself down follied Roads of Thought. This Churm, in one of the few decent Turns he ever stood me, gave me to understand that he wou'd soon be sick, having imbibed entirely too much Plum Wine. He pull'd me off the Crowd, begging to be his Support, that he might not festoon himself with the Contents of his Belly. Instead, under a Linden's bowers, he collapsed, as though the Hand of an Angry God had crush'd his frail Frame to Dust.

Glad to be dispos'd of my noisome Companion, I found myself charm'd by a peculiar Tune - one whose singular Rhythm beseech'd my Breeches to boogie.

The Browne caper'd & frolick'd, gliding from one side of the Stage to another on frantic Legs. And such golden Phrases, such epigrammatic Wisdom, is rarely seen, aside from a Plutarch, or a Rochefoucauld. Such lines as -
"Gotta have a mother for me!"
"Stay on the scene, like a loving machine..."
"Night Train, Night train, all aboard night train."
recall the lapidary Style of a Horace.

All the which stirs me more, when I hear that the Browne has slid aside the Door of his Crypt & ventur'd into the scalp'd wintry Fields of Georgia. But ought we to be surprized? For

“Men who leave their mark on the world are very often those who, being gifted and full of nervous power, are at the same time haunted and driven by a dominant idea, and are therefore within a measurable distance of insanity” --Francis Galton

The recent Experiments of Galvani have shown that our Muscles are but a Tissue of Threads, pluck'd by Electricity as easily as a Maid's finger might tug her Sewing. The Lightning that blasts apart Trees, that shatters the Silence of an insistent Rain, that flashes a Sun's brightness into every Corner of Nature - of such Jolts are we made. In eastern Virginia, a Tale was told in my Father's time of a peculiar Printing. A man had stood at his Window, watching a Storm curdle out of summer's eve Heat. Suddenly a blasting Bolt struck at his window, demolishing the Wall & the man. But opposite his former Stance, the white-wash'd Wall had been stamp'd with his likeness - a Silhouette cut in the Air by an electric Blade.

Such is the sublime Power of the Electric, and such the Strength necessary to power our Limbs & Lungs. Might perhaps this wandering Browne be merely an electric Figment? - for as Galton has stated, the Extraordinary are most often those men of tremendous nervous Power. Stonewall Jackson, altho' a commended Commander, was afflict'd so terribly by the Imbalance of Electricity, that he wou'd stand, hourly, with his right Hand above him, to harmonize the trembling Currents in his Nerves. Many Gents. in this Valley assure me that, nightly, they have seen the Ghost of Jackson riding thro' the wreathed Darkness, searching for his long-dead Armies.

But this is a superstitious Valley, & plagued with Credulity.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Worm & the Gear, part the first.

"A despairing man is in despair over something. So it seems for an instant, but only for an instant; that same instant the true despair manifests itself, or despair manifests itself in its true character. For in the fact that he despaired of something, he really despaired of himself, and now would be rid of himself." -- Søren Kierkegaard, The Sicknesse Unto Death

Mens sana in corpore sano has chapp'd, wither'd, & died. All are Romans of the Soul, yet we lack the transfigur'd Strength to preserve eternal these rattling Frames.

For we are but Sticks & Bones, none different than the Mollusck, who slurps up Creatures tiny as Dust, to make his noble, glossy Exoskeleton. We, maundering Apes, chew up Meats & wash our Gullets with Sweet-Tea, and build our Shells on the inside. Thus do our marionette-bones dance on the Whims of bellowing Cows & rooting Piggs.

On such fragile & jittery Speculation have I tap-danc'd, hoping to find a brief Moment's Respite from a reeling Waltz of Illness. Dame Pneumonia grasp'd me in her globby Palms; Tart Bronchitis chok'd the Breath of my Conversation with her sea-green Putty; and hourly my Ears click'd with Congestion.

