Poetry, memed

Lately I have been experimenting with using copyright free images as a backdrop for short poems or poetic fragments. This is perhaps not very sophisticated in the cultural sense, and likely not in the pop-cultural sense either since my productions have been quick and low-fi, but it creates visual interest for social media purposes, and makes my poems shareable. Keep in mind that all are copywritten. Here are my latest examples.

Warlike

Napoleon after his abdication in Fontainebleau, 4 April 1814, by Paul Delaroche.

Forty miles gone in Napoleon shoes,
another day’s dawn with the Julian blues.
Crossing white rivers, crossing past streams;
crossing o’er bridges burnt black at the seams.
Sitting in your captain’s tent jotting down plans;
counting birds from the bush into your hand.
Words lash and they flash: cold Damascus steel,
honed by grit of the past on the sharp’ner’s wheel.
Keen is the thirst that’s got blood on the lip,
and takes vein to the tongue with a lap and a sip.
It took a hard minute of thinking to find
        that you’ve got a warlike mind.
        I’ve read your book, 
       I’ve studied your sign, 
        put down your axe, 
       and I think you will find,
        you’ve got a warlike mind, babe,
        you’ve got a warlike mind.

 
Out from the Battle, by Wallace Morgan.

At the black water edge of Pacific’s shore,
I’m swept up, knocked down, blacked out on the floor,
your sharp sudden surge, eliding defences,
crossing the wire, overrunning the trenches.
Mocked by the king, and the lords, and the prince,
awed over by scenes of stark violence.
You came on by night, wrapped deep in the fog,
as I toiled in the swamps and slogged through the bogs,
pinned down by moonlight and blitzkrieg advances,
I threw all my dice and drew all my chances.
Ares in a summer dress drinking cold wine,
        done up in red boots,
       crossing the line.
        To me it’s just a vicious mess, 
       I guess it happens sometimes,
        that you’ve got a warlike mind, babe,
        you belong to a warlike tribe.

 
Chalice of Saint John the Evangelist by Hans Memling.

Woke up exhausted on the wrong edge of your bed,
with unpleasant dreams falling outta my head.
Medusa in blue with a cup full of potions,
dripping in poisons with love’s easy notions,
asking ten times if I really still care,
while freezing my blood with a basilisk stare.
Looks locked with my eyes, under interrogation,
keeping full score of each new allegation.
You call out for peace in this desert landscape
but ensorcell my soul to prevent my escape.
Look, I’ll call you sometime, we can have an armistice;
you just laughed in my face and ate all my breakfast.
I can’t keep this up, I need to stop and unwind,
        and take a small break from this trouble unkind.
        You can call it victory
       and I’ll call it fate,
        while we go for a stroll
       in some forest upstate.
        We can soak in the quiet
       if you’re so inclined,
        and make a retreat from this warlike mind,
        and bury the hatchet on the warlike mind.

 
Battle of the Golden Spurs,1302.

I surrender the field to your bright shining charger,
and watch from the ramparts as you pillage and plunder.
Head bowed, I march to the grim execution,
paying due homage to your proud institution,
swearing off conflict and black enmity,
resigned to the guilt and the indemnity.
In solemn white chapel with contrite ablution,
I promise on saints to full true restitution,
and balance the scales with each leaden ounce,
and sharpen my dagger, made ready to pounce;
now the troopers have laid down their arms,
and returned to their fields, and their plows, and their farms,
and taken a shine, to the peaceable clime,
      as I brood with a warlike mind.
      With eagles above, my mission aligned,
      my strength ascending, your weakness divined,
      I was born for a warlike time, 
      and I’m in love with your warlike mind, babe,
      we two are a warlike kind.

 
Sir Galahad – the Quest of the Holy Grail
by Arthur Hughes. 1870.

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We sailed on black tarmac, rudderless, root-locked…

After posting and publishing this poem yesterday, I realized it was still falling short. I had high expectations, but I think that was mostly based on the fact that I had hammered some of my ideas into the difficult sonnet form and knew more or less what I was talking about and feeling and sensing in the verses. Unfortunately, I don’t think I was able to convey those thoughts, merely to relive and recreate them for my own amusement. Ultimately, I do think poetry should be communication driven. I still don’t have a problem with making the reader work, that is part of the fun, unlocking the secrets, but I do not wish to revel in obscurity either. So hopefully, this new version, with unnecessary fluff cut out and sinews tightened will be more readable and more to the point of my mission.

We sailed on black tarmac, rudderless, root-locked,
adrift in white Ford, skimming the humid gauze
of Des Moines’ dark. By dash-light glamour you mocked
my pulse, quicked by your sweaty petting palms.

A rhinestone shroud of halogen soaked hues
absorbed your lolling laughter, low and louche.
Still unloosed, the lash that binds honey to the bruise
that purples my dreaming eye with spreading flush.

Buzzing in the noon, knee-deep in summer’s corn,
laid out on the hood, like serpents on a stone,
green and white and tan and taut of form —
and molten as the flames that feed the unbound heart.

