Wednesday, July 8, 2015

On the Ploughshare Tortoise

Scholars express doubt as to the ultimate origin of Cosmatesque paving, an ornate style of decoration on the floors of certain medieval Italian churches. Such floors are comprised of polished stone parallelograms, roundels and other geometric patterns, often enlivened with coiling bands of smaller mosaic tesserae. These designs are polychrome, assembled from alabaster, purplish-red porphyry, green serpentine, and orange-yellow giallo antico. Stones fit together in these floors are polished to a fine sheen – the floors have a hard and brilliant gem-like aspect. It is like walking on agate and the complex geometric patterns repeating underfoot make transit of such surfaces a vertiginous affair – the bright stones either seem foreground or background, and the paving oscillates between these two readings creating, in some cases, an effect like Op Art.

Most descriptions of this paving attribute its triumphal appearance in the latter half of 12th century to a family of craftsmen, the Cosmati said to hail from Agnani, a village 37 miles from Rome. Lorenzo Cosmati was said to have learned his technique from Greeks and, indeed, the floors of Roman churches attributed to him have a Byzantine aspect. In Byzantium, mosaic work flourished and some writers believe that the floors in Christian churches were designed to simulate the abstract, non-figurative designs in Turkish and Persian rugs, textiles used as prayer mats in Muslim mosques and otherwise familiar in the Eastern Empire. Certainly, fine Turkish and Persian rugs have a reverie-inducing quality arising from the eye’s perception of certain repeated patterns as either advancing or retreating into the fabric. These qualities exist in Byzantine mosaic as well. However, Byzantine mosaic, generally, employs smaller elements and considerably more gold leaf and colored glass than is the case in the Cosmatesque floors in Rome and throughout Italy. (The greatest example of Byzantine "Cosmatesque" is said to be the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, a place that I have visited – in my view, the transfiguration of every surface in the grotto-like chapel with innumerable gold tesserae is very different in appearance and effect than the paving in the Italian churches that I have seen. Sicilian and Byzantine Cosmatesque paving, cloister frieze and architrave decoration seems more closely related to me to the Roman opus sectile used on the floors of banqueting halls and bedrooms in pre-Christian Roman villas.) In any event, the claim that Lorenzo Cosmati "invented" the form of decorative paving visible in Roman churches in the 12th and 13th century is complicated by the fact that archetypical Cosmatesque floors are found in Monte Cassino, an abbey built a hundred years earlier. Furthermore, there is some question as to whether the name for this style of floor relates to an actually family of craftsmen or is a serendipitous conflation of an Italian family name ("Cosmati") with the Greek word cosmos, meaning in the 12th century a luminous and beautiful ordered place or thing. An alternative term for paving of this kind is Cosmedin, clearly a world related to "cosmetic," and more obviously invoking the idea that flooring of this kind created a kind of glistening and geometrically rigorous "cosmos", an opening beneath our feet into an order of clarity, beauty, serenity, made from enduring stone.

Furthermore, the exact quality of the Roman Cosmatesque arises from the unique nature of the building elements used to create those floors. Visitors to Rome’s Pantheon, the sole surviving structure from the great age of pagan architecture and a monument to the power of the Caesars, stand astonished by the riot of colors on display in the vast temple’s interior. Roman architects of the age of the Caesars luxuriated in using marbles and stone of exotic texture and color – indeed, quarries were established throughout the empire to provide polychrome stone for use in the capitol. Africa and Asia Minor, even India, seem to have been sources for the lavish silky marble used for monumental elements in Roman palaces and temples. And after Rome’s decline and fall, these building materials were strewn throughout the landscape in the small city surviving in the ruins of the great capitol. Much of the marble in the Forum and on the Palatine and Capitoline hills was hacked apart and burned for lime. But the huge columns of granite and porphyry proved resistant and, in the 12th century, could be sawn into disk-like roundels, these cross-sections gear-shaped because of their fluting, then, embedded in the Cosmatesque floors. As a result, much of these pavement, like cross-sections of tissue embedded in a histology slide, is assembled from the wreckage of the great pagan temples and public buildings that once adorned the Seven Hills of Rome. The gem-like qualities of the stone and its abundance testifies to the vastness and ruinous splendor of the ancient ruins from which these floors were built.