Hoping to relieve myself of such wicked Pains, I betook myself to a Spaniard's feaste, at the Publick House call'd the Old Ranch in their Tongue. Happily did I chortle over a Plate of Chile Verde; happily did I chomp away at the Ice that cool'd my Sweet Tea. Col. Orndorff, a Man bounteous skill'd in all Ways of contending, discours'd with me regarding the inevitable growth of Oratory in our Colony. I felt a booming Promise growing in my Breast - a sensation that perhaps, in the midst of clammy Winter, shoots & Tubers were emerging for a New Year.

But no Joy goes without her Train of sorrows. Midst an afterdinner mint, an alimentary Ameliorative that I heartily recommend, I notic'd that my Molar had grown jagged. Indeed, it had broken, & my poor Tooth disappear'd into my Gullet, unnotic'd & unmourn'd as an orphan Chimney-sweep, lost in the blacken'd Streets of whorish London.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


Being, a Narrative in three Parts; a secret & true Historie of former Employ; a Parable of Christian Import; & a Tale of an abandoned Life:

In Which a Guest Offers an Alternate Viewpoint on a Particular Experience Shared With Our Benefactor

By Captain Karl Gaartenbach

Our esteemed Sir Epaphroditus Bainton is, at heart, a man of some modesties, and he has relayed to me that the following tale is one he does not wish to personally share as he feels it paints him in an unnecessarily boastful light. This is a falsehood, as the tale in question is one of coarseness and Horrors, leading me to believe that the true purpose of his mysterious reticence is all the more obscure, perhaps motivated by a desire to see his own terrifying actions from the viewpoint of a third party, like a man gazing at his own slack bed-bound corpse from above as his soul rises to the Great Reward. Whatever the circumstance, I hope to provide an alternate perspective on our benefactor, a perspective made all the more jarring by its grim veracity.

Though I am now a Man of the Seas, I once busied myself in the occupation of Entertainments, serving as the ringmaster for a Carnevale of some note. It was through this profession that I became re-acquainted with E. Bainton, a former rival turned friend and compatriot. I could see within Bainton's eyes the distinctive glitter of intelligence, and upon finding that he yearned for employment (his previous career as a Chirurgeon had been rendered obsolete by Progress, though I can attest to his skills in the field of Humours), I quickly set upon finding a suitable task which he might relieve me of. As every Circus must need its corresponding Bread, I decided to offer E. Bainton a career selling Fried and Sugared Doughs at the Carnevale Concessions. Though the work was beneath a man of his standing, he took to it as a Chinaman takes to the Rail, and as I watched the parade of merry Fatmen leaving his sugar-crusted register with thick smiles upon their greasy faces, I realized Bainton was the man I had sought to replace me, as I had grown weary of consorting with the Clownes and standing deep in the dung of the Elephaunts and Jungled Cats. I asked my Employer, the owner of the Carnevale, if she had objection to Bainton replacing myself as Ringmaster. She said she had no reservations regarding my plan.

At this point you are no doubt staggered by my use of the feminine pronoun. Yes, friends, I was in the Employ of a Woman. It remains unclear how she came to own the Carnevale, yet I believe it was bequeathed to her by wealthy aged relatives whose minds were too syphilis-blown to realize the error of their ways. While the “fairer” sex is generally known to be weak of mind and will, this particular example was a craven and venal simpleton, a platonic ideal of cronyism and incompetence. To refer to her as a “pin-head” would be an insult to the microencephalitics who would joyously caper in our center ring. She shall henceforth be referred to as “The Humbug.”

With The Humbug's blessing, I began to train Bainton in the art of Ringmastering, showing him how to utilize Confidence in order to part a man from his purse as surely and righteously as Moses parted the Red Sea. To the surprise of none, he took to the trade quickly, and I had utter faith in his ability to continue the operation of the Carnevale once I had returned to the North Pacific to hunt Steller's Sea-Cow. All seemed well at the Carnevale, until, that is, it came time for Bainton to receive his first pay-cheque, totaled and signed by The Dread Humbug herself. He came before me in confusion, for The Humbug had made him to understand that his added work was in vain, as he would not be taking over the Carnevale as Ringmaster, and to make matters worse, his pay-cheque came out to seven Spanish doubloons less than was previously understood. Bainton was paid less than even the Slop-Man, as though The Humbug wished to not only insult but emasculate him.