The highway miles unroll; journeys never cease;
time ‘s the turner’s wheel, and memory the grease.

=======================================

We sailed on black tarmac, rudderless, landlocked,
drifting, by turns, to split the humid gauze,
as under the rayed and haloed light you mocked
my rising in your sweating, petting palms.

Iowa noon, buried knee deep in the corn.
Tan, green, and white. And lithe as serpents wound —
splayed out and twinned on brazen steel shelled form,
molten as the flame that feeds the unbound heart.

A rhinestone veil of halogen soaked hues,
be-shrouded your lilting laughter, low and lush.
Yet, unsundered from the honey is the bruise
that stains my inner sight with spreading flush.

The highway miles unroll; journeys never cease;
time’s the spinning wheel, and memory the grease.

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We sailed on black tarmac, rudderless, landlocked…

We sailed on black tarmac, rudderless, landlocked,
drifting, by turns, to split the humid gauze,
as under the rayed and haloed light you mocked
my rising in your sweating, petting palms.

Iowa noon, buried knee deep in the corn.
Tan, green, and white. And lithe as serpents wound —
splayed out and twinned on brazen steel shelled form,
molten as the flame that feeds the unbound heart.

A rhinestone veil of halogen soaked hues,
be-shrouded your lilting laughter, low and lush.
Yet, unsundered from the honey is the bruise
that stains my inner sight with spreading flush.

The highway miles unroll; journeys never cease;
time’s the spinning wheel, and memory the grease.

My 2020 Readings

Stuff I read in 2020, with some notes.

Part 1 of 3

Reading Reading Reading…
1958 & 1996.
University of Nebraska Press.

Mircea Eliade.
Patterns in Comparative Religion.

This was the first book I finished last year, while still on vacation at Daytona Beach. 2020, before the virus hit us. It seems like a long time ago, now.

This book, though, is a classic examination of religious symbolism by a master theorizer and de facto founder of the discipline of comparative religion. This book looks at symbols and complexes as innate components of religious expression, almost as if they were archetypes, but without the imposed framework of supposed universalism, and examines the constellation of meanings associated with them and the rationale behind their accreated potencies.

Each section has its own bibliography, allowing the reader to deep dive into a particular religious symbol and explore it in depth through a whole raft of eclectic references. This is a book that repays repeated examinations and can be used as the framework for an extended survey of religious manifestations and forms across multiple cultures.

I will be returning to many of the concepts found in this book throughout my blogging. I will also be following Eliade’s A History of Religious Ideas as a framework for surveying world religions in the coming year, so stay tuned for that.

Mircea Eliade.
The Two and the One.


A collection of essays by Eliade examining specific religious questions. Explorations include androgyny as symbol, dualism, and the prevalence of ascension as metaphor for initiation. 

2015.
Oxford University Press.

Daniel Pals.
Nine theories of religion. 3rd Ed.

I read this together with the above Patterns in Comparative Religion which it complements quite nicely. This book is a survey of religious theorizers, including Eliade, and their impact on thinking about religion. Essentially a historiography of comparative religion, this book looks at such figures as Sigmund Freud, William James, Mircea Eliade, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim among others. A great reference too and a way to refresh one’s memory on specific academic schools of thought.

The section on Freud is especially useful, though it would seem an argument could be made for the inclusion of Jung as well. Nonetheless, because Freud is less detailed in his theories about the psychological roots of religion, the analyses here are helpful.

Laurie Patton, Translator.
Bhagavad Gita

A concise, sometimes beautiful translation of a timeless masterpiece of religious thinking. The eleventh chapter where Krisna reveals himself in all of his transcendent glory is breathtaking.

Read more about the Gita and its cultural importance in an earlier blog post here.

2012.
Equinox Publishing.

Isaac Lubelsky.
Celestial India

A history of India as seen through the eyes of the Theosophical movement and its relationship to Indian Nationalism. A very helpful first dive into the subject of Theosophical history for me, it led me to many resources and opened my eyes to Theosophy’s wider influence. It turns out that maybe they were a bit more than cranks. What this book includes, that is uniquely helpful: some deep background on Indian Orientalism which covers East India Company sources and gives special focus and attention to Friedrich Max Müller and his early Victorian era academic influence. What this book lacks is a more complete history of Mme Blavatsky herself and Col. Henry Steel Olcott, the founders of Theosophy, especially in their early years. Ultimately this is due to the fact that the focus of this monograph is really on the second generation of Theosophy headed up by Anne Besant and Charles W. Leadbeater and its political influence. Leadbeater is also given a bit of short shrift, perhaps because a series of scandals and accusations meant his direct influence on Indian affairs was minimal after he was forced by unsavory sexual scandal to relocate to Australia.

2019.
Bloomsbury Publishing.

William Dalrymple.
The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company.

