Friday, October 31, 2008

Intimations of Richard Dadd

Harvest's end, I started the day doing laundry with The Amazing Kreskin in the background. Kreskin is a famous mentalist from the 60's. He is said to know what you are thinking, even now. These are his two tracks on running a seance:

Setting up the seance

Making it happen

Sometimes I think Kreskin is trying to hypnotize me. His drawling emphasis and repetition of instructions make me wonder if he can read your mind or merely make your mind think what he wants it to, so as to seem as if he knows what you are thinking. Either way, he's in there.

When the record was over, I wanted to hear Mick Jagger's 'Invocation of my Demon Brother'

Mick on Moog for the 1968 Kenneth Anger movie

Listening to the eleven-minute song, I started looking through old print copies of The Economist magazine online. An article from the first print edition, September 2nd, 1843, caught my eye.

"Dreadful Murder," Economist Magazine, September 2, 1843

The man murdered is a chemist named Robert Dadd. His son, "Richard Dadd, a fine young man, 24 years age, committed the act whilst labouring under an aberration of intellect." Richard Dadd was a painter, best known for the maddened detail of the paintings composed while at Bedlam for the murder of his father.

'The Fairy-Feller's Master stroke' took him nine years to complete. He worked with the single hair of a brush, reciting poetry and staring at the canvas until the next element was revealed to him.

It was initially believed that he was suffering from sunstroke caused by an extended trip in 1842 through Athens, via Corfu, then Smyrna, Constantinople, Asia Minor, Rhodes, Cyprus, Beirut, Tripoli, then walking and by mule, into Damascus and finally Jerusalem. From the Dead Sea, he took a boat up the Nile to Thebes, arriving around Christmas. In retrospect, Dadd's affliction seems more like Jerusalem Syndrome--the vision of Osiris in ancient lands.

Dadd's journal in Egypt reads:

Did he turn to look at me, from his lion bed of birth and death? I believe that I saw it, the tilt of his carved face, the shifting of the soot that hid him. Did Isis and Nephthys pause in their frozen motions of revival to flick an inscrutable gesture at me with their fingers? I do not know what I saw, I do not trust my eyes, but I am sure that I heard him. In the temple of Opet he spoke to me; he spoke truths too great to hold. That is why I do not remember his words. The ecstasy of his voice and meaning overwhelmed me but the words do not matter. I am his chosen and he suffuses me.

Days have passed; days in which I doubted the truth that Osiris has given to me, and thought myself possessed of evil. But the truth of my fate is with me and I cannot doubt it.

Phillips is here with me now. His eyes are tiny and distant and I wonder if he too suspects the things that will be coming after us, but I think not. The air is greasy with the burnt caramel fetor of his pipe. I share his smoke and the world slows. For a moment I am calm and I grin foolishly at Phillips. That is when the burning begins, but it is only in my eyes and I think that it is just the smoke. I rub at them and my fingers begin to sting. Phillips says something, he is asking if I am all right, his eyes focus on me through the haze of smoke and I try to say that I am fine. The words leave me, I feel them go, my mouth forms into communicative shapes and they are gone to swirl with the smoke, forming new patterns as they mingle and breed. I cannot hear them. I say 'I cannot hear the words' but those words flutter up with the others. Phillips is speaking again but his words do not hold any meaning, he has invented a new language, it is a trick. His words have sound but no meaning. We must be opposites, he and I. It is a sign that he is my opposite. His moustache bristles; isn't that the word? That's what moustaches do, they bristle. Each hair is perfectly clear : I could count them if I wanted, but my eyes will not stay still and they burn. The sweet taint of the opium is sitting on my mind, binding my thoughts like tar. He is moving : Phillips is looming, getting closer. He touches my shoulder and says something in his new not-language and that is when the crush of thoughts and the blanket of opium-calm over them ignite into pain, and I remember nothing more but the screams that tear at my throat.