It is the grave misfortune of the Plowshare Tortoise (astrochelys yniphora) that the dome of its shell closely resembles a gorgeously designed Cosmatesque floor. This animal, sometimes called the Angonaka tortoise, lives in a small part of Madagascar, a dry deciduous forest and savannah in the vicinity of Baly Bay on the northwest coast of the island – their native range seems to be an area less than 20 miles square. Since its discovery, the tortoise has been prized for the astonishing beauty of its carapace – the term "astrochelys" describes the star-shaped patterns of interlocking shell that comprise the animal’s carapace. The shell is highly convex ("chelys" means "convex") and symmetrically patterned with polished-looking mahogany and brandy-colored plates. The creature is one of the most beautiful animals on earth. Chinese collectors have offered as much as $60,000 for a single specimen – a kind of living and ornate gemstone to place in their gardens.

Astrochelys yniphora is popularly called "Ploughshare" because of a protruding gular scute on the animal’s plastron. To understand this anatomical feature, we must learn some technical terms relating to turtles. "Scutes" are the keratinous plates fused together to comprise the shell of a turtle – terrapins, tortoises, and turtles are all animals of the testudines order, that is, "turtles." The convex dome on the animal’s dorsal side is called the "carapace." The flat armor on the belly of turtle is named the "plastron." As is the case with the carapace, the plastron of a turtle is comprised of a number of scutes. Those scutes directly underlying the turtle’s head – the so-called "anterior scutes" – are called "gular." In a Ploughshare tortoise, the gular scute protrudes, jutting forward under the animal’s head like a trowel. Male Ploughshare tortoises fight for the privilege of breeding – in this combat, the male tortoises seek to overturn their adversaries, using their gular scutes as battering rams and pry bars. The tortoises are not large – they grow to about 18 inches long. In their native range, Ploughshare tortoises eat dried bamboo and bamboo leaves (they have never been observed to eat green or living bamboo); they also feed on the sun-dried feces of other reptiles and small carnivores.

Tortoises live in slow-motion. A Ploughshare tortoise is not sexually mature until it is 20 years old. This is a long time for an animal threatened on all sides with extinction. First, the Madagascar savannas are infested with feral "bush pigs". These pigs have a taste for turtle eggs and root up and devour clutches of them that they discover. The local farmers use slash and burn methods of agriculture, husbandry that is lethal to the slow-moving tortoises. But, most importantly, tortoise smuggling is rife – criminal gangs hunt for the tortoises and capture them to be sold to wealthy Malaysian and Chinese collectors. As a consequence of these factors, the Ploughshare tortoise is severely endangered and, indeed, almost extinct – it is estimated that only 500 or so individuals survive in the wild. (Fifty-four Ploughshare tortoises, together with another two dozen "Radiated" turtles, an animal that is a close cousin to Astrolychus Yniphora, were confiscated from smugglers at an international airport in Thailand; it is conjectured that these smugglers were in possession of about one-tenth of the population of Angonaka tortoises living wild in the world.) Tortoises have tiny brains and incapable to adapting to changes in their environment – in the 17th century, a zoologist removed the brain of a tortoise: the animal lived for six months without its. The same zoologist lopped of the head of one of his specimens – that animal continued breathing and walking about headlessly for 23 days.

During the war in Vietnam, military officials were alleged to have remarked: "We had to destroy that village to save it." Something similar might be said about the Ploughshare tortoises currently surviving in the wild – the scientists attempting to conserve the species have taken to disfiguring the animals to protect them from being collected by smugglers. On You-Tube, an interested person can watch veterinarians and conservationists perching tortoises on round pedestals, the kind of wooden spools around which cable is wrapped. The tortoises’ feet don’t touch the ground as the animals balance on their plastrons on the spool. Clawed feet paw at the air helplessly as scientist’s use power tools to chisel letters into the gorgeous Cosmatesque shells of the animals. Typically, conservationists number each tortoise with big, ugly numerals and, then, grind letters into the shell labeling the quadrant of the park were the turtle was collected. In this way, the turtles are rendered unsuitable for sale in the Asian markets that prize the animals.

The conservationists mutilating the shells of these beautiful animals act from desperation. And, of course, they are not immune to the startling architectronic splendor of the animal’s carapace and plastron. "It is a matter of last resort," one of the zoologists says and one can hear the tone of tragic resignation in his voice. When the gods taught Orpheus music, they first showed him how to stretch cords across the hollow of a turtle’s shell in order to make a lyre. The alternative name to Testudines is ChelysChelys not only means "convex" but is also the Greek word for "lyre".

Sunday, July 5, 2015

On Adam's Rib

On Adam’s Rib




To explicate John Donne’s love poetry is to take a position in the front trenches of the battle of the sexes. Donne’s love poems run the gamut from simple lust through adoration, maniacal jealousy, and masochistic self-abnegation. The poet anatomizes sexual response in terms that are both physiological and emotional. His love verse characterizes women as goddesses, vampires, soul-murderers, religious icons. To comment on Donne is necessarily to mount the barricades where misogyny confronts philogynia. A man writing an exegesis of Donne’s love poetry runs the risk of revealing too much about his own relations with the opposite sex.