A popular narrative history that covers the rise of the EIC into a conquering power on the subcontinent of India. The story is one of almost continual colonial expansion that explodes out of Calcutta during the latter part of the 18th century. The British advance really begins in the wake of the global 7 years war when France becomes weakened and can no longer maintain her Indian possessions and evolves into a series of proxy wars where the EIC ties its wagon to flagging rajas, exchanging military assistance for control over economic monopolies and control of foreign policy. As my first exploration into the Raj, I do have to admit that the campaigns do tend to blur into one another, but the image of redcoats marching to war against Mughal war elephants is indelibly etched upon my consciousness. It is a period I hope to study in more depth, and look at this book as a good starter and a good place to become familiar with the general timeline, the geography, the major players, and some of the more interesting characters.

Carlo Ginzburg.
The Cheese and the Worms

A fascinating examination of a miller accused of heresy in early modern Piedmont and what books he may have been reading. Read my longer examination here.

2010.
Picador.

Orlando Figes.
The Crimean War: A History

A perfectly functional history of the Crimean War. Long, but readable and entertaining. The bibliography is a good source for period materials. What I ended up finding most fascinating about this conflict was how its course was ultimately influenced by the press, which, for the first time, due to telegraph and long distance cable, was able to report in near time on the happenings at Sevastopol and elsewhere. It was also interesting how this conflict made national heroes of characters like Florence Nightingale, again due in large part to the press. Finally, its influence made this one of the first British wars where the individual soldier was celebrated for his heroism and not just the gentry. In many ways this conflict, though on a much smaller scale, was a dry run for the First World War in terms of technology, both with regards to arms, as well as communications.

1992.
Kodansha.

Peter Hopkirk.
The Great Game

Fascinating look at good old fashioned long 19th century espionage. An array of shady and colorful characters try to push the envelope, British against Russian, Russian against British, and both against the Southwest asian natives who really didn’t ask to be on the borderlands of Queen Elizabeth’s jewel. There is adventure and triumph over adversity as much as there is snobbery, racism, and cultural disdain. The British invasion of Tibet in 1904 was unnecessary, tragic, and shameful and shines a dismal light upon the escapades which preceded it. The final fiasco was that the Russians and English would end up as allies only 10 years later, rendering all of their skullduggery moot. Russian sources seem thinner than the English, but Hopkirk makes a good game of it. I am primed to read another work of his soon, Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Secret Exploration of Tibet, soon.

Bhagavad Gita as Cultural Icon

Krishna as Arjuna’s Charioteer

One way in which a book can be termed a cultural icon is if its impact spreads out wide beyond its own particular context and the circumstances behind it’s authorship, continuing on to cast its influence down long corridors of time and into unexpected and even unimagined domains of thought and expression. A book might be relevant for its historical impact within the narrow confined of its own time and place, possibly even having wide influence within that sphere, still without transmitting its aura to other times and cultures beyond those in which it arose. But when we consider such works as the epic poems of Greece, the plays of Shakespeare, or political screeds such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, what marks them out as standing alone among the general tide of literature is their long term impact and the multivalence of their expressions in cultures markedly different from those in which they originated. Edgar Allen Poe, for example, likely never imagined his work on The Raven as the basis of a Simpsons episode, and yet such unlikely transformation is what separates it as a cultural icon from popular works of the day that are soon forgotten and which disappear into dimly remembered history.

Company painting depicting an official of the East India Company, c. 1760

There is a phenomena in the study of linguistics where it is well known that the more commonly a verb is used in everyday discourse the more subject it is to dramatic change, accumulation of new, often contradictory, meanings, and variability in form — by such means are irregular conjugations formed. The etymology of simple everyday words such as to go, to bear, to speak are sometimes so convoluted and so strewn with synonyms as to make their study a labyrinthine sort of exercise. Analogously, when a literary work attains a ubiquitous aspect in terms of its cultural influence, it too often becomes difficult to assess, not just in its impact and influence on other works – in some sense that is the easy part, if one can find an explicit reference – but even, in some cases, in defining what that work is in itself.

The Bible, for example, has so many and multifarious expressions as to make it difficult to circumscribe a universally acceptable definition of what the Bible as title actually refers to. The works of Shakespeare provide another example of a corpus for which a myriad of variant expressions exist, often in a multiplication of media as well. In classical works, such problems can be exacerbated by difficulties in varying manuscripts, idiomatic language changes over time, and shifting cultural contexts that confuse the meanings of words and expressions.

Another work which can be characterized by the expansiveness of both its cultural relevance as well as its difficulty in definition is the Bhagavad Gita. Not even in itself a distinct work, being a part of a much longer national epic, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita in English, has had an outsized and multifarious impact compared to its actual text, which is quite concise, and its relatively recent genesis, having only first been translated and published into English in 1785. Of course, we must ask, is it even possible to speak of a work in translation as a separate entity from its source material? In this case, it seems appropriate, since at the time, the English speaking world, outside of the relatively insular community of East Indian Company employees and officials, was almost wholly ignorant of Indian cultural forms and religious expressions, their primary exposure to such being from what popular accounts might have existed in elaborated travelers’ tales, secondhand accounts from the Islamic world, which had dominated trade and commerce with India up until the Renaissance, and those provided by antique and classical Greek and Latin sources, out of date by centuries, at least.