Osiris had entered his soul. He would never release himself from that influence. Having killed his father, Dadd fled to Paris, attempted another murder along the way and was captured outside Calais. Before he had killed his father, he had 'killed' many others, including his traveling partner, Philips:

This morning I killed Phillips. I waited for him in his room. I had his razor. His own razor, still a little sticky with his shaving soap. I stared at the patterns on it as I waited for him. I could see them in the corners of the room. They are always there now, at the corners of my vision, darting before me, dancing, fornicating, twisting over the ceiling, their tiny faces contorted and gleeful, their voices high and constant and through their chatter I hear His voice, deeper and compelling, telling me over and over that Phillips is not to be trusted, that he is evil and that he will deceive me if I let him. I kept my eyes on the smudges of soap because I did not want to see them, did not need to see them. It was not decent that they could be so pleased at what I was there to do. Not decent that I shared their elation when I must be composed. I must be calm to carry out the act.

I was sure, then. I brimmed with certainty, the doubts belonged to someone else, a me who was not me. I turned them over, the thoughts of the not me. The thoughts that tell me that the voices are not true, that Phillips is my friend, that I am scaring him. I smiled as I dismissed those thoughts and exhilaration tingled in my skin.

Phillips came in and frowned to see me in his room. I told him that I knew of his evil and my voice rang with Their power. I told him that I would bring justice upon him. I hit him to the floor and pinned him there. My hand was over his mouth, forcing his head back. His eyes were dreadfully wide; his breath on my hand was hot and quick. I noticed that his collar had been done up too tight and had made his neck red. He hardly struggled at all. He did not have time. I ran the blade over his throat with a firm quick movement and the blood that poured out bubbled a little.

As I watched the focus of his eyes slip away from me, dip into nothingness, he walked in the door. There was nothing in my hands. The razor was gone.

'I killed you. I killed you just now. Must I kill you again?' I heard myself speak and it was my own voice, weak and faltering. The power was gone. I had failed and they had repudiated me for it. I leapt at Phillips, sure that if I killed him again they would come back to me and I would be certain again. I wanted to cut his throat and see him bleed again but the blade was gone, so I clawed at him and tried to throttle him. There was no strength in my hands. My limbs quivered and I fell to the floor when he pushed me and did not get up. I sat and wept like a scorned woman.

For an age Phillips stood where I had attacked him and stared at me as though he did not know me. I crawled away from him and hid my face in the valance at the foot of the bed. When he spoke his voice was unsteady.

'Richard, you must get help. This is not sunstroke.'

I could not answer him and he did not say anything more. When he left he locked the door.

Dadd was convinced that he was being beckoned by Osiris to wage war against the demons. Dadd's journal:

There are angels and demons in the world. Spirits of power and beauty, and of curdling horror. And there are the lesser spirits, the fairies, who are to us as deer are to horses but who share our mixture of the divine and the wretched. They speak to me and tug coyly at my spirit and they are wondrous to behold.

I tried to escape them, when I came back. I threw myself into my old life, as though I could fit myself back into the narrow rut that I had sprung from. I tried not to see. The competition was a mistake, a distraction, trying to escape their influence through feverish days and nights of work, design after design. But it was for nothing. The spirits would not let me be, and they saw to it that I failed.

There are things that go unseen, things that walk in the skins of men, but evil has crept into their flesh and hollowed them out. They are hollow men who smile and talk and act as men do to hide the malignant swirled emptiness inside. But I walk with angels and demons and it is my curse that I can see those who are marked with emptiness. I walk with angels and demons and I see…

Disentanglings: Dadd would die in Bedlam, having been committed there for the murder of his father when he was 24 years old. It is exactly 165 years to the day, today, October 31, 2008, that Dadd was captured outside Calais. The more I have researched him, the greater the assonance:

There was a painting that caught my eye at the center for British Art on the first day that I moved to Yale. I stared at it for what could have been a few, drawn-out minutes, or a rapid half-hour or an hour. I know now that it was a Richard Dadd.


"Osiris is quite different, he demands sympathy. He is the completely helpless one, the essential victim. Yet he is avenged and his passion has an end at last, when justice and order are re-established on earth. The other gods are transcendent, distinct from their worshipers. Osiris, however, is immanent. He is the sufferer with all mortality but at the same time he is the power of revival and fertility in the world. He is the power of growth in plants and of reproduction in animals and human beings. He is both dead and the source of all living. Hence to become Osiris is to become one with the cosmic cycles of death and rebirth." (R.T. Rundle Clark, 1859)

The Master at Bedlam, Dr. William Hood, wrote about Dadd:

Dadd paints in a bare room in daylight. He uses two easels, one bearing the painting and the other a palette. He holds a brush in his right hand and a magnifying-glass in his left, and often the brush has but a single hair. The fineness of the detail he paints is extreme, and sometimes quite imperceptible, to me at any rate. Sometimes he will remain motionless for minutes on end, with the brush-tip against the canvas and the glass in close proximity. As he works, he often chants his verse, or makes hissing sounds in the manner of an animal.