Consider Theodor Redpath’s magisterial The Songs and Sonnets of John Donne, a collection of Donne’s love poems furnished with several prefaces, a hundred pages of introduction, no fewer than eight appendices, a glossary of rhetorical forms, and thousands of notes on difficult or contested passages in the poems. The poems themselves number about fifty, none of them longer than 65 lines. Redpath is an expert on Elizabethan obscenities and quick to identify bawdy passages in Donne’s texts. He seems to have read everything about Donne, including vast amounts in Italian (on Petrarch) and German. Redpath also fancies himself something of an expert on the physiology of sex as witness notes such as on the conceit of the compass in Donne’s "A Valediction: forbidding mourning":

...the highly language-conscious Donne could hardly fail in writing l. 32 to have in mind the sense of "erect" which could apply to the male sexual organ, and he could well, in a typically original way, have meant to suggest, secondarily and covertly, that it is the woman’s clitoris tht stiffens as the male partner returns home...
As is the case with many philologists, Redpath often finds ambiguities where there are none and invokes archaic and secondary meanings to show off his erudition, often construing passages in Donne to be far more arcane and difficult than they are meant to be. Further, and most problematic, Redpath is seriously tone-deaf. For instance, he follows Ezra Pound, another exegete with a tin ear, in finding Donne’s comical poem "The Ecstasy" an example of "Platonism believed." But, it seems apparent that Donne is pulling his reader’s leg (while stroking his girlfriend’s thigh) with stanzas such as :

Our hands were firmly cemented
With a fast balm, which thence did spring
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon one double string

So to intergraft our hands, as yet
Was all our means to make us one,
And pictures in our eyes to get
Was all our propagation...
This last phrase is particularly problematic in view of the poem’s setting – "a pregnant bank swell’d a pillow on a bed." Surely, Donne is joking about the "eye-beams" and the hand "cement", amusing himself and his lady-friend with the learned psycho-babble of his day. Bullshit has always been an important aspect of the language of seduction, a characteristic of Donne’s wit that Redpath is constitutionally unable to appreciate.

But there is another more interesting, subtle, and poignant subtext to Redpath’s commentary. Am I alone in detecting a faint aura of Nabokov’s Pale Fire in Redpath’s notes and explication? Does his commentary, in fact, embody a deeply suppressed narrative, the evidence of a highly contentious and sexualized rivalry?

Consider Redpath’s remarks on this passage from Donne’s "Valediction: of the book":

I’ll tell thee now, dear love, what thou shalt do
To anger destiny, as she doth u
How I shall stay, though she eloigne me thus.
And, how posterity shall know it too;
How thine may out-endure
Sibyl’s glory, and obscure
Her whom Pindar could allure,
And her, through whose help Lucan is not lame,
And her, whose book (they say) Homer did find, and name.
After reminding us that "eloigne" is law-French for "takes me far away," Redpath annotates the references to Sibyl, Pindar, Lucan, and Homer. "Sibyl’s glory" refers to the prophetess who foresaw the founding of the Roman empire as described by Virgil in his Aeniad. Corinna the Theban was said to have instructed Pindar in poetry and "defeaed him five times" at Theban poetry "slams." Lucan’s wife, Polla Argentaria, supposedly "assisted him in correcting" the first three books of the Pharsalia and "often completed (his) verses" when he found himself baffled by the Latin meter. The reference to Homer, however, inspires a lengthy and somewhat impassioned note from Redpath.

Ptolemy Hephaistion of Alexander, Redpath tells us, summarized what he called "New History." Although Ptolemy’s book is lost, its content is abstracted in Photius’ Myriobiblion, a work that Redpath editorially calls a "a mine of suspect information." Redpath tells us that according to these works a woman named Helena of Musaeus "wrote on the Trojan War, and that Homer took his subject from her work." Not content with this calumny on Homer, Photius reports that Ptolemy also alleged that Phantasia, a woman from Memphis, composed both the story of the Trojan War and Odysseus’s adventures, leaving these texts with a priest-scribe in her city. Homer is said to have come to Memphis and received copies from this priest-scribe and "followed them in composing" his two epics.