Before the worldwide expansion of European power, for medieval Christian Europe, India was the edge of the earth, a distant horizon, a strange land where things were very different. The strangeness of India for Europeans could take monstrous or pleasant forms virtually without limit, because they were unchecked by experience.

(Trautmann. 2011: 169-70).

During the medieval period, European access to the cultural artifacts, intellectual products, and trade goods of India was greatly curtailed in comparison to the old Greco-Roman world order, and even in that earlier time, India was a distant and poorly understood land, despite Roman pretensions to domination. In the medieval era, access to India was almost entirely mediated through Islamic sources, and not until the Renaissance and the great European expansion that it engendered, was the full and constant contact or commerce established between the subcontinent and the now rising Western European powers.

In his landmark study Orientalism, Edward Said says of Sanskrit and other Indian cultural studies that they “did not acquire the status of scientific knowledge until after Sir Willam Jones’s efforts in the late eighteenth century” (75) But even so, the confluence of this intellectual stream with those sources engendered by Wilkins and Hastings, all of whom were working under the aegis of the Royal Asiatik Society, must have watered the same fields, coming together as they did in such close proximity and with such similarity of purpose, that the net cultural results of one are for all practical purposes indistinguishable for those of the other. All were promoting the use of Sanskrit to aid EIC rule though cultural understanding, whatever their other motives and whatever other side effects might result. Wilkins, along with Jones, was credited with the Society’s foundation, and, if Jones produced academic work that was influential in the origination of the new discipline of Indology, it was a discipline within which Wilkins had already been working independently, and doing so in an arena which would have public as well as academic impact, his proposed translation of the Mahabharata.

Charles Wilkins, in an mezzotint engraving by John Sartain, after a painting by James Godsell Middleton. Published in 1830.

His translation of the Bhagavad Gita, only a part of his proposed endeavor, would be published in the year following the foundation of the Society, and was written simultaneously with its foundation. The work would prove wildly influential, even well beyond the academy, and within two years was translated again from his version into both Russian and French. His 1808 Grammar of the Sanskrit Language would cement his reputation in the academic world as well, being the first known Grammar of that language in English that was widely available. And if there were still any question as to his reputation, they must have been silenced by his later reception of knighthood, conferred by George IV in 1833. Unfortunately, many of Wilkins’ personal papers were destroyed in a house fire in 1796. It is to be noted that Wilkins did not produce his translation alone but worked in tandem with an uncredited Indian Pandit Kasinatha Bhattacharya who was eventually made “head preceptor” of the Benares Sanskrit College. More on both of these men and their histories with respect to Sanskrit and the Gita can be found in the works of Richard H. Davis (2015).

Title page of the first Bengali typeface printed book A Grammar of the Bengal Language, 1778

The list of eminent Europeans who were influenced by the translation of the Gita into English and other modern European languages is almost too long to attempt to list. Even Mahatmas Gandhi, it is believed, came to the Indian classical tradition through the transmissive medium of the English language. According to Michael Bergunder, “there is strong textual evidence to suggest that M. K. Gandhi’s notion of Hinduism, his specific view of Christianity, and his general belief that all religions refer to the same truth were shaped by esotericism, namely the Theosophical Society and the Esoteric Christian Union” (Bergunder. 2014: 398). Elsewhere, and in other incarnations, the Gita had demonstrable influence on a range of diverse luminaries such as Thoreau, William Blake, Herman Hesse, J. Robert Oppenheimer (who understood Sanskrit), T. S. Eliot, Phillip Glass, C. G. Jung, Philip K. Dick, and the Beatles, among countless others.

When Oppenheimer witnessed the first detonation of an atomic device at Los Alamos he famously (or infamously) cited the 11th discourse from the Gita, in which Krishna reveals himself in cosmic form as Visnu to Arjuna: a vast multi-armed god bearing a myriad of weapons of war. Laurie Patton (2008: 126 & 126 n. 3) translates the verse:

If a thousand suns
had risen
in the sky
all at once,
such brilliance
would be
the brilliance
of that great self.

Bhagavad Gita 11.12

For a translation of an at the time obscure work in a more or less unknown language, Wilkins work has held up remarkably well, considering its more than two century old vintage. It begins with an advertisement crediting the EIC board of directors for its publication, noting the antiquity and veneration of the original. This is followed by an insightful letter of recommendation for the work written by Wilkins patron within the EIC, Warren Hastings, first Governor General of Bengal, who, despite his reputation for even handedness with respect to the native culture, was famously impeached on ground of corruption in 1787 (cf. Edmund Burke). Nonetheless, Hastings’ introduction to the Gita is a call for tolerance and appreciation towards the Indian natives, their religious practices, and the cultural value of their intellectual history.