Haydon, for his part, is greatly changed in his opinion of both the painting and its executor. From a former estimation of gratitude and pride, he has progressed through fascination and revulsion to an attitude today that is not so very far removed from terror. Dadd has asked the steward to pose for him, and so to be put into the picture, but Haydon will have no such thing. Asked why he then continues to wear Dadd’s ring, the unhappy steward has been heard to claim that its jewel serves as a charm against evil.

'He lives there and there he is. At Harvest's end his year begins'

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Ezra Pound's Periplum

Periplum is a word coined by Ezra Pound. It is meant to signify a map as delineated from the perspective of the navigator approaching a landmass, as opposed to a disembodied eye from above. Periplum across time encases history as experienced process, rather than summarized aggregation.

Pound reads Canto I, Odysseus setting back to sea, to Ithaca; translated from the Latin of Andreas Divus, 1538.
(Recorded Washington DC, 1958)

And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward
Bore us out onward with bellying canvas...

Elsewhere the Seafarer, from the Saxon.
(Recorded Cambridge, MA, 1939)

May I for my own self song's truth reckon,
Journey's jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care's hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship's head
While she tossed close to the cliffs. Coldly afflicted,
Me feet were by frost benumbed...

Poetry surfaces from the pool of history as a navigator across time. The process resists discrete localization, but is more like the surfacing of impassioned states: one could imagine air gravitating upward, through an atmospheric mass of water, toward more air.

The poetry is often like a gasping

"By no means an orderly Dantescan rising" says Ezra Pound, in the Pisan Cantos, written in the tiger cage at Pisa, Summer 1945.

He was permitted two books in the cage, a Chinese dictionary and a copy of Confucius. Translations of the Confucian Odes:

Yaller Bird

Flies, blue flies on a fence rail

Ol' Brer Rabbit watchin his feet
(Recorded Spoleto, 1970)

In looking outward from history, he accounts for mud and light and everything in between. It is small justice that I do him here, on his 123rd birthday. This is a propitiatory posting. From him, I go forward: Learn limpidity and allow nothing less

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Wright's 'Audacity to Hope' Sermon

The word 'hope' is a catch-all for positive change in American polity. Bill Clinton's campaign used his origin from Hope, Arkansas as a magical nudge toward garnering hope for necessary change in Washington. The word has figured prominently in Barack Obama's political persona. He titled his second book, "The Audacity of Hope."

The title references a sermon by J. Wright, who has his own reading of 'Hope.' Critics of the relationship between the pastor and the presidential candidate might read this, but would never admit it, because with such admission they'd have to admit the truth and beauty of the sermon: its essential Americanism.

Several years ago while I was in Richmond, the Lord allowed me to be in that city during the week of the annual convocation at Virginia Union University School of Theology. There I heard the preaching and teaching of Reverend Frederick G. Sampson of Detroit, Michigan. In one of his lectures, Dr. Sampson spoke of a painting I remembered studying in humanities courses back in the late '50s. In Dr. Sampson's powerful description of the picture, he spoke of it being a study in contradictions, because the title and the details on the canvas seem to be in direct opposition.

The painting's title is "Hope." It shows a woman sitting on top of the world, playing a harp. What more enviable position could one ever hope to achieve than being on top of the world with everyone dancing to your music?

As you look closer, the illusion of power gives way to the reality of pain. The world on which this woman sits, our world, is torn by war, destroyed by hate, decimated by despair, and devastated by distrust. The world on which she sits seems on the brink of destruction. Famine ravages millions of inhabitants in one hemisphere, while feasting and gluttony are enjoyed by inhabitants of another hemisphere. This world is a ticking time bomb, with apartheid in one hemisphere and apathy in the other. Scientists tell us there are enough nuclear warheads to wipe out all forms of life except cockroaches. That is the world on which the woman sits in Watt's painting.