At this point, Redpath interpolates a waspish critique of Donne. Redpath says:

In neither case is Homer represented as simply giving a title to the work of someone else, or necessarily, as seriously plagiarizing.
Donne, Redpath implies, has accused Homer of plagiarizing, and, worse, simply putting his name on texts written by a woman. But the scholarly editor will have none of this nonsense and, in effect, rebukes Donne for claiming that the Greek bard’s poems were "her book" that, they say, "Homer did find and name."

Lurking behind Redpath’s vehemence on this point is a scholarly rivalry – and, indeed, a rivalry with a woman. Redpath’s great predecessor is a textual critic named H. C. Grierson, a man who published in 1912 an edition of Donne’s poems, known from inconsistent handwritten manuscripts. In his 1956 preface to the first edition of his book, Redpath declares his "greatest debt" to Grierson whose notes "have thrown light on so many dark places" in Donne’s verse. Redpath’s 1981 "Preface to (his) Second Edition," is largely devoted to denouncing the scholarly pretensions of Helen Gardner, whose Oxford edition of Donne’s songs was published in 1965 and, apparently, supplanted Redpath’s book issued nine years before.

With amusing, and fanatical, consistency, Redpath attacks everything that Gardner has asserted or, in the alternative, damns her with faint praise. "Professor Gardner" as Redpath calls his version of Phantasia of Memphis had dated the poems wrong; she mistakenly mistakes poems written within the conjugal relationship to verse about "unmarried lovers" – indeed, it seems that Professor Gardner doesn’t understand the first thing about love, whether married or unmarried. Redpath’s tone can be gauged from this quotation:

The sexual joy implied in "The Sun Rising" and the deeper spiritual satisfactions expressed in "The Canonization" are surely far from unknown in fortunate marriages?...Without further argument, I hope I have said enough to cast substantial doubt on Professor Gardner’s scheme of dating the lyrics...
In part, Redpath seems upset that he has had to revise and rewrite his magnum opus to address arguments contesting his opinions in Gardner’s competing edition. But there is also a persistent anxiety, I think, that Redpath’s views might, in some hypothetical future, be cast as dependant on Gardner’s scholarship – in fact, a form of plagiarism of the kind that Donne accused Homer of.

This theme runs through the hundreds of annotations that Redpath makes to Donne’s poems. Even when he agrees with Gardner, Redpath suggests skepticism about her reasoning. In editing, "The Expiration," Redpath conceds that Garner is right in preferring "the more powerful word ‘break’ to ‘leave’. Gardner prefers the verb "break" on the basis of "musical considerations" – therefore, on a superficial basis associated with the mere "sound" of the verse. Gardner says: "I find the explosive ‘break’ more consonant with the high tension of the poem." If Gardner cites one source for her reading, Redpath, agreeing with her must adduce four or five other sources, including several in scholarly tomes written in Italian or ancient Greek. In a note to "The Anniversary," Redpath takes issue with Gardner’s assertion that the love expressed in the poem is "clandestine" – a view that Redpath rejects peevishly. A few pages later, Redpath dismisses Gardner’s citation of a renaissance love treatise involving description of "theories of sight" ("extramission" versus "intramission") as unnecessarily "Grand Guignol" and, therefore, disturbing the "tenor of the poem". In his notes to "The Good-morrow," Redpath accuses Gardner of dishonesty saying "(she) might have pointed out that (one manuscript) supports (textual readings" endorsed by Grierson, a scholar always cited in refutation of his rival’s opinions. These are serious "omissions" in Gardner’s edition, helpfully pointed out by scholars allied with Redpath.

And so it goes in dozens (if not hundreds) of notes, a running theme like a scarlet thread through Redpath’s exegetical materials. One might assemble a novel of sorts, monotonous to be sure, but thematically coherent from Redpath’s rebukes to Professor Gardner. Certainly, Redpath makes it clear that no one could possibly assert that his analysis of John Donne’s poetry, or his textual decisions, are influenced (except negatively) by Helen Gardner’s work. All readers of Redpath’s second edition must fully comprehend that Helen Gardner is no Helena of Musaeus or Phantasia of Memphis to the waspish Don.

In the annals of posterity, Helen Gardner, it seems, has had the better of the quarrel. She merits a Wikipedia entry, short to be sure and succinct, but laudatory. Professor Gardner, it seems, was groomed from early girlhood to be a literary critic. She came to fame first with a celebrated book of essays about T.S. Eliot (The Art of T. S. Eliot) published to much praise in 1949. Gardner was a key expert witness in an obscenity trial arising from publication of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and edited the Oxford Book of English Verse printed in 1972. There are three photographs of her on the Internet and her Wikipedia page is graced with a nice, if somewhat tenebrous, pen drawing of the critic in her old age. She seems to have been always an old lady with a small sparrow-like face, round eye-glasses, and, in a picture of her taken in the forties, an incongruously large bust.