Warren Hastings with his wife Marian in their garden at Alipore, c. 1784–87

Hastings calls any accumulation of knowledge with respect to conquered non-European cultures as a gain in humanity that “lessens the weight of the chain by which the natives are held in subjection” and which “imprints on the hearts of our own countrymen the sense and obligation of benevolence.” He goes on to say that through observation of the native character the British would acquire a “more generous sense of feeling for their natural rights,” learning to account them as equitable to their own, as human beings. He notes, presciently, that these influences which are to be found in writing such as the Gita will be felt and will survive “when the British dominion in India shall have long ceased to exist” ( Wilkins, 1785, 13).

If there were an award for cultural icon, I would nominate the English translation of the Bhagavad Gita as a worthy recipient, while at the same time respecting the source material from which it cannot be divorced. It is perhaps enough to say that it is possibly the one translation that came home again, through the person of Gandhi, and forged a nation from the admiration of its own oppressors. But it also caused a flourishing of ideas in England, in Europe, and in the Americas, as readers found a new handle on ancient metaphysics, and struggled to intermix their own ideas with those of another culture, creating a new synthesis that found new expressions in the American Transcendentalist movement, German Romanticism, the mystic poetry of William Blake, and the flourishing of new religious ideas that followed the first World Congress of Religions held in Chicago in 1983. The Gita is truly a remarkable book with ramifications that spread out from its center like ripples on a placid pool. With over three hundred translations into English alone, it is one of the most popular and important ancient works available to us.

Sources:

App, Urs. (2010). The Birth of Orientalism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Bryant, Edwin. (2007). Krishna: A sourcebook. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bergunder, M. (2014). Experiments with Theosophical Truth: Gandhi, Esotericism, and Global Religious History. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 82(2), 398-426. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24488158

Dalrymple, William. (2019). The Anarchy: The relentless rise of the East India Company. London: Bloomsbury.

Davis, Richard. (2014). The Bhagavad Gita : a biography. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Davis, Richard. (2015) Wilkins, Kasinatha, Hastings, and the first English “Bhagavad Gita.” International Journal of Hindu Studies, 19(1/2), 39-57. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24631792.

Erle, Sibylle. (2005, Spring) Review. [Review of the book Brahma in the West: William Blake and the Oriental renaissance, by David Weir] Blake: An illustrated quarterly. 8(4), 157-159. http://bq.blakearchive.org/38.4.erle.

Eliade, Micrea. (1992). Essential sacred writings from around the world. New York: Harper & Row.

Hanson, J. W., et al. The World’s Congress of Religions: The Addresses and Papers Delivered before the Parliament, and an Abstract of the Congresses Held in the Art Institute

Chicago. Illinois, U. S. A. August 25 to October 15. 1893. Under The Auspices of the World’s Columbian Exposition: Edited by J. W. Hanson. International Publishing Co., 1894. Smithsonian Collections Online, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/BHTKRB887063462/SMIT?u=iulib_iupui&sid=SMIT&xid=666e9100. Accessed 12 Nov. 2020.

Keay, John. (2010). India: A history. New York: Grove Press.

Lubelsky, Isaac. (2012). Celestial India: Madame Blavatsky and the birth of Indian Nationalism. Sheffield: Equinox Publishing Ltd.

Patton, Laurie, Translator. (2008) The Bhagavad Gita. New York: Penguin.

Rao, K. S. Narayana. (1963). T. S. Eliot and the Bhagavad-Gita. American Quarterly, 15(4), 572-578. doi:10.2307/2710974

Said, Edward. (1994). Orientalism: 25th anniversary edition. New York: Vintage.

Schwab, Raymond. (1984). The Oriental renaissance: Europe’s rediscovery of India and the East, 1680–1880. New York: Columbia University Press.

Seshan, K. S. S. (2019, December 13). Charles Wilkins: He turned their gaze to Sanskrit. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/charles-wilkins-he-turned-their-gaze-to-sanskrit/article30298306.ece.

Telang, K. T. & F. Max Muller editor. (1970). The sacred books of the East: Volume VIII: The Bhagavadgita with the Sanatsugatiya and the Anguita. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Timpe, E. (1970). Hesse’s Siddhartha and the Bhagavad Gita. Comparative Literature, 22(4), 346-357. doi:10.2307/1769580

Tull, H. (2015). Whence Sanskrit? (kutaḥ saṃskṛtamiti): A Brief History of Sanskrit Pedagogy in the West. International Journal of Hindu Studies, 19(1/2), 213-256. Retrieved November 14, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24631799

Trautmann, Thomas R.. (2011). India: Brief history of a civilization. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dharmatā [Suchness]

Phillip K. Dick

Dharmatā [suchness] is said to be that which constantly exists in the world (nityasthita), whether or not the TATHĀGATAS appear to rediscover it.

Dharmatā” from The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, 2014.

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

Phillip K. Dick, from How To Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later. 1978. via WikiQuote

Historian Carlo Ginzburg

A brief look his career and his seminal work The Cheese and the Worms.

Bibliography for further reading included.