Our world cares more about bombs for the enemy than about bread for the hungry. This world is still more concerned about the color of skin than it is about the content of character—a world more finicky about what's on the outside of your head than about the quality of your education or what's inside your head. That is the world on which this woman sits.

You and I think of being on top of the world as being in heaven. When you look at the woman in Watt's painting, you discover this woman is in hell. She is wearing rags. Her Georgefredericwattshope tattered clothes look as if the woman herself has come through Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Her head is bandaged, and blood seeps through the bandages. Scars and cuts are visible on her face, her arms, and her legs.

I. Illusion of Power vs. Reality of Pain

A closer look reveals all the harp strings but one are broken or ripped out. Even the instrument has been damaged by what she has been through, and she is the classic example of quiet despair. Yet the artist dares to entitle the painting Hope. The illusion of power—sitting on top of the world—gives way to the reality of pain.

And isn't it that way with many of us? We give the illusion of being in an enviable position on top of the world. Look closer, and our lives reveal the reality of pain too deep for the tongue to tell. For the woman in the painting, what looks like being in heaven is actually an existence in a quiet hell.

I've been a pastor for seventeen years. I've seen too many of these cases not to know what I'm talking about. I've seen married couples where the husband has a girlfriend in addition to his wife. It's something nobody talks about. The wife smiles and pretends not to hear the whispers and the gossip. She has the legal papers but knows he would rather try to buy Fort Knox than divorce her. That's a living hell.

I've seen married couples where the wife had discovered that somebody else cares for her as a person and not just as cook, maid jitney service, and call girl all wrapped into one. But there's the scandal: What would folks say? What about the children? That's a living hell.

I've seen divorcees whose dreams have been blown to bits, families broken up beyond repair, and lives somehow slipping through their fingers. They've lost control. That's a living hell.

I've seen college students who give the illusion of being on top of the world—designer clothes, all the sex that they want, all the cocaine or marijuana or drugs, all the trappings of having it all together on the outside—but empty and shallow and hurting and lonely and afraid on the inside. Many times what looks good on the outside—the illusion of being in power, of sitting on top of the world—with a closer look is actually existence in a quiet hell.

That is exactly where Hannah is in 1 Samuel 1 :1-18. Hannah is top dog in this three-way relationship between herself, Elkanah, and Peninnah. Her husband loves Hannah more than he loves his other wife and their children. Elkanah tells Hannah he loves her. A lot of husbands don't do that. He shows Hannah that he loves her, and many husbands never get around to doing that. In fact, it is his attention and devotion to Hannah that causes Peninnah to be so angry and to stay on Hannah's case constantly. Jealous! Jealousy will get hold of you, and you can't let it go because it won't let you go. Peninnah stayed on Hannah, like we say, "as white on rice." She constantly picked at Hannah, making her cry, taking her appetite away.

At first glance Hannah's position seems enviable. She had all the rights and none of the responsibilities—no diapers to change, no beds to sit beside at night, no noses to wipe, nothing else to wipe either, no babies draining you of your milk and demanding feeding. Hannah was top dog. No baby portions to fix at meal times. Her man loved her; everybody knew he loved her. He loved her more than anything or anybody. That's why Peninnah hated her so much.

Now, except for the second-wife bit, which was legal back then, Hannah was sitting on top of the world, until you look closer. When you look closer, what looked like being in heaven was actually existing in a quiet hell.

Hannah had the pain of a bitter woman to contend with, for verse 7 says that nonstop, Peninnah stayed with her. Hannah suffered the pain of living with a bitter woman. And she suffered another pain—the pain of a barren womb. You will remember the story of the widow in 2 Kings 4 who had no child. The story of a woman with no children was a story of deep pathos and despair in biblical days.

Do you remember the story of Sarah and what she did in Genesis 16 because of her barren womb—before the three heavenly visitors stopped by their tent? Do you remember the story of Elizabeth and her husband in Luke I? Back in Bible days, the story of a woman with a barren womb was a story of deep pathos. And Hannah was afflicted with the pain of a bitter woman on the one hand and the pain of a barren womb on the other.