Over many Ham-Burgs, which were the food style at this time, we conspired to confront The Humbug regarding her poor treatment of Bainton, who, with each passing moment, seemed to become increasingly enraged at his foul lot. His rage was directed not at the pittance he was paid, as he believes money to be a cipher upon which small men project merit, but rather at the Principle behind the Principal. A man of Principle, as we all know, is a man only a fool would double-cross.

We confronted The Humbug in her office quarters and were surprised to find her with her two small children. Many would hold back their ire upon finding mother and child together, being reminded perhaps of the Pieta, but Bainton's rage was immune to all sentiment. While never raising his voice nor employing a cussed-word, he unleashed a barrage of vitriol upon The Humbug, accusing her of Shenanigans, Japes, and darkest Skullduggery. His words cut with surgical precision, owing, no doubt, to his previous experiences in less metaphorical blood-letting. I watched as The Humbug drew her offsprings to her breast, as though frightened that Bainton would steal them away and devour them in Saturnine fashion, a fear which, I should add, seemed apropos at the time. I had already suggested to The Humbug that perhaps her young ones should retire to my cabin and listen to the phonograph, as I had recently acquired a number of amusing recordings on wax cylinder, some of which ran nearly ninety seconds in length. She demurred, her bearings thrown so far from their axes that she could no longer cogitate rationally, seemingly preferring her children watch their mother's verbal vivisection.

While I remember few specifics of Bainton's heated oration (other than a reference to The Humbug's “obfuscatory duplicity”), I remain struck by the unrelenting viciousness of the whole affair. This put me in mind of when, as a child, I watched my Uncle Durastis beat a crazed dog to death with a small shillelagh that he kept for the purpose of beating feral animals to death. I remember being conflicted at the time; I hated the dog, which had taken to biting and snapping, and I knew it had to die, yet it was difficult to watch beloved Uncle Durastis drive the shillelagh into the creature's skull, as I knew the dog was not intelligent enough to know better, nor intelligent enough to defend itself. The hound, I regret to say, was infinitely more capable of defense than The Humbug.

Bainton left The Humbug in a state of glazed hysteria. We left the Carnevale, never to return in a professional capacity, through I understand Bainton did eventually receive his Doubloons. While I was startled by his capacity for Venoms, I cannot help but admire his conviction, which did not wither in the face of pitiable circumstance. I do not know The Humbug's fate, and I regret that I see Bainton infrequently now, but whenever I am hauling a sea-cow from the oceans and witness a shark-fish tearing the organs from its pasty belly, I offer a brief knowing smile.

Captain Karl Gaartenbach

[When I was a Stripling, Col. Bainton, my esteem'd Father, took me on a Survey of his Lands. There we found a wrecked Acre of vine-trellises, dragged across the tortur'd Ground like a wild Blanket of Green & Purple. He had, in some Years passed, set up a Vineyard here, on top an old Indian Field, but Maintenance had been neglect'd. He pointed with his Cane, and sd only, "Epaph, the World runs away."

So it is with Memory, & thus Capt. Gaartenbach steps from the Shadows of that other neglect'd Vineyard, the Past. The Letter came to me by the Roads & Foot-paths of Bearskin's people, out of Carolina & up the Roanoke, to meet this wild & untest'd Shenandoah. Tho' Gaartenbach now makes his Home at Sea, where there are no Dirt Floors, & the only Naturalls are Cannibal or Finn'd, I think of that noble Corsair often, & from that Time we spent together, do my best to wipe clean the Blood.]

[Gratias Tibi ago to B. R. Williams, previous mention'd Here, for his noble Work in Locating the elusive Gaartenbach, & transcribing his peculiar Style.]