A well known and often read historian examining witchcraft, art history, and peasant belief in early modern rural Italy, Ginzburg is often cited as a practitioner of the art of micro-history, a methodology where a larger historical perspective is studied through the close analysis of singular events. Professor Emeritus at UCLA, Ginzburg is one of the most famous historians working today.  The International Balzan Prize Foundation, which Ginzburg won in 2010, has called Ginzburg “ one of the most original and influential historians of our time,” calling his oeuvre “impressively large,” and declaring his work on the heretical miller, Menocchio, The Cheese and the worms, a classic. 

The Cheese and the worms is not primarily a work of book history, rather it is a history that uses book history to illuminate its larger story, which is an examination of pre-Christian peasant beliefs held within the rural districts of north eastern Italy in the 16th century. For Ginzburg, these beliefs are given voice by the miller Menocchio who finds a language to express his heretical beliefs through exposure to the written word. Thus, The Cheese and the worms is an example of book history that intercepts the so-called book circuit of Darnton at the point of the reader, in this case Mennocio. 

The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg
The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg

We learn the titles of several books to which Mennocio was exposed during the years that he developed his heretical views by his reference to these works in his testimony. We also learn of other works which his language mirrors to which he may or may not have had access. Of primary concern to the author is how Mennocio read these works, both physically, through borrowing them, as well as intellectually, using them to articulate positions that were his own by adapting their language to his own philosophical speculations. Of course, there are some other aspects of book history that arise in Ginzburg’s analysis, we must of course be aware of what books were available when and where. 

But the primary concern of the author is how Mennocio read. It was the technology of print that “enabled him to confront books with the oral tradition in which he had grown up and fed him the words to release that tangle of ideas and fantasies he had within him.” (xxxi) One of the books, a travel log that told tall tales of Prester John and strange lands, had been translated from the English work The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. According to Ginzbug, “By means of Mandeville’s accounts, his largely imaginary descriptions of distant lands, Menocchio’s mental universe expanded enormously.” (42)

We learn the price of another book, 2 lira, which becomes a stumbling block to repairing Mennocio’s relationship with the church. We also hear of lending groups and traveling booksellers, though these ideas are only on the periphery of the primary narrative, which is ultimately the testimonies and trials of the miller as he faces prosecution by the learned and surprised inquisitors of the church courts. 

Ginzburg, C. (1980). The Cheese and the worms : the cosmos of a sixteenth-century miller. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Annotated Bibliography:

Ginzburg, C. (1983). The night battles : witchcraft & agrarian cults in the sixteenth & seventeenth centuries. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.
A study of a group of 16th century peasants, born with a caul, and known as the “benandanti,” they comprised a special class of people believed to have special powers of incorporeal travel and the ability to do spiritual battles with witches at night.These peasants ran afoul of the Inquisition and were themselves charged with witchcraft for their claims of special powers. Ginzburg studies their cases through the use of Inquisition archives. The use of reference books describing the activities and characteristics of witches provides another primary source of inquiry.

Ginzburg, C. (1989). Clues, myths, and the historical method. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.
A series of essays concerning historical method. According to the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, as quoted on the back cover, “Ginzburg reflects on how easily we miss the context in which we read, write, and live. Only hindsight allows some understanding.” Some topics covered include witchcraft, eroticism in 16th century art, the Freudian interpretation of lycanthropy, and German mythological thinking in Nazi teutonism.

Ginzburg, C. (1992). Ecstasies : deciphering the witches’ Sabbath. New York: Penguin Books.
A broad study of the Witches Sabbath covering the 14th to the 17th century. Like other works in this bibliography, Ginzburg supposes a thread of truth behind accusations of witchcraft, supposing a pre Christian survival or at least a parallel strata of alternative belief pervading Late Medieval and Early Renaissance peasant culture in Europe.

Ginzburg, C. (1999). History, rhetoric, and proof. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.
A challenge to postmodern historical theory that supposes that all historical truth is constructed and that there is no such thing as historical knowledge. Ginzburg admits that there is a lack of absolute certainty in historical analysis and construction but holds that such analysis might still profitably reveal the imminently probable. Chapters of the book are case studies that Ginzburg uses to prove his points.

Ginzburg, C. (2000). The enigma of Piero : Piero della Francesca. New ed. with appendices. London: Verso.
A work of art history, this book examines the iconography and origins of three masterpieces of Renaissance Art, Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ, the Flagellation, and the Arezzon cycle. By combining his study with an examination of the patronage and commissioning of such works, Ginzburg tries to bring a new sensibility to interpretation by considering the conditions of the works’ origin. Black, quoting the book’s introduction, notes: “one of this book’s most remarkable features is the range of sources it exploits without regard to the frontiers between disciplines” (Black, 1986: 69).

Ginzburg, C. (2000). No island is an island : four glances at English literature in a world perspective. New York: Columbia University Press.
A series of four essays that examine English literature in relationship to its reception in outside contexts. One essay concerns Lucian and his influence on Thomas Moore, author of Utopia. A second essay deals with the Elizabethean English rejection of poetry based primarily or solely on meter, as in the ancient Greek and Latinc classics, and working instead with rhyme as a primary component of verse formation. A third essay deals with the formal structure of Early Modern novel Tristram Shandy. The final chapter deals with Robert Lewis Stevenson and the relationship of his short fiction “The Bottle Imp” to exotic island locales.