Hannah's world was flawed, flaky. Her garments of respectability were tattered and torn, and her heart was bruised and bleeding from the constant attacks of a jealous woman. The scars and scratches on her psyche are almost visible as you look at this passage, where she cries, refusing to eat anything. Just like the woman in Watt's painting, what looks like being in heaven is actually existence in a quiet hell.

Now I want to share briefly with you about Hannah—the lady and the Lord. While I do so, I want you to be thinking about where you live and your own particular pain predicament. Think about it for a moment.

Dr. Sampson said he wanted to quarrel with the artist for having the gall to name that painting Hope when all he could see in the picture was hell—a quiet desperation. But then Dr. Sampson said he noticed that he had been looking only at the horizontal dimensions and relationships and how this woman was hooked up with that world on which she sat. He had failed to take into account her vertical relationships. He had not looked above her head. And when he looked over her head, he found some small notes of music moving joyfully and playfully toward heaven.

II. The Audacity to Hope

Then, Dr. Sampson began to understand why the artist titled the painting "Hope." In spite of being in a world torn by war, in spite of being on a world destroyed by hate and decimated by distrust, in spite of being on a world where famine and greed are uneasy bed partners, in spite of being on a world where apartheid and apathy feed the fires of racism and hatred, in spite of being on a world where nuclear nightmare draws closer with each second, in spite of being on a ticking time bomb, with her clothes in rags, her body scarred and bruised and bleeding, her harp all but destroyed and with only one string left, she had the audacity to make music and praise God. The vertical dimension balanced out what was going on in the horizontal dimension.

And that is what the audacity to hope will do for you. The apostle Paul said the same thing. "You have troubles? Glory in your trouble. We glory in tribulation." That's the horizontal dimension. We glory in tribulation because, he says, "Tribulation works patience. And patience works experience. And experience works hope. (That's the vertical dimension.) And hope makes us not ashamed." The vertical dimension balances out what is going on in the horizontal dimension. That is the real story here in the first chapter of 1 Samuel. Not the condition of Hannah's body, but the condition of Hannah's soul—her vertical dimension. She had the audacity to keep on hoping and praying when there was no visible sign on the horizontal level that what she was praying for, hoping for, and waiting for would ever be answered in the affirmative.

What Hannah wanted most out of life had been denied to her. Think about that. Yet in spite of that, she kept on hoping. The gloating of Peninnah did not make her bitter. She kept on hoping. When the family made its pilgrimage to the sanctuary at Shiloh, she renewed her petition there, pouring out her heart to God. She may have been barren, but that's a horizontal dimension. She was fertile in her spirit, her vertical dimension. She prayed and she prayed and she prayed and she kept on praying year after year. With no answer, she kept on praying. She prayed so fervently in this passage that Eli thought she had to be drunk. There was no visible sign on the horizontal level to indicate to Hannah that her praying would ever be answered. Yet, she kept on praying.

And Paul said something about that, too. No visible sign? He says, "Hope is what saves us, for we are saved by hope. But hope that is seen is not hope. For what a man sees, why does he have hope for it? But if we hope for that which we see not (no visible sign), then do we with patience wait for it."

That's almost an echo of what the prophet Isaiah said: "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength." The vertical dimension balances out what is going on in the horizontal dimension.

There may not be any visible sign of a change in your individual situation, whatever your private hell is. But that's just the horizontal level. Keep the vertical level intact, like Hannah. You may, like the African slaves, be able to sing, "Over my head I hear music in the air. Over my head I hear music in the air. Over my head I hear music in the air. There must be a God somewhere."

Keep the vertical dimension intact like Hannah. Have the audacity to hope for that child of yours. Have the audacity to hope for that home of yours. Have the audacity to hope for that church of yours. Whatever it is you've been praying for, keep on praying, and you may find, like my grandmother sings, "There's a bright side somewhere; there is a bright side somewhere. Don't you rest until you find it, for there is a bright side somewhere."