Theodore Redpath gets no Wikipedia entry and his admirers must be content with an obituary written by one of his students. The obituary praises Redpath’s scholarship and admires his odd versatility – it seems that after retiring from the university, Redpath taught in Japan and, even, was a wine merchant in that country. Redpath is described as eccentric, although not in an endearing manner. He would not shake hands with students except when on vacation, citing the traditions of the college, and denounced those who appeared at school events in less than the full regalia of cap and gown. It is interesting that Redpath in his old age wrote a memoir of his experiences as a student of the formidable Ludwig Wittgenstein. Intervening between Redpath’s first and second editions of Donne’s songs and sonnets was a happy marriage, celebrated when the critic was in his late forties in 1964. It is not clear from the Wikipedia entry about Professor Gardner whether she ever married and, so, perhaps, Redpath hectors her from a position of presumed marital superiority.

I find only one picture of a man who may be Theodore Redpath. The image shows a serious-looking young man with an intense face without glasses, he cheeks and jaw already inclining toward jowls. But it is not clear that this picture actually depicts the great literary critic. The source of the photograph is something called Guess my Age and the picture, I suppose, could be anyone.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

On Spiders



The great forests of the north have a very different odor than the sad little groves and wood-lots on the prairies. Those southern shelter belts and hollows unsuited for cultivation smell of rotting leaf litter, a stagnant odor like a wet basement and pesticide and rust from abandoned farm implements and barbed wire hidden among the trees. The great northern woods smell of pine needles and oozing resin, creosote, water animate in cascades and acidic with tannin, huge cold lakes breathing like glaciers, a mint, mountainous air. But in the odor of both forests, there is the smell of their burning – a warm, embedded stench of fire. The great forests of the north are unlit torches but the smell of their harvest by fire is always intrinsic in them.

On a cool July morning, I stood in my backyard an hour after dawn playing with my dawn. In the air, I was surprised to scent campgrounds and canoe portages, evergreen and fragrant sap – the smell of the great northern woods at least two-hundred miles away. But this was the odor of these places burning, the forests distilled to their essence in an alembic of fire and, then, wafted on the winds south onto the prairies. In Canada, there were great forest fires raging out of control and the ash dimmed the jet stream so that the sun on the horizon was veiled in purplish majesty, pale and faint in its shroud of soot that you could look directly into its face and trace its edges. At noon, the sky was a featureless haze, luminous and cream-colored overhead and, at night, the moon skidding amidst rafts of cirrus cloud was orange, inflamed, a portent in the heavens. It was unseasonably cool and sky was dim and lightless and people with asthma choked and coughed, sinuses acted up, dogs curled up with their noses buried in their tails so as not to be perplexed by the faint, but pervasive odor of the Canadian fires.

I smelled the blaze and the odor made me nostalgic for mountains and campgrounds. I thought of climbing out of a sleeping bag, stiff from resting overnight on the hard ground, and standing at a pump to draw a pail of water for the campsite, the heavy garbage cans stinking a little of beer cans and fish guts and their metal sides beaded with dew, a lake somewhere nearby at the base of a steep slope slippery with fox-brown pine needles, and I remembered my father, who is long dead, and a camping trip to Mille Lacs Lake, the foul-smelling outhouse, campfires, people cooking flapjacks on a griddle, the hush of the morning broken now and then by laughing, someone coughing in a camper, a loon calling across the waters.

A silky-looking spider hovered in mid-air in my backyard. No doubt the spider was attached to something, hanging by some subtle and invisible cord from the ashen sky. I waved my hand over the spider and must have caught its web-parachute on my wrist because the spider followed the motions of my hand. I saw another tiny spider, tinted yellow-orange, also suspended mid-air, hanging on invisible strands. As I gestured at that spider, it ran up an unseen scaffolding, ascending into the sky.

Bees suck honey from flowers. Spiders suck poison from those same blossoms. Each flower is abundant with both honey and venom. This is the nature of the arboretum in which we live. Spiders convert the gall in flowers into their poisons. They are mobile sacs of venom with delicate, scalpel-like fangs. The sky is full of the smell of fire. In his poem, "Twickenham Garden," John Donne writes of

The spider Love, which transubstantiates,
And can covert manna to gall.
The image suggests a spider sucking the "manna" or honey-resins produced by a flower and converting them into poison.

The wind stirs and the smell of burning taints the air and ash drives the little spiders down from the sky into our backyards. The great northern woods are on fire.