Ginzburg, C., Ryle, M. H, & Soper, K. (2001). Wooden eyes : nine reflections on distance. New York: Columbia University Press.
A series of essays reflecting on distance as a metaphor for historical analysis.

Ginzburg, C., Lincoln, B., & Höfler, O. (2020). Old Thiess, a Livonian werewolf : a classic case in comparative perspective. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Another case study of an Inquisition trial this one takes place at the end of the 17th century in Livonia, where a peasant is accused of having commerce with the devil. This book is not solely the work of Ginzburg but includes transcriptions from the trial, and interpretive essays by both Ginzburg and  Lincoln Old Theiss was an 80 year old man who, while in court for a theft trial, was accused of being a werewolf. Ginzburg reads the testimony, as he does in The Cheese and the Worms, as indication of an unattested because non-literary layer of pagan belief and culture coexisting alongside the official Roman Catholic religion.

Bibliography:

Black, R. (1986). The Uses and Abuses of Iconology: Piero della Francesca and Carlo Ginzburg. Oxford Art Journal, 9(2), 67-71. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.ulib.uits.iu.edu/stable/1360419

Campbell, J. (2000). Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 3(2), 300-302. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.ulib.uits.iu.edu/stable/41940236

Darnton, Robert (Summer 1982). What is the history of books? Daedalus, 111, 65-83.

Den Hollander , J., Paul, H., & Peters, R. (2011). Introduction: The Metaphor of historical distance. History and Theory, 50(4), 1-10. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41342617

Ginzburg, C. (1980). The cheese and the worms : the cosmos of a sixteenth-century miller. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ginzburg, C. (1983). The night battles : witchcraft & agrarian cults in the sixteenth & seventeenth centuries. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ginzburg, C. (1989). Clues, myths, and the historical method. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ginzburg, C. (1992). Ecstasies : deciphering the witches’ Sabbath. New York: Penguin Books.

Ginzburg, C. (1999). History, rhetoric, and proof. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Ginzburg, C. (2000). The enigma of Piero : Piero della Francesca. New ed. with appendices. London: Verso.

Ginzburg, C. (2000). No island is an island : four glances at English literature in a world perspective. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ginzburg, C., Ryle, M. H, & Soper, K. (2001). Wooden eyes : nine reflections on distance. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ginzburg, C., Lincoln, B., & Höfler, O. (2020). Old Thiess, a Livonian werewolf : a classic case in comparative perspective. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

 International Balzan Prize Foundation. (n.d.).  Carlo Ginzburg – Balzan Prize European History (1400-1700), www.balzan.org/en/prizewinners/carlo-ginzburg.

Levack, B. (1986). The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 16(4), 729-731. doi:10.2307/204549

López, M. (2001). Utopian Studies, 12(1), 186-188. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.ulib.uits.iu.edu/stable/20718265

Martin, J. (1992). Journeys to the World of the Dead: The Work of Carlo Ginzburg. Journal of Social History, 25(3), 613-626. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.ulib.uits.iu.edu/stable/3789031

Schutte, A. (1976). Carlo Ginzburg. The Journal of Modern History, 48(2), 296-315. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1879831

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Old Thiess, A Livonian Werewolf: A Classic Case in Comparative Perspective, In the Matter of Nat Turner: A Speculative History, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Volume 88, Issue 3, September 2020, Pages 859–869, https://doi-org.proxy.ulib.uits.iu.edu/10.1093/jaarel/lfaa043

The Wilson Quarterly (1976-), 8(4), 143-143. (1984). doi:10.2307/40256790

Classics as Canon

Books as Cultural Vectors

The so-called list of canonized books changes according to context, though some, without a doubt, are consistently represented across multiple milieus. There is, for example, a lot of overlap between the notional ‘Western canon’ and the ‘Classical canon;’ classical here being the smaller notion of Greek and Latin classics as opposed to the notion of “Great books” as classics. Certainly any list of classics cum canon would include the works of Julius Caesar, Plato, Cicero, and Aristotle for example as would most lists of works designated as Great Books or Western Classics.

Just take Caesar as an example of why this is so. This is due to influence and tradition. Caesar has been used as an introductory Latin reader for generations. His work also had stylistic influence on historians and geographers for centuries. Here is an example of a Latin translation exercise from a 19th century Latin textbook, adapted from one of Caesar’s most famous passages, a geographical description of Gaul.

An inductive Latin primer
by William Rainey Harper
1891

Caesar was influential in antiquity and the Middle Ages as well. Just compare Tacitus’ description of Germany with the opening of Caesar’s de Bellum Gallico.