III. Persistence of Hope

The real lesson Hannah gives us from this chapter—the most important word God would have us hear—is how to hope when the love of God is not plainly evident. It's easy to hope when there are evidences all around of how good God is. But to have the audacity to hope when that love is not evident—you don't know where that somewhere is that my grandmother sang about, or if there will ever be that brighter day—that is a true test of a Hannah-type faith. To take the one string you have left and to have the audacity to hope—make music and praise God on and with whatever it is you've got left, even though you can't see what God is going to do—that's the real word God will have us hear from this passage and from Watt's painting.

There's a true-life illustration that demonstrates the principles portrayed so powerfully in this periscope. And I close with it. My mom and my dad used to sing a song that I've not been able to find in any of the published hymnals. It's an old song out of the black religious tradition called "Thank you, Jesus." It's a very simple song. Some of you have heard it. It's simply goes, "Thank you Jesus. I thank you Jesus. I thank you Jesus. I thank you Lord." To me they always sang that song at the strangest times—when the money got low, or when the food was running out. When I was getting in trouble, they would start singing that song. And I never understood it, because as a child it seemed to me they were thanking God that we didn't have any money, or thanking God that we had no food, or thanking God that I was making a fool out of myself as a kid.

Conclusion: Hope is What Saves Us

But I was only looking at the horizontal level. I did not understand nor could I see back then the vertical hookup that my mother and my father had. I did not know then that they were thanking him in advance for all they dared to hope he would do one day to their son, in their son, and through their son. That's why they prayed. That's why they hoped. That's why they kept on praying with no visible sign on the horizon. And I thank God I had praying parents, because now some thirty-five years later, when I look at what God has done in my life, I understand clearly why Hannah had the audacity to hope. Why my parents had the audacity to hope.

And that's why I say to you, hope is what saves us. Keep on hoping; keep on praying. God does hear and answer prayer.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Old Man Shoots Wife

"I'm peaceable, it's OK!" He tells the dispatcher and checks to see if she's dead by asking her, "Hey you, are you alive or are you dead?"

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Send an Email to the Future

You can send an email up to thirty years into the future. I sent myself one in five.

It was a strange experience.

When I was a kid I used to have this fascination with the phrase "cotton-picking minute." I conjectured that it meant a long, long minute, cause presumably time goes slower when work is hard and picking cotton as a slave must be terribly shitty work. So I would say to myself, "start" and wait half a year or a year or whenever I'd remember again and say "stop" and think "now that's a cotton-picking minute." I used to do this with words I'd make up too. And wait a few months and repeat that word out loud to see if I'd remembered it or even remembered to remember it.

Preoccupation with indexing time and measuring myself in the interim of two distant moments.

This web site is really wonderful. I wonder what it will be like to receive an account of me now, from me now, to me now in five years.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

T for Thelma

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Agree to Disagree about Agreeing to Agree

Year of the Sex Olympics

Set in a future where overpopulation is curbed by overfeeding people porn (and the masses generally managed by tv), a few tv producers come up with the ultimate television event: follow a group of people in an unscripted experience of the REAL world. "The Live-Life Show" is thus born. This tv drama is split into 15 ten-minute segments on youtube. Here is the first.

Leonard Rossiter (Captain Quinn from Barry Lyndon) is in this. I found this researching for a history on reality television, which I will post later. The introduction of "The Live-Life Show" happens at part eight.

Creepy drama. I have to say, however, that the logo for the sex olympics is totally rad.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Violence, Dementia and Demise of the Circus

Mass Observation was a social research organization founded by the British government in 1937. Their intent was to keep account of the pulse of the mass. They worked by asking everyday British citizens to account their experiences and conduct amateur sociological surveys.

Searching the base, I came across a documentary of Reco's circus. The most striking thing about the study was the excessive violence detailed in the study. My thoughts on that, film, and the circus' demise follow:

Herbert Reco was a performance factotum who had begun his circus in the year of the investigation. He was chiefly a tightrope walker, clown and acrobat, but to his colleagues more a liar, scoundrel and spendthrift. This is not to mention his fiery temper. On one occasion he shot at three hundred drunken circus goers with a shotgun, before attacking them with spiked tent poles and turning a bear loose on them. The investigator of report suggests his malice stems from an inferiority complex common to circus workers. Reco:

[P]eople think we’re nothing, associate us with fairs or gypsies because we live in caravans, but we’re just as educated as they are, if not more so. (16)

The desire to be distinguished from and above fair workers is a common thread throughout the complaints of the circus troupe. The desire, on the other hand, to affirm their higher status and legitimize their talents by associating themselves with the filmic world is as frequent and more pertinent to our discussion.

