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.