Caesar’s Gallic War.
C. Julius Caesar. Caesar’s Gallic War. Translator. W. A. McDevitte. Translator. W. S. Bohn. 1st Edition. New York. Harper & Brothers. 1869. Harper’s New Classical Library.
Tacitus’ Germanica.
Complete Works of Tacitus. Tacitus. Alfred John Church. William Jackson Brodribb. Lisa Cerrato. edited for Perseus. New York. : Random House, Inc. Random House, Inc. reprinted 1942.
1. All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in our Gauls, the third. All these differ from each other in language, customs and laws. The river Garonne separates the Gauls from the Aquitani; the Marne and the Seine separate them from the Belgae. Of all these, the Belgae are the bravest, because they are furthest from the civilization and refinement of [our] Province, and merchants least frequently resort to them, and import those things which tend to effeminate the mind; and they are the nearest to the Germans, who dwell beyond the Rhine , with whom they are continually waging warGermany is separated from the Galli, the Rhæti, and Pannonii, by the rivers Rhine and Danube; mountain ranges, or the fear which each feels for the other, divide it from the Sarmatæ and Daci. Elsewhere ocean girds it, embracing broad peninsulas and islands of unexplored extent, where certain tribes and kingdoms are newly known to us, revealed by war. The Rhine springs from a precipitous and inaccessible height of the Rhætian Alps, bends slightly westward, and mingles with the Northern Ocean. The Danube pours down from the gradual and gently rising slope of Mount Abnoba, and visits many nations, to force its way at last through six channels into the Pontus; a seventh mouth is lost in marshes.
Excerpts via Perseus Project: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/

Similar examples could be given for the handful of other authors mentioned above. Alfred North Whitehead, the eminent British philosopher, is often noted as having called all of western philosophy mere footnotes to Plato. Examples proliferate (Columbia College).

Plato. via Goodreads.

The advantages of having a canon, even if it is potentially exclusionary, should be obvious. It gives students and scholars a base from which to build their knowledge as well as a common basket of references. But who decides what is canon? This is an argument beyond the scope of this little post, but I would like to offer one example of a canonical list, that of the Great Books program from St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, one of the oldest colleges in America. This school has been teaching a great books curriculum for decades and if it is on their required reading list it is almost certainly a widely respected and influential work. Here is their freshman year reading list for Fall 2020:

August 27 Homer: Iliad, I–VI
August 31 Homer: Iliad, VII–XII
September 3 Homer: Iliad, XIII–XVIII
September 7 Homer: Iliad, XIX–XXIV
September 10 Homer: Odyssey, I–VIII
September 14 Homer: Odyssey, IX–XVI
September 17 Homer: Odyssey, XVII–XXIV
September 21 Plato: Meno
September 24 Aeschylus: Agamemnon
September 28 Aeschylus: Libation Bearers; Eumenides
October 1 Plato: Gorgias, 447A–481B
October 5 Plato: Gorgias, 481B–to end
October 8 Plutarch: Lives, Lycurgus; Solon
October 12 Herodotus: History, I; II 50–53, 112–120; III 37–38, 66-87
October 15 Herodotus: History, V, 105; VI, 48–120; VII (entire)
October 19 Herodotus: History, VIII; IX
October 22 Plato: Republic, I–II 367E
October 26 Plato: Republic, II 367E–IV 427C
October 29 Plato: Republic, IV 427D–VI 502C
November 2 Plato: Republic, VI 502D–VII
November 5 Plato: Republic, VIII–IX
November 9 Plato: Republic, X
November 12 Aristophanes: Clouds
November 16 Plato: Apology and Crito
November 19 Plato: Phaedo, 57A–84B
November 23 Plato: Phaedo, 84B–118B
November 30 Thucydides: Peloponnesian War, I; II, 1-54
December 3 Thucydides: Peloponnesian War, II, 55-78; III 1-87; IV, 1-74
December 7 Thucydides: Peloponnesian War, IV, 75–end; V 1-26, 84–116; VI (complete)
December 10 Thucydides: Peloponnesian War, VII; VIII 1–6, 45–end
December 14 Plato: Symposium, Beginning–198A
December 17 Plato: Symposium, 198–end

https://www.sjc.edu/academic-programs/undergraduate/classes/seminar/annapolis-undergraduate-readings/freshman-seminar-readings

Caesar, C. J. Caesar’s Gallic War. Translator. W. A. McDevitte. Translator. W. S. Bohn. 1st Edition. New York. Harper & Brothers. 1869. Harper’s New Classical Library.

Columbia College. (n.d.) A.N Whitehead on Plato. Retrieved October 30, 2020, from https://www.college.columbia.edu/core/content/whitehead-plato

Harper, William Rainey. (1891) An Inductive Latin primer. American Book Company: New York. https://archive.org/details/aninductivelati03burggoog/page/n113/mode/1up.

St. John’s College. (n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2020, from https://www.sjc.edu/academic-programs/undergraduate/classes/seminar/annapolis-undergraduate-readings/freshman-seminar-readings

Tacitus. Complete Works of Tacitus. Alfred John Church. William Jackson Brodribb. Lisa Cerrato. edited for Perseus. New York. : Random House, Inc. Random House, Inc. reprinted 1942.