A number of performers in Reco’s circus had been involved at some point with film production. Mr. Cook trained horses for studios and his wife was in two features. Even Reco had assisted with technical circus points in the film, “Dark Tower.” He also often buys animals from studios that no longer need them (18, 27, 25). But beyond the intersections of film and circus as correspondent, performance media, there is a sense throughout the study that Reco’s circus has been or is in the process of being superseded by this new medium of spectacle. Mr. Cook made this explicit:

I think the circus is dying out. I don’t care what they say about it booming again, - it’s dying out… [W]hereas in the old days there was no amusement near at hand, now [children] go to the pictures two or three times a week. Travel isn’t what it used to be, and if they haven’t got a picture palace they can go into the next town on the bus… (24)

And more suggestively, whenever they arrive in a town, one of the favorite activities of the circus troupe (beside drinking and violence) was going to the pictures. Even they cannot resist participation in the new medium that was devastating their livelihood.

And I suspect that, more than from an inferiority complex, the heavy violence in Reco’s circus community might stem from frustration in becoming a dispossessed medium, compounded with the loss of admiration in the towns. I draw my conjecture from the grotesque humor and targeting of the violence. Stanley Mason, a midget clown, would get drunk and fight children from the towns after his performances (51). Monkeys were frequently beaten by all circus workers but inversely received only the best food; whereas a bear was fed stale bread and sour milk, a monkey got fresh lettuce, carrots, bread, jam and butter—and once, after having been beaten for some misbehavior, a monkey was fed a cantaloupe with sugar on it, being told by Reco’s wife, “There you are, you naughty girl—no lettuce for you today” (55, 83). In either of these cases, in addition to the one mentioned above where Reco attacked a crowd with a shotgun and a live bear (this is not to mention a number of other violent incidents against audience members), it seems to be the case that the attacks were focused against those organs most essential to maintaining the system of the circus, namely circus goers and the spectacle that they come to see (animals, etc.), and that additionally they had a perverse humor to them—i.e. the drunken, dwarf clown sent out to fight the children.

It is as if the circus troupe sensed an inevitable futility and instinctively elected violence to bemoan the obsolescence of their medium. It is certainly no more than a sense. The investigator describes Reco’s plans:

After the war he believes there will be so many circuses on the road that it would be advisable to have his headquarters in a more central position, so that the rival circuses will not know which way he intends to travel when starting off at the beginning of the season. (18-19)

Of course such was never the case. Film dominated the genre of spectacle even at the time of this investigation. One of Mrs. Cook’s keepsakes was a photographic still from a film in which she had starred (25). Her purchase on stardom was no longer bought with success in the circus but instead with evidence of her participation in the filmic world. Reco’s violence may not be justified, but it may at least be contextualized. The de-mediatization of his life’s art likely led to more aggressive means to justify its presence—and it is perhaps not dissimilar from the wild representations of painting (read cubism) after the advent of the photograph, or even of the high experimentalism of poetry (the modernists, futurists, etc) after the advent of radio. If we can take Reco’s circus as a test case for his time, then the circus too—with its own distinct sense of performance—had its violent exit.

'O Dreamland (1953)' by Lindsay Anderson, though not exactly a document of the circus, captures the violence and dementia of an amusement medium well. Enjoy:

Part I:

Part II:

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Hypergraphia, Graphomania and the Voynich Manuscript

Have been interested in the obsessive impulse to produce script, especially when the script is a succession of meaningless but repetitive symbols.

As a psychological disorder, graphomania is closely associated with schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder. Lewis Carrol, Dostoevsky and van Gogh were all said to have exhibited graphomania in their notebooks. Lewis Carrol often wrote backwards, upside-down, in circles, etc. An example:

The most famous graphomaniac, however, is likely Robert Crumb's brother, Charles, whose comics were at one point completely overtaken by the script:

Graphomania is characterized by specifically meaningless script. There is a graphomaniac by the name of Matsumoto, whose script I cannot determine to be indecipherable, but whose writings are certainly jumbled in the graphomaniacal style.

An example from "Midnight Disease" a book by Alice Flaherty on Hypergraphia:

An example from Max Ernst suggests an alien language:

The Voynich manuscript surfaced sometime in the 15th century. Its author, origin and purpose are entirely unknown. It is written in an undecipherable script and seems to document the botany, biology and astronomy of a fictive universe. Its 209 pages consist of the unknown script running alongside illustrations of this fictive universe, with the script often working within the illustrations as graphic element.

The Voynich Manuscript is at the Beinecke, Yale's Rare Books library. I've yet to actually see it in person.

Its script has stumped the greatest cryptographers of the world, many of whom have concluded that the symbols have enough pattern to suggest a working language but whose semantic system is still unknown. I would conjecture that it is instead history's greatest example of graphomania, suffused with a deep hyper-imaginative dementia. May be one of the most imaginatively written documents in existence.

Spiderman Rocks

Jazz from Spiderman's late 60's cartoon series

'Nuff Said

Spiderman/Scientology/Len Lye conflation

Henry Miller

Henry Miller talks about life and sex in his bathroom. His girlfriend comes in to take a shower somewhere in the middle.

Asleep and Awake

A less ribald conversation over dinner. Not nearly as great as Asleep and Awake.

Dinner with Henry, 1979.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Batman and Penguin Debate

McCain taking a page from the Penguin's book?

Sun Ra's Arkestra and Al Kooper's Blues Projects pressed a children's record called "Batman and Robin" in 1966.

"Penguin's Umbrella" from that record:

"The Obama Cave"

Words upon Words

Shouting heads.

Your Mother

One of the realest instances of interruption I've heard in a while.

The Death Killers are a band from Peoria that consist of a 13-year-old boy on guitar and his 6-year-old, obscenely precocious sister singing. If you listen closely at the end of this song, "Your Mother is Dead 'cause She Lives in Your Head" you can hear their mother come into the room (likely having heard the vocals from the next room) and tell the girl to go to bed and the boy to put the guitar in its box.

Your Mother is Dead, She Lives in your Head


Some other great songs:

I'll be your Death

Song about Homer Simpson

Account of marriage from a six-year-old genius

"You make my life so very, very mis-er-able"

She hates when kids ask stupid questions

More stupid questions

Before the song, she giggles and whispers 'shut up' to her brother under her breath

Junior John, btw, is the small toilet for training kids out of diapers. This little girl is amazing

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Original Filling Earth

Recently I was searching for the word, 'irreproducible,' and found this graphic accompanying the definition. It didn't make sense to me at that time how exactly the graphic was supposed to illustrate the state of irreproducibility but I kept it in my head.

It took me several days of glancing at the split image and the term, 'Original Filling Earth,' before I finally got it.

Bruno Latour, sociologist of science, describes the transformation of a few clods of dirt to symbols in a scientific experiment of soil in the Amazon forest:

"Consider this lump of earth. Grasped by Rene’s right hand, it retains all the materiality of soil—“ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Yet as it is placed inside the cardboard cube in Rene’s left hand, the earth becomes a sign, takes on a geometrical form, becomes the carrier of a numbered code, and will soon be defined by a color… What a transformation, what a movement, what a deformation, what an invention, what a discovery! … Having made the passage from a clump of earth to a sign, the soil is now able to travel through space without further alterations and to remain intact through time."

In spite of Latour's light posturing, the description of the transformation is nonetheless illustrative. In the language of science, material (the clod of dirt) becomes a sign that is, by nature, generalized and irrespective of extreme particularity. This is why it is able to travel without further alteration and remain intact through time: it is a no longer the singular, irreproducible clod of dirt, but rather another bit of datum in a scientist’s collection.

The original clod is 'irreproducible.' The datum is, by necessity, reproducible.

The phrase does not read, 'Original Filling Earth.' It reads 'Original' on the left side, out in the field, untouched. And reads 'Filling' on the right, encased, transformed to datum in a cube-- boxed into a reproducible language.

Either is 'Earth' in a particular state.

This blog deals with words. But more specifically with those moments of hushed logic that rage to life in the happenings of everyday conversation, recordings, random writings and ludicrously close readings of words and their meanings.